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DAVIS, SAMUEL, merchant, manufacturer, and philanthropist; b. 4 July 1834 in London, England, son of David Davis, a gentleman farmer; m. 1857 Minnie Falk, and they had five sons and two daughters; d. 30 Nov. 1895 in Montreal.

Samuel Davis went to New York at an early age and set up in the tobacco business. He subsequently moved to Montreal and, in 1862, started as a small manufacturer of tobacco products, in particular pioneering in the cigar trade. By 1867 he was selling wholesale and running two retail stores in Montreal and was able to operate entirely on his own capital. That year his firm won a first prize at the universal exposition in Paris. In the summer of 1868 Davis took a partner, Lyon Silverman, but the company fell on hard times, and by early 1870 it was in receivership.

Davis settled with his creditors and started up again on his own – thanks to friends in New York, according to a reporter for the credit agency of R. G. Dun and Company. Davis’s major backer, however, was a Montreal pawnbroker, Jacob Moss, who in 1872 invested about $20,000. From this point the firm progressed rapidly. By October 1874 it was employing 75 cigar-makers and doing some $300,000 worth of business annually. So strong was its credit rating that the City Bank and Molsons Bank, both of Montreal, provided substantial loans, thus lessening the company’s financial dependence on New York. In 1876 it took first prize for cigars at the Philadelphia Centennial International Exhibition, and it regularly did the same at provincial expositions as well.

By the early 1880s Davis had brought three of his sons into the business, and in 1883–84 the firm built a large new factory on Rue Côté. Tobacco had become an important element of the expanding manufacturing sector in the city, and in fact Montreal was the cigar capital of Canada, producing nearly four times the combined output of its two main rivals, Toronto and Hamilton. S. Davis and Sons was Montreal’s largest firm. In 1888 the average number of workers in the city’s cigar factories was 74; Davis employed 457 people, his closest competitor, Jean-Marie Fortier, 275. By 1894 an average of 600 people a year laboured in Davis’s seven-storey factory, which was equipped with steam elevators and an internal telephone system. At some point the company had absorbed the Montreal firm of D. Ritchie and Company. In 1895 it in turn was absorbed by the formation of the American Tobacco Company, of which Davis became a large shareholder and his son Mortimer Barnett* president.

The cigar industry was one of the lowest paying in Montreal and one of the largest employers of women and children. By 1888 the introduction of cigar-making machines was enabling manufacturers to reduce the number of skilled cigar-makers and to replace them with young boys and girls, disguised as “apprentices.” Their wages, meagre to begin with, were often reduced by an arbitrary system of fines, and some employers maintained an internal police force and jail for the punishment of apprentices found wanting. Probably the worst abuser of the apprenticeship system was Fortier. In response to these conditions workers had formed several unions, of which the Cigar Makers’ Union, branches 58 and 226, was the most militant. At S. Davis and Sons in 1888 only six per cent of the labour force was unionized, compared to nearly twenty per cent in the industry generally. Unlike other manufacturers, Davis did not use the union label on his cigars, which were consequently boycotted in strong union areas. However, Davis had no fine or punishment system for apprentices. According to the Montreal Daily Star, S. Davis and Sons “always had the reputation of treating their employees in the fairest manner”; yet La Presse asserted to the contrary that their “relations with [their workers] were not always very friendly” and that the firm had been subject to some 20 strikes. At least three are recorded between 1883 and 1895. In June 1883 branch 58 of the Cigar Makers’ Union launched an industry-wide strike for an increase in wages, beginning with S. Davis and Sons which, it would seem, ultimately resisted the longest. From June to September 1894 branches 58 and 226 of the union struck S. Davis and Company in a successful effort to stop a proposed wage cut of 20 per cent; the action had to be repeated in July 1895, but with what results is unknown.

Davis retired in the summer of 1895. A Jew, he had long been a member of Montreal’s Spanish and Portuguese congregation, Shearith Israel, an orthodox body of which he was president for 17 years. He became interested in the reform movement and in 1882 was one of the founders of Temple Emanu-El. He made substantial contributions for its construction and served the congregation as president for nine years. A charitable man, who systematically set aside ten per cent of his profits for philanthropy, Davis earned a reputation as “the Canadian Montefiore and Hirsch,” a reference to the best-known European Jewish philanthropists of the 19th century. At a time when prosperous Jews were generally indifferent to the plight of poor and immigrant co-religionists, Davis was active in the principal Jewish charity in Montreal, the Young Men’s Hebrew Benevolent Society, later known as the Baron de Hirsch Institute. He was also chairman of the advisory committee of the Ladies’ Hebrew Benevolent Society and honorary president of the Hebrew Benevolent Loan Society. He paid the licences of Jewish pedlars, and in the 1880s, when Russian Jews arrived in numbers, he personally provided hospitality for 80 families. He also paid the fees of poor Jewish university students and helped to endow a chair of Hebrew at McGill University. Davis’s philanthropy went beyond the bounds of his own community, however. He was active in the Protestant Hospital for the Insane, or Verdun asylum, subscribed to many city charities, and was a life governor of several hospitals. His wife was equally well known in Montreal Jewish circles for her indefatigable activity in charitable work.

Davis carried on all these services concurrently with his business activities. Within months of his retirement he died in Montreal at the age of 61.

Gerald J. J. Tulchinsky in collaboration with James H. Lambert

ANQ-M, CE1-197, 3 déc. 1895. Baker Library, R. G. Dun & Co. credit ledger, Canada (mfm. at NA). [A. J. Bray], Canada under the National Policy: arts and manufactures (Montreal, 1883), 165. Can., Royal commission on labour and capital, Report, Evidence – Quebec. Montreal illustrated, 1894 . . . (Montreal, [1894]), 292. Montreal Daily Star, 2 Dec. 1895. La Presse, 2 déc. 1895. Atherton, Montreal, 3: 375. Jean De Bonville, Jean-Baptiste Gagnepetit: les travailleurs montréalais à la fin du XIXe siècle (Montreal, 1975). Jean Hamelin et al., Répertoire des grèves dans la province de Québec au XIXe siècle (Montreal, 1970), 78, 121, 126. Jean Hamelin et Yves Roby, Histoire économique du Québec, 1851–1896 (Montreal, 1971), 277. Fernand Harvey, Révolution industrielle et travailleurs; une enquête sur les rapports entre le capital et le travail au Québec à la fin du 19e siècle (Montreal, 1978). The Jew in Canada: a complete record of Canadian Jewry from the days of the French régime to the present time, ed. A. D. Hart (Toronto and Montreal, 1926), 123, 243. Michael Brown, “The beginnings of Reform Judaism in Canada,” Jewish Social Studies (New York), 34 (1972): 322–42. G. J. J. Tulchinsky, “Immigration and charity in the Montreal Jewish community before 1890,” Social Hist. (Ottawa), 16 (1983): 359–80.

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Cite This Article

Gerald J. J. Tulchinsky in collaboration with James H. Lambert, “DAVIS, SAMUEL,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 23, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/davis_samuel_12E.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/davis_samuel_12E.html
Author of Article:   Gerald J. J. Tulchinsky in collaboration with James H. Lambert
Title of Article:   DAVIS, SAMUEL
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1990
Year of revision:   1990
Access Date:   February 23, 2024