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COWAN, JOHN WARREN, merchant and manufacturer; b. 1841 in Nenagh (Republic of Ireland), son of Edmund Cowan and Tryphena Clark; m. 28 March 1867 in Montreal Isabella Dimmock, daughter of Charles Dimmock of Brantford, Ont., and they had eight children, of whom two sons and two daughters survived to maturity; d. 5 April 1908 in Toronto.

John Warren Cowan’s parents emigrated to the Canadas about 1852 and settled in Princeton, east of Woodstock, Upper Canada. John attended school at Princeton and completed his education at a commercial college in London. He began his business career in 1856 as a clerk in a Princeton grocery store, a position he held for eight years before venturing back to London as a clerk for a wholesale grocery firm. Three years later he located in Montreal, where he became a traveller for wholesale tea dealer John Duncan and Company. In 1876, with the confidence of 20 years’ experience, he moved to Toronto and established the wholesale tea and coffee firm of John W. Cowan and Company. By 1885 it had three travellers and was doing business throughout the province.

In 1885, determined to diversify into the cocoa and chocolate trade, Cowan bought the equipment of a failed firm. Thus was born Cowan, Musgrave and Company, which many contemporaries expected would meet the fate of its predecessor. In expanding his business to include cocoa and chocolate, Cowan had entered a realm of products that required packaging for the retail trade (unlike tea and coffee, which were sold as bulk goods). Cocoa and chocolate were sold in handsome lithographed or paper-labelled tins with distinctive brand markings. Thus packaged, the products were meant to create a tie that had not existed in bulk products: the producer warranted by his brand or trade mark the quality and sometimes the quantity of his product, and the consumer, it was hoped, would acknowledge consistency and quality by loyally purchasing the brand. The advantages of packaging and brand-name advertising were, however, counterbalanced by the greater capital expenditure required.

Though the record is sketchy, it would seem that Cowan did not initially adjust to or perhaps even fully understand the nature of his new business. He employed 12 to 15 workers from the start in what must have been for the time a substantial endeavour, but he was unable to generate a profit in the face of established competition. He nevertheless persevered.

In 1890, with Guelph businessman John A. Wood, Cowan formed a joint-stock company, the Cowan Cocoa and Chocolate Company of Toronto Limited, and began an aggressive campaign to expand. In the following year, the firm had a booth at the Industrial Exhibition in Toronto, where consumers could assess such products as Iceland Moss Cocoa, Queen’s Dessert Chocolate, and Parisian Coffee. In 1896, at the same fair, Cowan was giving out each day “thousands” of sample cups of cocoa and souvenir boxes of chocolate ginger. The company’s name had been changed to the Cowan Company Limited in 1893, and five years later Cowan adopted the maple leaf as a brand for his products, to distinguish them as Canadian goods in competition with imports. By the turn of the century he was sending crews to show his goods in small-town grocery stores.

Coupled with Cowan’s assertiveness in business was his support for tariff protection under the Conservative government’s National Policy, on which his industry depended for survival [see Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley*]. In 1890 Cowan (himself a Conservative), his partner, John A. Wood, and another entrepreneur, J. Todhunter, travelled to Ottawa to object to a rumoured reduction in the duty on cocoa imports. Such a cut would have benefited foreign manufacturers, whose packaged products had higher value and thus higher duties than the bulk cocoa that Cowan imported. The trip was unnecessary, for customs minister Mackenzie Bowell* intended to increase the duty and only a typographical error had led to the impression of a reduction.

Cowan’s marketing efforts resulted in a reported fourteenfold increase in production and the construction of a modern factory in Toronto in 1904–5. By the time of his death in 1908, his products were being advertised from Halifax to Vancouver, and he had set an example of energetic competition that many other Canadian entrepreneurs were busy emulating. The company was continued under the direction of his son Herbert Norton until 1926, when it was sold to Rowntree and Company (Canada) Limited, a British firm, which maintained the Cowan line of products.

John Warren Cowan had been a member of the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association and the Toronto Board of Trade. An Anglican, he also belonged to the Irish Protestant Benevolent Society. As an entrepreneur, he proved capable of adapting. Despite a plodding start, he embraced new marketing and advertising techniques, and created a Canadian presence in a manufacturing field previously dominated by foreign imports.

Robert J. Burns

ANQ-M, CE1-85, 28 mars 1867. AO, RG 22, ser.305, no.20870; RG 55, partnership records, York County, declarations, nos.1300 CP, 2468 CP, 2481 CP, 3760 CP. Evening Telegram (Toronto), 6 April 1908. Halifax Herald, 19 Feb. 1910: 4. Monetary Times, 21 March 1890: 1158; 11 Sept. 1891: 317; 11 Sept. 1896: 363; 1 April 1898: 1296. Sun (Aylmer, Ont.), 14 Feb. 1901: 1. Vancouver Daily Province, 13 Jan. 1910: 2. R. J. Burns, Paperboard and paper packaging in Canada, 1880–1930 (Environment Canada, National Parks Service, Microfiche report, no.393, 2v., Ottawa, 1989). Canadian Grocer (Toronto), 4 April 1890: 16; 10 April 1908; 15 Oct. 1926: 33. Directory, Toronto, 1884–91. Hist. of Toronto, 1: 425. Index to incorporated bodies and to private and local law under dominion, and Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec statutes, proclamations and letters patent . . . , comp. P.-[H.] Baudouin (Montreal, [1897]). Standard dict. of Canadian biog. (Roberts and Tunnell), vol.2.

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Cite This Article

Robert J. Burns, “COWAN, JOHN WARREN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 29, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cowan_john_warren_13E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cowan_john_warren_13E.html
Author of Article:   Robert J. Burns
Title of Article:   COWAN, JOHN WARREN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   September 29, 2023