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Reviewed by:
  • Household Counts: Canadian Households and Families in 1901
  • Richard White (bio)
Eric W. Sager and Peter Baskerville, editors. Household Counts: Canadian Households and Families in 1901. University of Toronto Press. 2007. xiv, 486. $45.00

This valuable book is a collection of fourteen individual essays, written by a variety of Canadian social historians but all based on a single source - the 1901 Canadian census database created by the Canadian Families Project based at the University of Victoria from 1996 to 2001. The authors are from different institutions, but all were members of the Project. As the editors briefly explain in the introduction, their database consists of the complete information recorded on five per cent of those counted in the census - a total of 265,286 persons residing in 50,943 dwellings. The original manuscript census is, of course, an extremely rich source, for the enumerators posed a long, prescribed list of personal questions and inquired into the details of everyone in the household. Even a five per cent sample is big enough to permit some solid, fascinating inferences to be drawn.

The essays show a wide range of interests and angles of inquiry, and in this diversity lies the great value of the book. The early sections include essays on what might be considered conventional demographic details. Particularly effective is the first essay comparing household and family structure in 1901 with that of 1991, and in doing so pointing to fundamental socio-cultural transformations of the twentieth century. There are also studies of fertility levels, rural-to-urban migration, and the spatial aspect of certain family types. As the book progresses it moves further from the census data out to the socio-cultural context, with studies of single parenthood, of how and when grown children left home, and of what old age was and what it meant. Then follows a section of three papers entitled 'New Interpretations: Family and Social History,' all of which do what the section title promises. It is remarkable how much the census can be made to say.

Taken together, the essays in the book seem to raise two over-arching points. One is reflected in the title - that household, perhaps even more than family, counts, in the sense that it is important and a central organizing institution of 1901 Canadian society. The other is the remarkable diversity that the census reveals. It turns out there were many types of households, many levels of fertility, many strategies for leaving home, many causes of single parenthood - on and on one could go. An inclination to generalize about something called 'late Victorian Canada' is [End Page 579] not entirely derailed by these studies, but almost. This point can be taken even further. Deep, careful historical research always has a tendency to complicate, or one might say 'problematize,' well-accepted truths, and such is the case here, especially with the three essays in the 'New Interpretations' section. Industrial wage inequalities, secularization, and professionalization are all important subjects in late-nineteenth-century Canada. One might not think the census could shed important new light on them, but in fact through careful research and creative thinking the authors show that it can.

The papers in the collection vary in style and approach, and perhaps in quality and originality as well, but all have something useful to say, and say it well enough. There are plenty of tables, as one would expect from studies that are, at their root, quantitative. There is also plenty of prose that summarizes or describes the numbers, a style of writing that can be a little hard to get through, though it serves its purpose, no doubt. But at the same time the book is, methodologically, quite refreshing in its empiricism. The authors simply report what their research has revealed and discuss what it means, without being overly guided by theoretical constructs. Not until the final essay does one encounter the word discursive, that shibboleth of contemporary cultural studies (when used in its current non-dictionary sense). One suspects this aspect of the book results from the approach of its editors, whose intellectual roots must lie in a time before social history became cultural history...


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