The Seagram Company, Ltd. records1879-2002
Commonly referred to as simply "Seagram" or "Seagram's," the Seagram Company, Ltd. was for a time the largest producer and distributor of distilled spirits in the world. The records of Seagram and its subsidiaries trace the company's transformation from a small business run by Samuel Bronfman to a diversified multi-national corporation.
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Commonly referred to as simply "Seagram" or "Seagram's," the Seagram Company, Ltd. was for a time the largest producer and distributor of distilled spirits in the world. Samuel Bronfman (1889-1971) founder of the Seagram Company, Ltd. claimed to be born in Brandon, Manitoba in 1891, but more likely he was born in the Jewish settlement of Bessarabia, Russia on February 27, 1889. In 1889, the relatively prosperous family of Ekiel (1855-1919) and Mindel Bronfman (1863-1918) emigrated to Canada presumably in search of greater religious freedom and economic opportunity. After a failed agricultural effort, the family moved to Brandon, Manitoba in 1892. The Bronfmans struggled in poverty, but through the enterprise and hard work of Ekiel and his sons, the family eventually rose to relative comfort with a pleasant home and Ekiel serving as a leader in the small Jewish community. In 1903, the industrious family entered the hotel business and quickly succeeded. They expanded their enterprise to other western communities and moved the family to Winnipeg to better oversee operations. Despite his youth, Sam quickly proved himself as a good manager and businessman, so in 1912 his family appointed him to head their newly acquired Bell Hotel in Winnipeg. The family's hotel business was very successful, with a large part of the profits generated by the hotel's bars.
In Canada, as in the U.S., the 1910s were characterized by a growing religious conservatism which included temperance. Previous nation-wide prohibition efforts had failed, but beginning in 1915 individual provincial temperance laws were passed, with bars outlawed in all the provinces except Quebec by 1917. Predictably, the new regulations put a damper on the Bronfman's hotel enterprise. In response, the resourceful Sam moved to Montreal and set up a mail order liquor business to capitalize on federal laws that still permitted interprovincial spirits trade. The Bronfmans established distribution points in the west and Sam marketed their products through the mail. The enterprise was enormously successful, until national prohibition began late in 1919. Determined to continue the business legally, Sam discovered yet another outlet - alcohol could be dispensed by a druggist for medicinal purposes. This venue proved profitable, but greater opportunity lay to the south. In October 1919, the U.S. passed the Volstead Act outlawing alcohol. While prohibition laws in Canada limited the liquor business in the provinces, it said nothing about exporting, so the Bronfmans expanded their efforts and established a series of "export houses" along the border.
Anticipating the end of Canadian and eventually American prohibition, Sam began to establish himself as a distiller. Newly married, Sam and his wife Saidye Bronfman (1896-1995) spent 1922-1924 traveling through North America. More than an extended honeymoon, Bronfman was doing research for his next business venture. In 1923 the couple traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, the heart of American bourbon country. There, he purchased the Greenbriar Distillery, which he had dismantled and sent to Montreal. In 1924, Sam and Saidye followed and settled in Montreal. The locale seemed ideal for both the couple's home and the new distillery. Montreal was a cosmopolitan city with a greater tolerance for Jews, as well as a thriving Jewish community; and Quebec had long been anti-prohibition. Nearby Ville LaSalle was selected as the site for the new distillery. The business was incorporated in May, 1924 as Distillers Corporation, Ltd. This name reflected Samuel Bronfman's ambition to identity his company with the high quality products of the venerable Scottish liquor giant Distillers Company, Ltd. (DCL) The Bronfman brothers and their brother-in-law Barnett "Barney" Aaron (1886?-) also established Britcan Investments Ltd. that year to administer the family's wealth, now valued near $3.5 million. Production at LaSalle began the next year although no liquor would be ready for at least two years.
During that time, Sam and Saidye began their own family. Their four children were Aileen Mindel "Minda" Bronfman de Gunzburg (1925–1986), Phyllis Lambert (1927-), Edgar Miles Bronfman (1929–2013), and Charles Rosner Bronfman (1931-).
In 1926, Samuel and his brother Allan proposed a cooperative venture to Distillers Company Ltd. of Scotland. They suggested that DCL finance a cooperative arrangement that would permit the Bronfman enterprise to act as their sales agents in Canada. In exchange, the Scots would receive half interest in the company. Board chair William H. Ross (1862-1944) traveled to Canada to study the liquor market and its distillers in the fall of 1926. Ross was impressed with the overall market and considered the Bronfman's plant to be the best equipped and their connections beneficial. Despite fears of Canadian anti-Semitism, the Scots joined with the Bronfmans in January, 1926. The agreement was much as Sam had originally proposed and provided that the Bronfmans could buy out DCL's interest.
The arrangement was an enormous victory for the young Distillers Corporation Ltd. which began an ambitious expansion effort. First, the Bronfmans acquired the Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Co. of Waterloo, Ontario in 1927. The Seagram plant needed modernization, but the company had a respected name, recognized brands, and a huge stock of aging whiskey. With this purchase, the Bronfmans established the holding company Distillers Corporation - Seagram Ltd. (DC-SL) which was held 75% by the Bronfmans and Distillers Co. Ltd. and 25% by Seagram stock holders.
Production at the DC-SL plants increased and sales in Canada resumed after Canadian prohibition laws were repealed. Next, Sam turned his eye to the States, anticipating the end of U.S. prohibition. Finally, in 1932, the Volstead Act was repealed. The Bronfmans had hoped to enlist the Scots as partners in the U.S. market, but they refused. So, in December 1934, the Bronfmans bought out the Distillers Co. Ltd.'s interests for over $3 million.
DC-SL entered the U.S. market late in 1933 with a line of blended liquors. Although "blends" were popular in Canada and Scotland, most American distillers made "straights". The venture was risky and required a large stock of aged whiskey in order to succeed. Because there was a heavy tax on imported liquor, the Bronfmans would have to purchase U.S. whisky to supply their blends. Thus began a series of U.S. distillery acquisitions. In November, they purchased Rossville Union Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky and formed the American subsidiary Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Inc. to oversee remodeling of the plant. This was followed by purchase of the Calvert Distillery in Relay, Maryland; and new plant construction in Louisville, Kentucky.
Samuel Bronfman further increased his U.S. business risk by delaying the sale of Seagram products in order to allow for proper aging. In the meantime, they sold only higher end brands that allowed them to develop their distribution channels and establish a brand presence at the upper end of the market. In June of 1934, the company introduced Seagram Five and Seven Crowns. The products became volume leaders almost overnight. The Seagram success could be attributed to a number of factors. In part it was due to the company's marketing. Advertising for Seagram's high-quality, lighter "blended" whiskies was directed to an upper class drinker. The company furthered this image of excellence and restraint with its famous "Moderation" campaign begun in 1934. The campaign pronounced that:
The real enjoyment which whisky can add to the pleasures of gracious living is possible only to the man who drinks good, aged whiskey and drinks moderately...We feel sure that you will agree with us...that the desirable way of life is thoughtful, informed by experience, guided by common sense. Realizing this, we feel sure that you will prefer moderation in the enjoyment of the finest to the empty satisfaction that follows upon profusion of the second rate.Everything associated with Seagram products was to project quality - from brand names, to bottles, labels, advertisements and the corporate offices. The whole package was successfully marketed under the leadership of sales head General Frank Schwengel (1886-1974).
Business was booming for DC-SL, but the looming world war was about to change that as Seagram limited its consumer production and lent its facilities to the war effort. At the same time, Samuel Bronfman focused his attentions on expansion. Acquisitions included Browne-Vintners in 1940; the British Columbia Distillery in 1941; and U.S. companies Bedford Distilling, Blair Distilling, Old Colony Distillery, and Kasko Distillers in 1942. In 1942, the company also entered new sectors of liquor business with the purchase of Long Pond Estates, a sugar plantation and rum distillery in Jamaica; Fromm and Sichel, California vintners and sales agents for Christian Brothers products; and Mount Tivey winery, also in California. In 1943, they purchased Paul Masson Vineyards and the Frankfort Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky, manufacturers of popular brands Four Roses and Paul Jones. Wartime sales were mainly of the company's high end brands. Sam's refusal to compromise quality despite the war caused the company to lose market share to its arch-rival Schenley, but his company was poised to recapture the market.
Expansion continued through the 1950s with Seagram beginning to diversify within and outside the liquor industry. In 1950, the company purchased the Chivas Brothers Company, which held excellent trademarks and a stock of aged whiskey, but no distillery. In order to develop Chivas Regal, the company purchased the Strathisla - Glenlivet Malt Distillery and constructed several new distilleries. After the war, Seagram expanded into rum by founding Captain Morgan Distillers in Jamaica; purchasing 51% of the Puerto Rico Distillers Group. It acquired Myers' Rum, the Puerto Rico Rum Company and others; and began to make rum in Canada. The company also expanded its wine business with the purchases of the Jordan Wine Co. of Ontario; Danforth Wines; and G.H. Mumm and Co. In 1954, the company made a large investment in Barton & Guestier, which they later augmented. Also starting in the early 1950s, Seagram entered the oil business. Their investments would eventually include establishment of Frankfort Oil Company; acquisition of Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company; and others.
Although still legally a Canadian company, beginning in 1932 much of Seagram's operations were run out of New York. Sam maintained his residence in Montreal but commuted to his American office. The company built the castle-like Montreal headquarters in 1928-1929. In New York, they operated out of rented space in the Chrysler Building. Sam had considered erecting a Seagram building since the 1940s, but was unable to obtain the Park Avenue address he wanted until 1951, when the company purchased the block between 52nd and 53rd Streets. Plans for the new building became public in July 1951. The original design concept was for a typical office building of the 1950s. Sam's daughter Phyllis, who was living in Paris after having studied art and architectural history at Vassar College, was appalled by the design. She believed the building proposal was uninspired and unworthy of the Seagram Company. Desirous of his daughter's return to North America, Sam agreed to put Phyllis in charge of hiring an architect to design the building. With the help of Philip Johnson (1906-2005), Phyllis undertook a thorough search and selected Ludwig Meis van der Rohe (1886-1969), who accepted the commission. She continued to oversee the project through design and construction and three years and $40 million later, 375 Park Avenue opened. The building, commonly known as the Seagram building, would come to be considered a masterpiece of modern architecture.
In addition to founding and running DC-SL, Samuel Bronfman contributed money and leadership to many charitable causes. Soon after the newlywed Bronfmans settled in Montreal, Sam began to establish himself in Montreal's large Jewish community. By the mid-1920s, he had made a name in the community by donating and raising large sums of money for various charities. His philanthropic activities focused mainly on the Montreal Jewish community, until the mid-1930s when the plight of European Jews drew his attention. He became active in the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society and, along with the Canadian Jewish Congress, appealed to the Canadian government for relief for European Jewish refugees. The request was denied but the effort began Bronfman's prominent, public, national and even international presence in Jewish affairs. One year after joining the fractionalized Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), Sam was drafted to serve as their President. The strength of Sam's leadership grew with the help of A. M. Klein (1909-1972), a renown poet who was engaged to write speeches for the new president; and Saul Hayes (1906-1980), a well-connected attorney who served as executive director of the CJC.
Sam and the Congress continued to work on behalf of Jewish war refugees, raising money and appealing for their asylum in Canada. By the mid-1940s, he began to speak out on behalf of establishing a Jewish state. Although never an ideological Zionist, Sam praised Israel's role as a home for Jewish refugees. By the 1950s, much of Bronfman's charitable activities focused on fundraising for Israel, including sale of Israel bonds. A 1956 trip to Israel increased his devotion to the cause. Future efforts would include serving as the chair of the "Western Hemisphere Section" of the World Jewish Congress; working to raise money for Canadian investment in Israel; and constructing the Samuel Bronfman Biblical and Archeological Museum, a wing of the Israel Museum.
Bronfman's philanthropic works outside the Jewish community were also numerous. Efforts included commissioning a series of paintings of Canadiana and underwriting their traveling exhibition; publishing historical supplements to the company's annual reports; sponsoring symposia at the Seagram Building; underwriting statuary at Expo '67 in Montreal; endowing a chair in Democratic Business Enterprise and student fellowships at Columbia University Graduate School of Business and the Rosner Chair in Agronomy at the University of Manitoba (in honor of Saidye's father); and sponsoring the publication and free distribution of Canada: The Foundation of It's Future by Stephen Leacock (1869-1944).
Concerned about the future of the company after it passed on to the next generation, Sam renegotiated the family agreements and trusts in 1951. Control of the company's assets, like its operations, were consolidated to Sam and his heirs. The CEMP trust (an acronym for Charles, Edgar, Minda, Phyllis) was established to hold the assets of Sam's children. CEMP, under the administration of Charles' friend Leo Kolber (1929-2020), earned excellent returns in investments such as shopping centers and office buildings and eventually became one of Canada's largest developers.
In 1970, "Mr. Sam" was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. Cognizant of his fear of illnesses, his wife Saidye kept the news from him. Although in frequent pain, Sam was able to fully enjoy the many tributes and celebrations of his 80th birthday in 1971. On July 10 that year, he died. His funeral was attended by large crowds and numerous dignitaries and he was memorialized in media worldwide. Obituaries extolled his business successes as well as his lifelong commitment to public service.
After Samuel Bronfman's death, the company's assets and leadership passed to his children Edgar and Charles. Both had began their involvement with Seagram at early ages and quickly rose to top positions. Sam had wanted his sons to learn all aspects of the business and achieve competence in its overall management while he was still alive and could supervise their efforts and the transition of power to the next generation.
Charles remained in Montreal operating out the company's Peel Street offices. Appointed director and Vice President of the House of Seagram in 1958, he oversaw Canadian operations. He was named Executive Vice President in 1971, and rose to President on 1975. Charles was appointed Deputy Chairman of the Board in 1979, as Co-Chair in 1986. He presided over the Executive Committee beginning in 1975. Charles actively supported Canadian Jewish and Israeli charities. He also founded Montreal Expos baseball franchise and was Chairman and principal owner from 1968 to 1990.
Edgar, who operated out of 375 Park Avenue in New York, assumed the presidency of Joseph E. Seagram & Sons and control of U.S. operations in 1957. While Sam continued his involvement in the daily management of the company, he gradually decreased his control. At the same time, many of Sam's most trusted lieutenants were retiring, leaving room for Edgar to reorganize the company. The changes marked a shift in the company's management style, from Sam's hands-on administration typical of entrepreneurs, to Edgar's use of modern management principles. After his father's death in 1971, Edgar assumed the presidency of DC-SL. In 1975, he became board chairman and changed the company name to The Seagram Company, Ltd. Edgar was also active in community affairs and was president of the World Jewish Congress. He later was active in working to gain restitution for Jews whose property was stolen by Nazis.
Seagram continued to grow under Edgar's leadership. International business was consolidated into Seagram Overseas Corporation in 1956, but real expansion did not occur until the next decade. In 1968, international sales divisions were unified with the development of SOSCO, the Seagram Overseas Sales Company. The primary goal of SOSCO was to expand sales beyond the U.S. Military (their main customer) by establishing distributors in civilian markets throughout the world and by developing name recognition for Seagram products. Geographically, SOSCO focused its initial efforts on Europe and Latin America. Increased efforts in Asia, the South Pacific and Africa began in 1970 and 1971. Contemporaneously, Seagram began to establish or purchase wine and spirits companies in major international markets.
Changes were also occurring outside of the company's spirits interests. In 1980, Seagram sold the Texas Pacific Oil Company for $2.3 billion. The next year they acquired 27.9 million shares of Conoco for $2.6 billion and sold them to E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company in exchange for a 20.2% interest in the company, making the company DuPont's largest shareholder. In 1988, they acquired juice maker Tropicana Products, Inc.
In 1994, management of Seagram was turned over to Edgar's son, Edgar, Jr. (1955-), who took control at a time when liquor tastes were changing and worldwide sales were decreasing. He continued his father's efforts to de-emphasize the sale of whisky and secured the rights to distribute the popular Absolut Vodka. Edgar, Jr.'s tenure was characterized by his moves outside of the liquor business and into the entertainment industry. In 1994, Seagram acquired nearly 15% of Time Warner Inc. In order to finance future acquisitions, the company sold their stock in DuPont in 1995, although Seagram's stake in DuPont had been contributing more than 70% of Seagram's earnings at the time. The sale netted $7.7 billion. That year, Seagram purchased 80% of MCA, Inc. for $5.7 billion and renamed it Universal Studios, Inc. In 1997, they acquired 50% interest in the cable USA Networks from Viacom for $1.7 billion. And in 1998, Polygram N.V. was bought for $10.4 billion and merged with the Universal Music Group making it the world's largest music company.
In a move spearheaded by Edgar Bronfman, Jr., in 2000 the company sold its media assets to French conglomerate Vivendi in a shares exchange, for which Vivendi paid $42 billion for Seagram. The resulting company was named Vivendi Universal, and the Bronfmans retained about 25% of Seagram in the merged company, or 8.6% of Vivendi Universal. Seagram's considerable distilling interests were sold to Pernod Ricard and Diageo, effectively ending Seagram as a distilling industry giant. Vivendi Universal entered a period of volatility, during which time the Bronfmans largely divested from the company. In 2002, the Coca-Cola Company signed an agreement for the use of the "Seagram" name from Pernod Ricard, while also acquiring the line of Seagram's non-alcoholic mixers. In 2009, North American Breweries acquired a license from Pernod Ricard to produce Seagram's Cooler Escapes and Seagram's malt-beverage brands.
The records of the Seagram Company, Ltd. are divided into four record groups based on their provenance. Record Group 1 is composed of the records from The Seagram Company, Ltd.'s Montreal headquarters. Record Group 2 is comprised of records from Seagram's subsidiary in the United States, which was incorporated as Joseph E. Seagram & Sons and based in New York, but also includes many records pertaining to the parent company. Documents in Record Groups 1 and 2 are further divided into series. The series are based upon function, rather than corporate structure. Record Group 3 contains records from the company's plants in Lawrenceburg, Indiana and Relay, Maryland. Record Group 4 contains records from the Paul Masson Company, which Seagram acquired in 1943. More extensive content descriptions of each Record Group, and the series contained therein, may be found at each appropriate level of this finding aid.
Scope and Contents
The records of Seagram and its subsidiaries trace the company's transformation from a small business run by Samuel Bronfman to a diversified multi-national corporation. Extensive internal correspondence and memoranda document the evolving corporate structure and the relationship between organizational change and business strategy. Because Seagram always operated in a highly regulated environment, company records document relationships with federal, state, and provincial authorities in the U.S. and Canada. Credit Department records document Seagram's relationship with more than 1,000 distributors, providing an unusual perspective on small-town retailing in America from the early 1930s through the 1950s. Distilling methods also are documented.
Indicative of the importance of international sales to Seagram, records of the Seagram Overseas Sales Company document business strategies and contain advertising and market research material on the firm's activities in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa. The international materials are strongest after 1960.
Records of the Sales and Marketing departments provide insight into the strategies behind particular advertising themes and campaigns. Package design records, hospitality guides, bottle labels, and trademark files complement the advertising materials. After the Second World War Seagram began commissioning market research studies in order to strengthen its understanding of consumer preferences. This effort expanded after 1950 as the company realized that attitudes about consumption and life style influenced brand choices. Thousands of market surveys in the Seagram collection contain information on consumer attitudes towards beverage alcohol, food, and other consumer products. They also assess brand preferences and the impact of company advertising among different demographic and regional populations. These studies begin in the 1950s and are strongest from the 1960s through the 1980s.
Records pertaining to the Seagram Building, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, at 375 Park Avenue in New York are also found in the collection. Records describe the design, planning, and construction of the Seagram Building as well as company efforts to use it as a public relations symbol.
The Seagram records, along with the complementary Bronfman family papers found in the records of the Seagram Museum (Accession 2173), document corporate and personal philanthropy supporting education, art, and human services. Involvement with Jewish causes since the late 1930s is well documented, most notably the Bronfmans' leadership of the Canadian and the World Jewish Congress and their support for the state of Israel. Charles Bronfman's papers also describe his involvement with major league baseball as founder and chairman of the Montreal Expos.
More extensive content descriptions of each Record Group, and the series contained therein, may be found at each appropriate level of this finding aid.
Restrictions apply to selected records and are noted where applicable within the finding aid.
Litigators may not view the collection without approval.
Donor/Depositor retains copyright. Permission to: copy, quote, and/or publish must be granted by the copyright holder.
Language of Materials
On Deposit from Joseph E. Seagram and Sons, Inc.
"The Seagram Spotlight" photographs (Accession 1996.310), Audiovisual Collections and Digital Initiatives Department, Hagley Museum and Library
Publications received as part of the same accession were transferred to Hagley's Published Collections Department. Contact the Published Collections Department for details.
Finding Aid & Administrative Information
- The Seagram Company, Ltd. records
- Ellen Morfei
- Description rules:
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
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- 2002: Revised by Marjorie McNinch
- 2020: Encoded by Angela Schad