Dismay at the news that the internationally-renowned Seagram Museum in Waterloo, Ontario, would be closing in 1997 was tempered with interest by the University of Waterloo Library when it became the beneficiary of two significant portions of the museum's collections.
The "world's finest collection on the beverage alcohol industry"—some 900 volumes dating from 1554 to the 20th century—was donated, accompanied by the only extant archives of the Seagram family and the Seagram plant up to 1929. The book and archival collections complemented the existing research collections in the fields of chemistry, chemical engineering, the history of technology as well as decorative arts, temperance, and the area's urban and local history. Highlighted by traditional as well as electronic exhibits, the collection draws inquiries from around the world ranging from requests for help in identifying "an old bottle of whiskey discovered during house renovations" and clandestine activities during the prohibition era to studies on turn-of-the-century Canadian commercial history.
Earliest of the imprints collected by the former museum, the only one in the world interpreting both wine and spirits, is Konrad Gesner's vellum-bound book on distillation, De secretis remediis liber (1554). Among the other often irreplaceable volumes is the first edition of Livre du vigneron et du fabricant de cidre…et autres vins de fruits, by Joseph Mauny de Mornay (1838). Superb among the 20th-century imprints is the first edition of the seven volumes of Traité général de viticulture: ampélographie by Pierre Viala and Victor Vermorel (1901–1910) illustrated by chromolithographic portraits of grape clusters, all exceptionally beautiful.
In addition, and of importance to social history, the library acquired significant resources on drinking habits and social customs surrounding the beverage industry—thus one finds a 19th-century pamphlet by the "father of the Temperance movement," Dr. Benjamin Rush, next to the rare example of high art deco entitled The Savoy Cocktail Book in its 1930 first edition.
Equally noteworthy for researchers in fine and book arts are the decorative features of many books, including the binding of the 1738 edition of Smith's A Compleat Body of Distilling, which has wine glasses embossed and stamped in gilt on the spine. Most unique is the treatment of Instructions for Surveyors of the Distillery and Brandy (1754) with a companion set of instructions for distillery officers which were bound in a brilliant red leather dos-a-dos binding.
The archival collections that were donated by the museum document one of Canada's most prominent, successful, and oldest business families, the Seagrams. Their company's business records, while incomplete in some areas, nevertheless provide information on the liquor industry and include product labels and printed ephemera as well as exceptional photographs. In addition, certain series, such as the 1788–1846 letters of Canadian wine merchants, provide unique insights into the drinking habits of the time and problems with supply and demand of liquor. A significant donation of family material came from the home of Joseph Edward Frowde Seagram, grandson of the company's founder, Joseph Emm Seagram.
Collection Profile and Overview: Susan Mavor
Illustrations: Chris Hughes