Tuesday, 4 April 2017

A belated bye-bye to Blue Ribbon Tea (1897 - 2015)

October 25, 1914, Winnipeg Tribune

Here's a slightly out-of-date news update: Unilever Canada discontinued the production of Blue Ribbon Tea back in 2015.

They confirmed this in an email response to me, saying there are many reasons why a product is dropped. In this case, "Consumer demand is a major factor. If the level of demand is insufficient to ensure that consumers receive high quality products at an affordable price, the product will likely be discontinued."

With that, a product with that originated in Winnipeg 120 years ago quietly disappeared from the retail landscape.

The Blue Ribbon Manufacturing Company was created in the late 1890s by the J. and G. F. Galt Company.

John Galt and his cousin George F. Galt, also see, both from well-to-do Ontario families, came to Winnipeg in 1882 and set up their grocery wholesale business on Ross Street. Their business boomed along with the city's economy and in 1887, they had a large factory and warehouse built on Princess Street.

November 22, 1897, Winnipeg Tribune

In 1897, they created a subsidiary called the Blue Ribbon Manufacturing Company at 333 Elgin Avenue. They hired John Dingle Roberts, of competitor Pure Gold Manufacturing of Toronto, to run the factory.

Customers got a preview of their product at their booth at the Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition that summer when they offered free tea to all.

By November, Blue Ribbon's plant was up and running producing the household basics: coffee; tea; baking powder; spices; and herbs. More than just a re-packager, they roasted their own coffee, blended their own tea and ground their own spices at their Winnipeg plant.

Thanks to the reach of the Galt's wholesale company, Blue Ribbon instantly had Western-Canadian wide distribution.

In 1901 they had new, larger premises built for the company at 87 King Street.

Top: Western Home Monthly, July 1923 (Peel's)
Bottom: The 19th edition, 1949, (AbeBooks)

In 1905, the company published the Blue Ribbon Cook Book, subtitled "Prepared especially for everyday use in Western homes."

Costing just 25 cents, it was packed full of recipes, including a section for bachelor cooking, and handy household tips. It became a staple in many pioneer homes.

At least nineteen editions were printed into the late 1940s, though later versions swapped "Western" for "Canadian" in the subtitle.

Booth at 1927 Pacific National Exhibition (Vancouver Archives)

The company underwent a number of corporate changes through the decades.

In 1907, it took on more partners and became Blue Ribbon Company Limited. Three years later, the Galts merged their Galt Company with it and left the grocery wholesale business behind.

In 1930, two years after the death of George and three years before the death of John, control of the company was sold to Blue Ribbon Corporation Ltd.

By World War II, Blue Ribbon had built a second plant in Vancouver and bought Toronto-based competitor Pure Gold Manufacturing. Generally speaking, Blue Ribbon served the west with its brand and Pure Gold the east.

October 15, 1959, Winnipeg Free Press

On October 31, 1959, Blue Ribbon was purchased by Brooke Bond Canada Ltd., a subsidiary of the U.K.-based tea and spice company. Though the manufacturing plant stayed in Winnipeg, the head office moved to Montreal.

Blue Ribbon's tea, coffee, baking soda carried on under the new company, though, it seems, the spice division was either discontinued or absorbed under the existing Brooke Bond Spices trade name.

December 3, 1960, Winnipeg Tribune

In their product roster, Brooke Bond had another national tea favourite, this one from Eastern Canada, called Red Rose.

The two teas sometimes shared Brooke Bond marketing features such as their collectors cards series.

These plastic cards, seventeen different series produced for Canadian products between about 1959 and 1974, came free inside boxes of Red Rose or Blue Ribbon tea. Topics included Songbirds of North America, animals, baseball players and the Future of Transportation.

The card idea originated with Brooke Bond's U.K. teas in 1954.

Interestingly, that same year, Blue Ribbon offered a similar set of cards, a series on CFL players. It's not clear if one of the tea companies shared or "borrowed" the marketing idea from the other.


In 1984, British-Dutch company Unilever acquired Brooke Bond for £389 million in a hostile takeover. The conglomerate, which by this time owned Lipton's, was primarily interested in Brooke Bond's hefty share of the British tea market. 

Soon after, Canadian manufacturing plants in places like Saint John, NB and Winnipeg, were closed. (If you know more about when it left Winnipeg, please let me know below !)

With this and subsequent takeovers Unilever had about a dozen brands of tea in its product line. Some were known to large sections of the globe, like PG Tips and Lipton which were also sold in Canada. Others were specific to countries such as India and Australia. In Canada, they now had local brands Red Rose and Blue Ribbon.

Blue Ribbon products existed until the 2010s when they began to disappear from grocery store ads. Today, none of them are listed on its website under "products".

Unilever confirmed that the tea was discontinued, that was in 2015. A follow-up email about when the coffee and baking powder was discontinued has not been responded to.

More ads:

"Mmmm... lead lined packets!" June 13, 1906, Winnipeg Free Press

Blue Ribbon ad, 1958, Winnipeg Tribune

Blue Ribbon ad, ca. 1930s (Calgary)

Blue ribbon ad, June 3, 1904, The Voice (Winnipeg)


Bob Andrews said...

Thanks for the info on Blue Ribbon , I am in Ontario and I collect Blue Ribbon items and I was not aware of the later blue foil sealed coffee bags. The one item I am really looking for is an original tin foil and paper tea packet similar to the ad on your page from 1914 Winnipeg Tribune. Nice to see all that information .

Anonymous said...

Now I will stop looking for blue ribbon tea bags. Glad I went online. Thanks for the update.

Jenn said...

I'm looking for the ingredients that were in the Blue Ribbon Pickling spices. It was packaged in a small box.

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Coolcooker said...

Thank you for sharing this info. I have for years drank Blue Ribbon tea but I am not often a tea drinker. Tried to find some to purchase today and saw your article. Also disappointed to hear of the demise of Blue Ribbon baking powder.

NicMck said...

Thanks so much for this informative post! My great grandparents homesteads in Saskatchewan in 1903. Today my 89 year old father had a sudden memory of his grandma drinking Blue Ribbon tea. Thank you for the info and advertisements that gave context to his memory! Great post!