‘Time in a bottle’: Labatt virtual exhibit at Western offers a public taste of Canadiana

Employee camaraderie is evident even in the earliest pictures of Labatt workers, as shown in this photo of employees, circa 1914. Labatt Brewing Company Collection, Western Libraries

One of the world’s most significant corporate archival collections has now become among the most accessible and dynamic, with digitization that offers new public glimpses into 170 years of history in Canada.

The virtual exhibit highlighting the Labatt Brewing Company Collection at labattheritage.lib.uwo.ca offers researchers and the public a rich new opportunity to learn about Canada, London and an iconic brewing legacy through the unique lens of Labatt’s archives.

It offers hundreds of digitized images, audio interviews, and radio and TV ads — all available on a single site that illustrates the storylines of Canada and local history. Renowned Canadian historians also provide expert insights and highlight how Labatt began brewing some of Canada’s best-loved beer in 1847. This collection represents key items of the larger Labatt Brewing Company Archival Collection, housed at Western.

“It’s much more than the history of Canada’s most venerable brewery,” said Robin Keirstead, University Archivist at Western Libraries. “It’s a multi-faceted view into events that shaped this country, from the ‘ordinary’ to the extraordinary: it’s a source of cultural, social, political, industrial, corporate and sports history that you simply won’t find anywhere else.”

A graduate student in Western’s Library and Information Science program and five Public History undergraduates were pivotal in bringing Labatt’s and Canada’s remarkable histories to life through the selection and digitization of artifacts for the virtual exhibit.

A taste of the contents:

  • Prohibition-era Canada, when Labatt brewed low-alcohol “temperance beer”;
  • the Franklin search for the Northwest Passage, an expedition under way when Labatt was founded;
  • Labatt’s donation in 1859 of 1,000 pounds of flour to destitute Londoners;
  • the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1952, at about the time Labatt sent bottled care packages to Canadian soldiers in the Korean War; and
  • timeless TV ads and radio jingles that evoke past and current musical tastes.

Mike Dove, acting director of the Master’s program in Public History at Western, said, “None of these events in the Labatt corporate life took place in isolation. We believe these highlights, placing the Labatt timeline in the context of other things happening locally and around the world, will help people gain a deeper understanding of history.”

Labatt’s director of corporate affairs, Sharon MacKay, said, “Labatt has been a part of Canadian communities for 170 years. This virtual exhibit underscores how Labatt’s history is interwoven with the diverse and rich history of Canada. From academia and marketers to sports fans and beer aficionados, our goal was to bring our archives to life and make them accessible to everyone. We hope we’ve shown a path that other corporate citizens can follow as they try to ensure the preservation and use of their collections for the public good.”

In 2011, Labatt donated its corporate archives to Western — thousands of documents and artifacts — and augmented this in-kind gift with significant donations to support researcher access to the collection, including this digitization project.

Matt Bellamy, a Carleton University historian specializing in Canadian corporate and consumer history, who has studied the Labatt archives extensively, said beer is a cultural force in Canada — nowhere more pronounced than at Labatt, where the company’s founding pre-dated Confederation by 20 years. “Trends in Canada parallel those at Labatt. When you examine the cultural, sports and marketing history of Labatt, you’re also gaining key insights into what defines Canada. This collection beautifully captures time in a bottle.”

Kelly Cole, Vice-President (External) at Western, said the collection showcases how Western can add to valuable corporate archives. “Gifts in kind, such as the one Labatt has made, are an important way corporations and individuals can support Western and contribute in a significant way to global knowledge and research.”

Quick facts:

  • The new virtual exhibit at labattheritage.lib.uwo.ca has 400 images from the Labatt collection, plus 100 images of London/Canadian life. The exhibit also includes 47 audio-visual elements, including interviews, radio and TV ads
  • Documents are searchable by topic, timeline, by Canadian historical events or milestones in Labatt history
  • The complete Labatt archive, which includes the Labatt Material Culture Collection at Museum London, is considered one of the top three collections in the world; valued at $8.3 million when donated to Western and the museum in 2011
  • In 1847, Labatt brewed 1,000 bottles of beer. Today, Labatt is Canada’s leading brewer with six Canadian breweries across the country


NOTE: See below for downloadable images and broadcast-ready videos. 

MEDIA CONTACTS: Debora Van Brenk, Media Relations Officer, Western University, 519-661-2111 x85165, or on mobile at 519-318-0657. deb.vanbrenk@uwo.ca

And Briar Wells, Briar Wells, Senior Manager, Corporate Affairs, Labatt Breweries of Canada, 416-361-5195 or 647-968-9295. briar.wells@labatt.com @Labatt170

ABOUT WESTERN: Western University delivers an academic experience second to none. Since 1878, The Western Experience has combined academic excellence with life-long opportunities for intellectual, social and cultural growth in order to serve our communities better. Our research excellence expands knowledge and drives discovery with real-world application. Western attracts individuals who have a broad worldview and who seek to study, influence and lead in the international community.

ABOUT LABATT BREWERIES OF CANADA: Established by John Kinder Labatt in London, Ontario in 1847, Labatt Breweries is one of Canada’s founding businesses and its leading brewer. The company today has more than 3,500 employees, six breweries, three stand-alone craft brewers, and a portfolio of 60 quality beers, including Budweiser, Alexander Keith’s, Labatt Blue, Kokanee, Stella Artois and Corona. Brands also include ready-to-drink beverages such as Palm Bay and Mike’s Hard Lemonade. As part of the Anheuser-Busch InBev family, Labatt is committed to Bring People Together for a Better World, making a positive contribution through multiple programs that support its communities, promote responsible drinking and protect the environment.


Downloadable Media


Seeking a better life in the New World, John Kinder Labatt moves his family to Upper Canada in 1834. Labatt Brewing Company Collection, Western Libraries
Members of the 57th Field Squadron of the Royal Canadian Engineers appreciate their gift so much that they name a bridge over the Imjin River “John Labatt’s Anniversary Bridge.” Korea, 1952. Labatt Brewing Company Collection, Western Libraries
Labatt sponsors Canada/U.S.S.R. hockey series, 1972 — Labatt Brewing Company Collection, Western Libraries

In the early 1940s, Labatt employees put together an official company songbook, which includes the anthem “Glorious Beer.” Labatt Brewing Company Collection, Western Libraries
The famous Labatt Streamliner - Labatt Brewing Company Collection, Western Libraries
A brewery worker carefully inspects hops in 1947, showing that the craftsmanship of brewing remains unchanged since the 1800s. Labatt Brewing Company Collection, Western Libraries

In 1915, Labatt attempts to capitalize on its heritage by trademarking a new brand called Canada First. While the brand is brewed a few times, it eventually fails, likely as a consequence of Prohibition. Labatt Brewing Company Collection, Western Libraries
Employee camaraderie is evident even in the earliest pictures of Labatt workers, as shown in this photo of employees, circa 1914. Labatt Brewing Company Collection, Western Libraries
Homing Device ad, 1985 - Labatt Brewing Company Collection, Western Libraries

In 1947, Labatt opens a mobile driver testing centre, which tests drivers’ sight, reaction time, and steadiness in an era when Canadians did not yet need to take eye tests to obtain a driver’s license. Labatt Brewing Company Collection, Western Libraries
Labatt brew was available at Western Fair, as shown in this photo from 1918. Labatt Brewing Company Collection, Western Libraries