- Consumers in the Bush: Shopping in Rural Upper Canada by Douglas McCalla
What kinds of goods did settlers on the Upper Canada frontier purchase during the first half of the nineteenth century? Douglas McCalla's answer challenges popular views of a Robinson Crusoe-like world in which goods were scarce and expensive. Consumers in the Bush is an in-depth analysis of rural store account books, utilizing multiple store ledgers from the period from 1808 to 1861 and linking many of the customers in the ledgers with census records. The result is a persuasive account of the changing world of goods in Canadian context.
The persistence of narratives that describe a rough-hewn world without goods is due to the popularity of memoirists who exaggerated the scarcity of goods on the frontier. Historians used these accounts to tell the story of English and European settlement and perpetuated the Robinson Crusoe-style narrative of privation and homespun. Furthermore, McCalla notes that historians have been responsible for other distortions by framing the [End Page 611] past in terms of dichotomies that emphasize revolutionary change over evolution.
The bulk of the book consists of chapters on the different types of consumer goods that rural settlers purchased and the place of those goods on the frontier. Each chapter deals with a type or class of goods, including textiles and clothing, groceries and medicine, hardware and other metal items, household goods, footwear, locally made products, and more. Just under seventy pages of tables and appendices lay out the evidence from the store ledgers. While it is impossible to recount all the insights McCalla gleaned from the ledgers, a few examples will suffice. Tea and tobacco consumption in Upper Canada was like that in England. Fabrics ranked among the most commonly purchased goods, with a wide variety available at affordable prices. McCalla suggests that there is no evidence for a move away from home textile production prior to 1860; purchased fabric and home production were not mutually exclusive. There are expected examples of seasonality, as with the purchase of axes and chains in the fall and winter and harvest tools in the summer. The author honestly discloses where one or two examples stand in for larger trends and where the ledgers just do not provide enough information. For example, while garden seeds were commonly purchased in the spring, purchased seeds must have only accounted for a modest portion of all the garden crops that were grown, suggesting the importance of cultural practices such as seed saving.
McCalla demonstrates that imported material goods were widely available and, in many cases, inexpensive. The cost of most goods declined over the study period while the diversity of goods increased. Furthermore, oft-repeated tales of a barter economy do not square with the evidence in the store account books. While local storekeepers occasionally purchased local goods or raw materials, the prices sellers received were not based on barter. Rather, prices were consistent from store to store. Any variation was most likely due to quality rather than the vagaries of barter. Among the many significant findings that challenge received wisdom is that rural consumers did not rely on just one store for all their goods. Rural storekeepers offered competitive prices lest they lose business to other country stores and even those in towns.
McCalla concludes that traditional narratives that emphasize an abstract, "timeless before" obscure the important role that imported goods played in Upper Canada throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. By showing the significance of goods and the way in which purchased goods and household production were not mutually exclusive, the author successfully banishes Robinson Crusoe from the landscape, leaving us with a more nuanced view of English settlement in Upper Canada. Consumers in the Bush promises to help historians as well as museums and historical societies do a better job of interpreting community dynamics and life on [End Page 612] the frontier. Succinct and persuasive, it...