Subject Guide

Seagram Ltd. and Bronfman Family

The Seagram Company Ltd. founder Samuel Bronfman began his business career as a hotel entrepreneur in Manitoba, Canada, in the 1910s. When the passage of provincial prohibition laws forced the closing of their profitable hotel bars, Bronfman entered the mail-order beverage alcohol business. In 1927, they acquired the Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Company of Waterloo, Ontario, one of Canada's oldest and most prestigious distillers, and in 1928, it merged with other Bronfman enterprises to form Distillers Corporation-Seagram's Limited. 

After the repeal of Prohibition in the United States, Seagram entered the U.S. market with a line of high-quality, blended whiskey and then expanded rapidly by acquiring distilleries in North America and the United Kingdom to produce wine, rum, and Scotch whiskey. By the 1950s, Seagram was one of the world's largest beverage alcohol firms. Built and led by Samuel Bronfman and his sons Edgar, Sr. and Charles, Seagram remains a firm headed by Bronfman family members. 

The Seagram Company Ltd. records and Bronfman family papers tell the story of one of North America's most successful businesses and entrepreneurial families. 


The records of Seagram and its subsidiaries trace the company's transformation from a small business run by Samuel Bronfman to a diversified multi-national corporation. Extensive internal correspondence and memoranda document the evolving corporate structure and the relationship between organizational change and business strategy. Because Seagram operates in a highly regulated environment, company records document relationships with federal, state, and provincial authorities in the U.S. and Canada. Credit Department records document Seagram's relationship with more than 1,000 distributors, providing an unusual perspective on small-town retailing in America from the early 1930s through the 1950s. Distilling methods are also documented. 

International sales outside North America were significant to Seagram. Records of the Seagram Overseas Sales Company document business strategies and contain advertising and market research material on the firm's activities in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa. The international materials are strongest after 1960. 


Innovative advertising linking Seagram's brands with the evolving consumer culture enormously contributed to Seagram's success. Advertising campaigns associated Seagram products with modernity, upward mobility, and 'the good life.' Advertisements and packaging promoted Seagram as a symbol of craftsmanship, tradition, prestige, and luxury. The emphasis on responsible drinking and an upscale lifestyle has remained an essential theme of company advertisements for many years. Beginning in the 1960s, many advertisements focus on segmented markets. 

The collection contains advertisements from the 1930s through the 1980s. Sales and Marketing department records provide insight into the strategies behind advertising themes and campaigns. Package design records, hospitality guides, bottle labels, and trademark files complement the advertising materials. 


After the Second World War, Seagram began commissioning market research studies to strengthen its understanding of consumer preferences. This effort expanded after 1950 as the company realized that attitudes about consumption and lifestyle influenced brand choices. 

Thousands of market surveys in the Seagram collection contain information on consumer attitudes towards beverage alcohol, food, and other consumer products. They also assess brand preferences and the impact of company advertising among different demographics and regional populations. These studies begin in the 1950s and are strongest from the 1960s through the 1980s. 


Designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and commissioned by the company as its corporate headquarters, the Seagram building in New York City is a masterpiece of modern architecture. Records describe the Seagram building's design, planning, and construction and company efforts to use it as a public relations symbol. 


The Seagram Company records and Bronfman family papers document corporate and personal philanthropy supporting education, art, and human services. Involvement with Jewish causes since the late 1930s is well documented, most notably the Bronfmans' leadership of the Canadian and the World Jewish Congress and their support for the state of Israel. Several dozen oral interviews with Edgar, Charles, Samuel's wife Saidye, daughter Phyllis Lambert, Shimon Peres, Teddy Kollek (mayor of Jerusalem), and others provide insights into the scope and motivation of the family's philanthropic activities and involvement with Jewish organizations. Charles Bronfman's papers also describe his involvement with major league baseball as founder and chairman of the Montreal Expos.