- Consumers in the Bush: Shopping in Rural Upper Canada by Douglas McCalla
During his lengthy and distinguished career, Douglas McCalla has made something of a habit of questioning some of the most persistent myths and misconceptions about the nineteenth-century economic history of Upper Canada/Ontario. As long ago as the 1970s, in articles and ultimately in his impressive 1993 synthesis, Planting the Province: The Economic History of Upper Canada, 1784–1870, he began to provide convincing evidence to show that the "the staples thesis" as applied to Upper Canada, which held that economic growth depended primarily on the production and export of a single crop, wheat, was deeply flawed, calling into question not only the seminal work of Harold Innis, but also standard works on Upper Canada/Ontario agriculture by R.L. Jones and, more recently, John McCallum.
One of the most fruitful sources which he used in developing his conclusions about the "internal economy" of Upper Canada was merchant account books, which in this splendid new book are exhaustively analysed to explode the "Robinson Crusoe" myth, or the myth of the self-sufficient Upper Canadian farmer.
No doubt it should have been obvious that Upper Canadian farmers, though certainly self-reliant, could never have been entirely self-sufficient. Of course they produced some of the products they needed at home but the account books of seven village stores in Peterborough, Northumberland, and Leeds counties between 1808 and 1861 make clear that they also routinely bought a wide variety of items that they considered necessities. McCalla's analysis of more than 30,000 transactions with 750 families also yields a number of other important conclusions. Local stores, with their wide assortment of mostly imported British goods, filled a real need in their communities and as a result were generally successful and long-lived, partly due to helpful family and political-commercial connections; they were not monopolies, even when they had no local competitors, for nobody bought everything at one store; in a twenty-first-century world in which prices invariably go up, it is actually a bit hard to believe that between 1808 and 1861 prices of most goods went down. Perhaps the most fundamentally significant aspect of rural store transactions was that they were almost entirely based on credit. Barter was hardly ever involved, but credit was essential: the system functioned because sales were simply entered in the store's books, to be settled at a later convenient date.
Looking at the range of what people bought, in chapters dealing with textiles and clothing, groceries and medications, hardware, local goods, and household goods and footwear allows McCalla to ask questions and [End Page 257] tell stories about the genuinely complex lives that ordinary Upper Canadians lived, what they liked and disliked, and even were addicted to, for although they cannot be said to have been excessively heavy drinkers, their use of tobacco was remarkably high and in fact increasing.
It is probably over-churlish for a reviewer to register even a mild complaint about such a wise, well-researched book, but is it entirely appropriate to describe all these consumers as being "in the bush"? Depending on how one counts the category of "no occupation" in Table 3, it appears that as many as 40 percent of the stores' customers were not farmers but villagers, such as artisans and labourers (and their wives and daughters), for which the stores were a handy convenience, far more than they can ever have been for busy farmers.