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  • Consumers in the Bush: Shopping in Rural Upper Canada by Douglas McCalla
  • John Clarke
McCalla, Douglas – Consumers in the Bush: Shopping in Rural Upper Canada. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013. Pp. 296.

All of us who have been engaged in the social and economic history or historical geography of Upper Canada have, as Douglas McCalla recognizes, viewed the issues studied from the perspective of what was achieved, produced, or, in the case of a patent or land price, simply manifest from some economic, legislative, or social process. McCalla has himself done this, especially in Planting the Province: The Economic History of Upper Canada, 1784-1870, which remains the preeminent interpretation in this substantive area of study. Since its publication, his emphasis has shifted to that of the consumer, and in this genre he has written on the acquisition of alcohol, textiles, guns, and “A World without Chocolate”—a theme first offered in Agricultural History and developed here under the same intriguing title. This is not so much about the absence of chocolate as it is about groceries and medications. Interestingly, though this commodity was thought by the traveller and writer, Patrick Campbell, to have been part of the life of the day labourer, and was enjoyed by the social elite, such as Frances Stewart, and by Surveyor General Thomas Ridout at his breakfast, McCalla’s formal analysis did not find a single mention in ten thousand transactions (p. 68). Among groceries, the first ranking item purchased by five or more members in the sample used was, as expected in a British province, tea (390 buyers) followed by tobacco (373 buyers) and sugar (259 buyers). Coffee, with 58 purchasers, ranked eighth, and at the bottom of the continuum were lemon essence (33rd), nutmeg (34th), hops (35th), and caraway seed, last at 36th. With respect to medicines and drugs, McCalla recognized 38 products beginning with “pills” as the first ranking item among the commodities that commanded five or more purchasers with, in fact, 75 (Appendix A, Section C). The second item was castor oil (63 buyers in 9 of 10 time-frames), a tradition that continued with Irish mothers well into the 1950s and still in use today. These two were followed by “salts” (38 buyers),”pain extractor,” (30 buyers) and “Cream of Tartar” or potassium hydrogen tartrate (27 buyers), used in things culinary and, unadvisedly, as a purgative. Too much “Cream of Tartar” [End Page 702] could produce excessive potassium or hyperkalemia with medical complications that could lead to death. If Upper Canadian mothers or wives used too much of it, those they fed would have been safer then, as now, with sixth ranking senna as a cure for the constipation with which it seems Upper Canadians were afflicted!

It is this detail, and the re-assurance of the methodology adjusted to particular needs (Appendix D) that lends confidence in the results. These become useful for comparative purposes within the province for themselves, and in, for example, assisting in calculating costs in the production of a farm. No doubt there are other applications such as determining well-being relative to earning capacity, including that of the wage-earner. This is well illustrated in Chapter 4, which deals with essential items as food stuffs, including, interestingly, brandy and wine, as opposed to whiskey, considered a local product. Chapter 4 also brings an awareness to contemporary readers of things unknown such as opeldeldoc, a medication used to rub the abdomens of Canadian babies with bowel problems and to ease leg cramps during pregnancy. There are additional major chapters dealing with the nature of rural stores and their customers, with textiles and clothing, with hardware and related purchases, and with local goods that included footwear that should interest a variety of readers.

The database for all this consists of more than 30,000 business transactions undertaken by 750 families at seven stores between 1808 and 1861. These transactions were drawn systematically from a variety of archival sources that include ledgers, day and invoice books as well as census and assessment rolls—an astonishing achievement in itself. Geographers of the rigidly rigorous scientific kind...


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pp. 702-704
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