Labatt makes historic donation to university

Two decades before Canada attained nationhood, John Kinder Labatt was brewing beer in London. More than 160 years later, the Labatt Brewing Company’s documented history returns to the Forest City, finding a permanent home for the iconic collection at The University of Western Ontario.

The Labatt Brewing Company Archival Collection, valued at more than $7.6 million, is considered one of Canada’s most significant collections of historic corporate materials. The collection is the largest single gift housed in the Archives and Research Collection Centre at the D. B. Weldon Library.

“This is the first historical collection in Canada to represent the brewing industry and we are very pleased to hand over its custodianship to Western,” says Labatt president Bary Benun. He was one of several brewery, university and city officials on hand for the donation announcement this morning at the John Kinder Labatt Room in the downtown London brewery. “This means that Labatt’s invaluable corporate legacy will be available to academics and the public alike, providing valuable insight into the brewing industry and business in general, industrial relations, the economy, society and work forces and labour relations of the past 164 years.”

Until four years ago, the material Labatt had gathered since its founding – along with other materials acquired as a result of acquisitions of smaller Canadian breweries over the years – resided in thousands upon thousands of boxes, drawers and filing cabinets across the country.

Amongst some of the collection, the artifacts include John Labatt’s personal letter book (1883-1906) containing company correspondence; a brewery book (1884-1895) providing details of daily production and year-end summaries; a stereoscopic slide viewer (1950s) used to train staff to identify aluminum can defects; draft minutes of the first Board of Directors meeting (1911); and the certificate of registration of the ‘Blue’ trademark.

‘Project Dusty,’ as affectionately branded by Labatt’s, brought those disparate pieces together. The company, along with professional archivists, gathered, catalogued, itemized and organized virtually all its irreplaceable corporate documents.

The materials illustrate the evolution of corporate governance and management models and include market research; commercial advertising which mirrors Canadian cultural values and trends; research, technology and engineering materials related to brewing processes and innovations; and iconic images of corporate branding, packaging and memorabilia.

The collection also provides interesting details on key phases in Labatt’s corporate history, including the origins of John Labatt’s brewery in London, its growth into a national brewer and acquisition by Belgian-based Interbrew. The total collection required more than 2,600 boxes.

“This is a unique opportunity for Western, especially because we are located in Labatt’s hometown and have enjoyed a long relationship with the company,” says Western president Amit Chakma. “In fact, we have benefited greatly from the generosity of the Labatt family and the corporation ever since the founding of our university. It is an honour to be associated with one of the Canada’s oldest companies, and to be entrusted with the stewardship of a rare and historical collection that has been preserved and maintained in such excellent condition.”

Labatt’s also donated $200,000 to assist Western in digitizing portions of the collection, which will help preserve and make key content of the collection more accessible.

The Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board deemed Labatt’s corporate historical material and collection to be of “outstanding significance and national importance.” University librarian Joyce Garnett echoes those sentiments.

“The potential value of this collection for teaching and research cannot be underestimated,” she says. “Not only will the collection provide researchers with insight into both a Canadian business success story and a significant chapter in London’s history, it will provide students with an interesting perspective on business concepts and insight into how Canadian society and sensibilities have evolved over more than a century and a half.”

University archivist Robin Keirstead says one does not have too many opportunities during their archival career to acquire a donation of this size, scope and significance. He feels this latest gift to Western will cement its reputation as one of the centres for business archives in the country.

“While it may be a bunch of old papers to some, for those interested in understanding our history a donation of this type is a goldmine – both for the information contained in the records but also for the records themselves,” he says. He adds he cannot help but think about life in bygone eras when looking at original plans for a new brewery building, that would become an integral part of the local streetscape, or original artwork for the iconic Streamliner.

“If we want to understand how society has changed over the last century and a half, we have been given the opportunity to look at this evolution through the lens of one of our major industries. Because of its comprehensiveness, the Labatt Archives will allow researchers to do much more than just scratch the surface on many issues of interest,” Keirstead says. “This is what makes the donation of particular significance for a research-intensive university like Western.”

Also today, the Labatt Material Culture Collection, made up of original art, artifacts and collectibles, was donated to Museum London.