Hidden treasures: How soap helped a French-Canadian break into Montreal's Anglo-dominated business world

For Montreal's 375th anniversary, we're showing you rarely seen gems that tell the story of the city. Here, we introduce businessman Joseph Barsalou and his soap company.

Discover some rarely seen gems from the city's past for Montreal's 375th anniversary

Joseph Barsalou broke into the anglo-centric business world in Montreal and found great success with his soap company. 1:00

To mark Montreal's 375th anniversary, curators from Montreal museums show us some of their favourite items hidden in their archives. This is the first installment in an ongoing series.

In the 19th century, Montreal was the economic centre of Canada, but the majority of companies were owned and controlled by British businessmen.

You'd be hard-pressed not to spot a Barsalou ad in the newspapers and magazines at the time. Many offered these coupon booklets. (Centre d’histoire de Montréal)
So for a French-Canadian to enter the scene and make a lasting mark in such an environment was difficult.

That's exactly what Joseph Barsalou did with his soap company.

Barsalou got his start in the world of business with an apprenticeship with an auction company in Montreal in the late 1830s.

He used his growing business acumen to buy a rubber business.

But his biggest success was in suds.

J Barsalou & Co., Montreal was founded in 1875.

Soon, you couldn`t open a newspaper or magazine in Canada without Barsalou's advertisements inside.

"Barsalou [started] his industry's company at the time when it was very common to publicize the daily life products," said Jean-François Leclerc, curator at the Centre D'Histoire, a museum dedicated to the history of Montreal.

The Jacques Cartier Bridge and the stubborn Barsalou family

After founding his company, Barsalou had a factory built near the corner of De Lormier Avenue and De Maisonneuve Boulevard.

Barsalou eventually handed over the business to his sons.

In the 1920s, when talk of building a new connection across the St. Lawrence to alleviate traffic on the Victoria Bridge, they had to deal with the problem.

Many homes and businesses were asked to leave the area to make way for what would eventually be the Jacques Cartier Bridge, but the Barsalou brothers would not let go of their factory.

"The Barsalou family refused to sell their property. So the consequence was that the bridge had to go beside that company," said Leclerc.

"That's why, when you are entering Montreal, you do that curve, which is a bit strange for that kind of project."

The Barsalou company was eventually sold during the Second World War and became Familex. You can still see the name in faded paint on the side of the factory today.

The old Barsalou factory along De Maisonneuve Boulevard East with the Jacques Cartier Bridge to the left. (CBC)