Sugar In Pioneer Ontario

Line art drawing of maple sap being boiled in a wooded grove, one part of the history of sugar in pioneer Ontario.
Originally Published in Heritage Happenings, March 1981
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For early settlers, what did sugar in pioneer Ontario look like? Most of the sugar consumed in Upper Canada was the product of the cane imported from the West Indies. This import came in the form of raw sugar or “MUSCAVADO”, moist with molasses, dirty and strong tasting. So wet was this brown sugar that while in the barrel it was apt to…”turn to molasses, and run out onto the floor”.

Until 1854, refined or white sugar was imported from England and the United States. Since technology had not yet developed a method of manufacturing white sugar in granulated form, re-fined sugar was molded into a sugar loaf, which looked like a hard bullet-shaped cone. An inferior, moist “crushed” or “bastard” sugar packed in hogsheads was also available. The grocer either sold the loaves to the customer whole, or he broke off pieces to sell by the pound. Every home that could afford loaf sugar had a pair of sugar nippers with which to chip off lumps of sugar. Small lumps could be dropped into a teacup, but for baking, larger pieces were crushed and sifted through a hair or lawn-sieve.

In 1854, John Redpath opened the first Canadian sugar refinery in Montreal and produced a sugar loaf with a distinctive shape, straighter and taller than its British or American counterpart.

Brown sugar was used for pickling and for making vinegar, as well as for everyday baking, while white sugar was reserved for tea and finer baking.

As an alternative to imported cane sugar, families had used the product of maple trees from the earliest days of settlement, watching Indians tap trees and pour sap into hewn-out tree trunks, and evaporate the sap by adding hot rocks.

Mrs. Simcoe, a newcomer to Canada in 1791, described the process:

“This is the Month (March) for making Maple Sugar, a hot Sun & frosty nights cause the Sap to flow most. Slits are cut in the bark of Trees & Wooden troughs set under the Tree into which the Sap–a clear sweet water –runs. It is collected from a number of trees & boiled in large Kettles till it becomes of a hard consistence”.

The first run of sap in early Spring was called the “robin run”, and the final sap collecting was known as the “frog run”. The turning of the sap into sugar, molasses or syrup was an occupation new to most settlers. It was also one of the most important household tasks because of the expense of imported sugar. Sugaring went on day and night, and was an excuse for parties, dancing and courtship. Children threw hot syrup onto freshly smoothed snow to make taffy, and young women tried to throw the syrup into initials of a young man.

Although sugaring was hard work, it was often left to the women and young boys. Important as it was for household supplies, the men were needed for working in the clearings. Later, when the land was under cultivation, the men took over the sugaring and increased the family cash holdings by sending the surplus to the city markets.

Maple sugaring was a useful and economical project for an individual family. — Metropolitan Toronto Library Board

Most sap was rendered into sugar, although some settlers made syrup to drizzle on bread and pancakes. It was also made into vinegar, beer or wine, and the sugar used to flavour cakes, puddings, tea and coffee. For the children it represented a special treat, candy, such as this recipe for “Maple Sugar Sweeties” as recorded by Catharine Parr Traill:

“When sugaring off, take a little of the thickest syrup into a saucer, stir in a very little fine flour, and a small bit of butter, and flavour with essence of lemon, peppermint, or ginger, as you like best; when cold, cut into little bricks about an inch in length. This makes a cheap treat for the little ones–you can always give them sweeties, if you think proper to allow them indulgences of this sort.”

Wooden molds used to produce the sugar loaf and sugar candy of pioneer days are without question some of the most typical and sought after articles of folk art of Ontario and Eastern Canada. A number of these molds are still used by sugar makers, often inherited from father, grandfather or even more remote ancestors. This is a disappearing art, for more and more square pine molds or pieces of decorated sheet metal are being used. In addition, stands of maple trees are giving way to the encroachment of cities, and many farmers find it no longer profitable to collect and process the syrup into sugar. For these reasons, many old molds are now to be found in antique shops.

Pine, maple, cherry and ash are among the woods from which the country wood carver cut the motifs that form these molds. In general, small molds were used for home consumption, although maple sugar was sold in one, two, three or more pound blocks. The simple molds were nothing but scooped-out hollows in blocks of wood, but others were elaborate sectional three dimensional constructions. Getting the sugar out of the mold was a problem and solutions of greasing the mold or use of a sectional mold was a help.

Sectional molds were of two types. One was made by hollowing two thick pieces of wood, carving the hollows and fitting the pieces together so that there was only a small hole through which the hot sugar could be poured. The other type was made in several pieces, up to ten pieces to a mold, held together with wooden pins, pegs or clamps. When the sugar was hard the mold was taken apart, leaving a carved block of sugar.

Mold motifs show a great variety of shapes, size and subject matter– houses, trains, bibles, crosses, angels, chalices, horses, birds, beavers, fish, rabbits, flowers and hearts-each piece a truly unique piece of Canadianna.


“Cut of Old Ontario Kitchens”–Christina Bates, Pagurian Press Ltd.
“Domestic Receipt Book”–Catharine Beecher, Harper.and Brother
“Mrs. Simcoe’s Diary”–Elizabeth Simcoe, Macmillian of Canada.
“The Canadian Settler’s Guide”–Catharine Traill 1855, McClelland & Stewart.

© The Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society 1981, 2015


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