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  • Peopling the North American City: Montreal 1840–1900 by Sherry Olson and Patricia Thornton
  • Dan Horner
Olson, Sherry and Patricia Thornton – Peopling the North American City: Montreal 1840–1900. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011. Pp. 544.

Historical geographers Sherry Olson and Patricia Thornton have been publishing innovative and insightful articles on demographic change in 19th and 20th century Montreal [End Page 251] for over twenty years. Peopling the North American City is their first monograph-length study of the city and it makes a vital contribution not only to the historiography of Montreal and Quebec, but also to the way that historians and geographers conceptualize the relationship between individuals, families, communities and urban space.

Olson and Thornton’s study is based on a massive multi-generational sampling that, by mirroring the city’s ethnic composition, creates what the authors refer to as “a miniature Montreal”. The authors use this data set to make numerous inquiries into the economic, cultural, and demographic decisions that Montrealers made during this period. They explore the strategies people employed in their interactions with their families and their communities. By drawing comparisons both between different ethnic communities and across several generations, Olson and Thornton draw complex and nuanced conclusions about how people from a variety of class and ethnic backgrounds reacted to the transformations associated with migration, modernity, and industrialization. The strength of Peopling the North American City is found, ultimately, in the way that Olson and Thornton explore the results of their exhaustive demographic research without losing sight of vital social and cultural factors that might not be immediately visible in the quantitative results of their research. By viewing this time and place through a variety of different lenses, the reader is presented with a perspective that is sometimes messy and complex but, for these very reasons, is utterly captivated.

Nineteenth-century Montreal was unique in that its diverse and rapidly growing population consisted of three distinct ethnic communities: British Protestants, Irish Catholics, and French Canadians. Olson and Thornton tease out the way that these three communities established patterns of strategic demographic decisions that were both logical and distinct. Decisions about when to marry and begin having children; about how long to nurse those children and how long to wait before having another; and about how to draw on the resources afforded by the extended kinship networks available to them all helped shape a distinct demographic character for these major ethnic communities. Why, the authors ask, did French Canadian couples marry at a young age? Why did British Protestant women marry older men? Why were families of Irish origin able to escape the numerous epidemic diseases that swept through this industrializing city with fewer casualties than their French Canadian neighbours? The authors do more than simply trace the major and minor demographic differences of these three communities. They push the reader to consider how these decisions were made, and what sort of strategic logic lay behind them.

These strategies were shaped not only by the opportunities available to each community – be that in the form of material wealth or proximity to a large and deeply engaged kinship network – but also by the palpable sense of vulnerability that would have nagged at the inhabitants of nineteenth-century Montreal. Olson and Thornton argue that Montreal families at all points along the spectrum of class had to think like capitalists, meaning that in the midst of making crucial and intimate family decisions they needed to provide themselves with a degree of flexibility that would be sufficient for them to navigate the sorts of personal catastrophes that loomed over the residents of the nineteenth-century city. Widowhood, the authors note, was a particularly common experience during this period. Olson and Thornton note the significant portion of households that had been stitched together out of fragments of multiple families faced with the loss of a family [End Page 252] member to disease, workplace mishap, or any of the other misfortunes that threatened nineteenth century Montrealers. They demonstrate, through their careful demographic research, that the contours of the family as an institution were flexible enough to give Montrealers a variety of strategic options to...


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pp. 251-253
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