by Janis Thiessen
(edited excerpt from pages 144-157 of Snacks: A Canadian Food History (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2017)
Pot of Gold, one of the best-known brands of Canadian chocolates, was the invention of Moirs, which began in 1816 when Benjamin Moir opened a bakery in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Moirs was a source of pride for Maritimers, as it was the only business in Halifax with a national product. By 1862, the company had expanded to occupy a five-storey building. With the retirement of Benjamin Moir’s grandson James in 1925, ownership transferred from the third generation of the Moirs family to a group of Halifax businessmen.
Moirs made their own shredded coconut, chocolate coatings, and chocolate shavings, and employed 1,126 workers (not including salesmen) in the 1920s. “Moirs XXX” was the name of the chocolate coating developed by James W. Moir and L.E. Covey. Covey was superintendent of the chocolate-making department, and had joined the company in 1878 at age fifteen. While women were tasked with shelling the cocoa beans needed, Moir and Covey supervised the cooking of the XXX coating. Moir named the coating XXX because, as reported in “Making Chocolates” from the Moirs Clippings archive, “it conveyed to him, from pleasant association one hopes, the hall mark of excellence of a dissimilar product.” The XXX formula remained unchanged over the years.
The Pot of Gold chocolate box, Moirs’ biggest seller, was developed in 1928. It was the first “mixed assortment box” of chocolates offered for sale by a confectioner. The box design featured a rainbow with an attractive young woman sitting at its end; eleven different models were featured on the Pot of Gold box during its first thirty-five years. An article in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald reported, “The designs have varied considerably, with the emphasis in recent years on the conservative. Both the girl and the rainbow were more subdued. . . . But this Christmas  a beautiful girl again is the centre of attraction, and the rainbow is back in all its splendour.” The year 1974 was the last in which the box featured a “Pot of Gold girl,” but the rainbow continued to be used, and was promoted in a television jingle: “We all know where the rainbow goes. . . . We are told it’s a pot of gold.” Liberace was featured in advertisements for Pot of Gold in 1975—his first commercial work.
The majority of workers at Moirs were women, and (for a time) the majority of women employed in Halifax were employed at Moirs. Three of every five women working outside the home in Halifax in 1891 were Moirs workers. In her MA thesis for Dalhousie University, Margaret Anne Mulrooney explains that work at Moirs was organized along gender lines: candy making was “considered men’s work,” while women “sorted, packed, wrapped, shined, weighed, or inspected the finished products.” Women also did hand dipping of chocolates, and were paid a piece rate; this work was not considered as skilled as that performed by the male candy workers who operated the machinery. Ian Sclanders wrote in an article for Maclean’s Magazine, “A sugar man, boiling hard candy, can’t depend on his thermometer. He has to judge when it is cooked by how the bubbles break on the surface. And he has to adjust the temperature of his steam-heated copper pan to changes in the weather, raising it on damp days and lowering it on dry days. He constantly glances through the window at the sky. Among the things he has to know is which batch should be cooled on stainless steel, which should be cooled on marble and which should be cooled on wood.” Women took two years to learn to hand dip chocolate, and as much as six years to reach peak speed at the task. Few women were employed in administration at the company. Mulrooney claims that low wages at Moirs in the 1950s contributed to “a reputation as being an undesirable employer in Halifax: parents reportedly warned daughters against leaving school by threatening, ‘If you quit we’ll send you to Moir’s to work!’”
The Second World War and immediate aftermath, with the rationing of sugar and limited access to foreign inputs like cocoa, hampered production of chocolate for Moirs and other confectioners. Moirs took pains to explain that they did not condone, and neither were they responsible for, a black market in chocolate bars in 1946: bars were not available over the counter in some stores; yet, in others, merchants displayed punchboards with chocolate bars as prizes. Moirs explained the 1947 price increase of chocolate bars from five cents to eight cents in detail to their customers, outlining cocoa bean and sugar price increases and wartime taxation. Nonetheless, there were protests at stores and legislatures across the country, led by children.
In 1956, Benjamin Moir’s great-grandson—the last Moir family member associated with the company—retired from management. John Crerar MacKeen, Frank Manning Covert, and E. Leroy Otto became the owners of Moirs. The company made Canadian labour history a year later when the company unionized. For the first time in Canada, two unions signed a joint contract. Joint certification by Teamsters Local 927 and the Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union Local 446 affected some 1,000 workers at the plant.
In the 1960s, the company’s biggest concern was the federal tax on confectionery.
Moirs (and their competitor Ganong, another Maritime confectioner) were most affected by the tax because of ready access from overseas markets and their distance from central Canada. The subsequent loss of $13.5 million in revenue through cancelation of the tax would not be significant to the federal government, a Halifax newspaper argued, but “for firms like Moirs in Halifax and Ganong’s in New Brunswick it could mean the difference between survival and extinction.”
Moirs was sold to Standard Brands Limited in 1967. In 1973, Standard Brands bought Lowney (an American chocolate company with a branch plant in Canada) and combined them with Moirs. Moirs’ chocolate bar production moved to the Lowney plant in Quebec; Lowney’s boxed chocolate production moved to the Moirs plant. Standard Brands sold the business in 1987 to Hershey, which closed the plant in 2007. Moirs, Ian McKay observes, was “a flagship of indigenous capital” that “survived the initial onslaught of the merger movement” of the late nineteenth century. It was not able to survive that of the early twenty-first century, however. Hershey closed its other Canadian plant and reduced its workforce at its American factories by 10 percent, while opening production facilities in Mexico. Moirs employee Christina (Missy) Fuller mourned the end of an era: “I thought I was going to retire there. . . . There were sons and daughters working alongside their parents who had worked there for most of their lives, and then not after too long, sons- and daughters-in-law, too.”
The iconic Pot of Gold chocolates continue to be produced, but not in Canada, and not by Moirs. For many Canadian families, Pot of Gold was a Christmas tradition. Archivist and oral historian Sarah Story recalls waiting for her turn “to look at the insert containing the list of chocolate fillings” and then take her “sweet time picking out that one special chocolate for the day. That was our limit for the day when we were kids, so we had to make it count!” Her personal favourites were “the plain square of chocolate marked ‘Pot of Gold’ in the centre of the package” or the chocolate containing three whole hazelnuts. “I also remember the commercials in the 1980s/90s for Pot of Gold, and have not forgotten that old jingle, ‘We all know where the rainbow goes.’” The rainbow now goes to Hershey, North America’s largest chocolate producer, and maker of Pot of Gold.
Janis Thiessen is a fan of dill pickle potato chips and an Associate Professor of History at the University of Winnipeg.