Joseph Emm Seagram: Businessman, Politician, and Philanthropist

Women on the Seagram’s V.O. bottling line packing product into boxes ca. 1932 Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Ltd fonds. Special Collections & Archives. University of Waterloo Library.

For the week of Monday April 15, 2019.

On April 15, 1841, businessman, politician, and philanthropist Joseph Emm Seagram was born in Fisher’s Mills, Upper Canada (now Ontario), where his parents had moved from Wiltshire, England, 24 years earlier.

Orphaned in 1852, Joseph Emm Seagram and his brother were left under the tutelage of the local minister who placed them in a boarding school in Galt (Cambridge). Joseph Emm studied in Buffalo, New York, before returning to Canada to work in business. He rose from the rank of bookkeeper in a factory in Galt in 1860 to supervisor at a mill in Waterloo, owned by prominent businessman William (Wilhelm) Hespeler, in 1864. Between 1868 and 1883, he bought out Hespeler and his partners to become the sole owner of the Joseph Seagram Flour Mill and Distillery Company.

This company, which specialized in the production of whisky, became one of the major producers and exporters in Canada. Under Seagram’s management, its international sales grew significantly, particularly in the United States. His sons, Thomas and Edward, played a more active role after 1911, when the company was renamed Joseph E. Seagram and Sons Limited. Edward Seagram served for a time as president after his father’s death in 1919 and before the Bronfman family of Montreal took over the company in 1928.

Joseph E. Seagram’s business success made it possible for him to become a philanthropist, including his donation of land for a hospital in Berlin (now Kitchener), Ontario, and provided him with the necessary funds to pursue other interests. For example, he was president of the Ontario Jockey Club and one of the founders of the Canadian Racing Association, and his prizewinning racehorses won 10 consecutive Queen’s and King’s Plate.

He was also interested in politics, serving as town councillor for South Waterloo in 1881 and then as Conservative Member of Parliament for Waterloo North in 1900. He won a second victory before retiring from federal politics in 1908.

Joseph Emm Seagram is a designated national historic person.

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