Distinct within North America: living standards in French Canada, 1688–1775


I use a novel dataset of prices and wages from the French colony of Quebec (Canada’s second largest province today) to measure colonial-era living standards. Following Allen’s (Explor Econ Hist 38(4):411–447, 2001; The British industrial revolution in global perspective, Cambridge University, Cambridge, 2009; Econ Hist Rev 68(1):1–22, 2015) welfare-ratios approach, I find that Quebec was poorer than the American colonies and London, but somewhat richer than Paris and Southern England. The Quebec–Paris comparison is sensitive to changes in the basket used to compare wages. Shifting from a bare bones basket to a respectable basket, Quebec loses its advantage over Paris, but remains poorer than the American colonies and London.

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  1. 1.

    I refer to Canada and Quebec interchangeably as the initial basin of settlement along the banks of the Saint Lawrence River, which relates to the modern province of Quebec. More than three quarters of Canada’s population resided in Quebec before the 1790s.

  2. 2.

    In 1760, the colony’s administrators capitulated to the British. The formal cession of Quebec to Britain occurred in 1763 with the Treaty of Paris. This was mostly due to natural increases rather than to migration. Most migrants came reluctantly; see Moogk (1989).

  3. 3.

    Caution is warranted here. I am not implying that there were no differences. Relative to its closest colonial neighbor, New England, Quebec’s climate is harsher and its soils are poorer. These differences affect living standards. However, these differences are small when compared with the rest of the Americas.

  4. 4.

    I am referring here to the settler population and do not include the population of the numerous Native American peoples. In 1763, when the colony was conquered by the British, the settlers concentrated along the St-Lawrence River. This was the area most suited for agriculture for two reasons. The first is that they tended to be of greater quality than the lands further away from the river (Wien 1990; Centre de Référence en Agriculture et Agroalimentaire du Québec 2015). The second is that the river permitted inexpensive transport to the port city of Quebec (Dechêne 1994: 195–196). If we use the map provided by Cole Harris (2012: 112), the population density of the area where the majority of the settlers were established stood at 8.91 inhabitants per square mile in 1763 (I thank Jacques-Alexandre Fournier for making that calculation for me). This is relatively similar to the American colonies, in which the coastal districts had 10.7 inhabitants per square mile in 1760 (Purvis 1999: 17).

  5. 5.

    A finding that echoes recent anthropometric findings that include French Canadians from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Arsenault Morin et al. 2017).

  6. 6.

    These results reinforce a growing body of observations on that topic: Lindert and Williamson (2016: 72–74) also found that when they switched to the respectable consumption bundle, the US advantage diminished.

  7. 7.

    The main exception is New England, which was poorer (Lindert and Williamson 2016; Allen et al. 2012a). One reason could be that migration there occurred for religious reasons and/or that New England attracted those closer to the bottom of the income ladder (Allen et al. 2012a: 879). In this paper’s “Appendix”, I underline that an interpretation error on the part of Allen et al. (2012a) (which played against their core claim) led to an underestimation of wage levels in New England. The correction of that mistake reinforces Allen et al. (2012a) by reducing New England’s disadvantage relative to London with regard to wages.

  8. 8.

    It is also worth noting that the populations of Quebec City and Montreal, the two largest cities in the colony, were comparable to those of American cities like Charleston and Newport.

  9. 9.

    Most of the existing high-quality datasets, notably the probate records from Desloges (1991) and Dépatie (1988), lack good deflators to generate inflation-adjusted values. Desloges has one that relies too much on rarely consumed goods with numerous gaps, while Dépatie has no deflator. They also focus on geographically limited areas. Moreover, there are issues with the representativeness of probate records in Quebec (Morin 1981; Russell 2012). Some, like Lunn (1942 [1986]), Mathieu (1972), and Egnal (1998) point to trade data that which make the colony appear well-off. However, this may be the result of differences in the magnitude of the trading sector. Altman (1988) pointed to the international trade in furs at 14% of total output from 1695 through 1739. Adding the value of shipping services, codfish, lumber and grain exports (McCann 1983), the proportion stands above 20%. In comparison, Lindert and Williamson (2016: 47–49) place those proportions at 9–13% for the American colonies. The best measure available is the GDP figures provided by Altman (1988). However, he considered a limited number of data points scattered from 1695 through 1739. While he provided a portrait of growth over time, he relied on a vector of prices to arrive at real values that cannot readily be used for international comparisons.

  10. 10.

    Harris did not provide empirical support for this contention, and “roughly similar living standards” could reasonably embrace a 20% advantage or disadvantage in typical incomes.

  11. 11.

    These proportions relate to the full sample of prices and wages collected.

  12. 12.

    In addition, the Ursulines’ account books start providing information around 1716, while those of the Séminaire start earlier. There are also more transactions per year in the accounts of the Séminaire than in the accounts of the Ursulines: there are only two account books for the latter congregation between 1716 and 1775, while the Séminaire offers twenty account books for the period from 1688 to 1775). This explains why the Séminaire provided the bulk of the price information.

  13. 13.

    The different prices reported were collected for each year in the account books and averaged regardless of the source. The information derived from both institutions can be combined without much loss of reliability, given that the geographic proximity of the two religious congregations (with the exception of the Isle-Jésus estate north of Montreal which was owned by the Séminaire, most of the estates were in the area around Quebec City). In the “Appendix,” readers will find a comparison of the resulting price series for wheat (the one with the most overlap) in both congregations. The estates of both congregations were a mixture of farms, saw mills and grist mills, which provided a part of the data. The rest of the data were provided by transactions between different merchants, peasants, artisans and other workers that dealt with the congregations. Areas such as Île Jésus and Baie Saint-Paul (the westernmost and easternmost points in the dataset) may appear to be geographic outliers, but they were not economic outliers. Like the other areas, they were recently settled rural land in the vicinity of a large urban center (Montreal in the case of the former, Quebec City in the case of the latter). See the discussion of wage data in the “Appendix” to this paper.

  14. 14.

    Moreover, the sources have been used largely to report wheat prices in an annualized form. Sometimes, as in the work of Hamelin (1960), this is the only price series reported. In other instances, such as in the case of Dépatie’s work (1988), prices for other agricultural items are reported in the form of averaged periods rather than annualized estimates.

  15. 15.

    Skilled workers will not be discussed in this paper, but the series is presented in the “Appendix” and it has a 58% coverage ratio.

  16. 16.

    One example is the work of Allen et al. (2012b) who constructed welfare ratios for different colonies in the Americas. In their “Appendix,” when discussing the data construction for Boston, they mention that they had no candle prices before 1747 (2012b: 20) and no soap prices before 1783 (2012b: 21). They also had firewood prices for only 41 years out of 195 possible years (2012b: 22). Their best coverage rate (for maize) stood at 73.3%. In contrast, the worst coverage rate in the present study (for candles) stands at 63.6%.

  17. 17.

    There are also disadvantages. First, the wages collected relate to farm activities and only Southern England and New England provide comparable wage data. Paris provides only construction laborers’ wages. Second, the length of the work year affects the quality of the comparisons, since Quebec’s long winters meant a shorter work year than in France or Britain (see more below).

  18. 18.

    In constructing a price series, it is important to avoid shifting between data sources unless a focus on the same area is preserved (e.g., shifting between urban and rural areas would capture regional price differentials) and the same type of price quotations (i.e., retail or wholesale) is used. This is a considerable advantage of the congregations’ account books as their ledgers are continuous over time and continuously report retail prices (see notably Ouellet 1972: 37–43; Ouellet et al. 1982: 89–90). It is also important to note that the retail nature of the prices collected is a sizable advantage in terms of data construction relative to other sources: Allen et al. (2012b) often had to do markups of wholesale prices to convert them into retail prices (although not for New England).

  19. 19.

    The key assumption here is that households must have the option to perform market exchanges. Even if a farm worker chose not to trade his labor on the market, he had the option of doing at the prevailing wage rate—which is reflective of the opportunity cost of working as a wage earner (i.e., the marginal product of labor). This is a well-recognized point in the literature on wages and farming in frontier economies such as Quebec and Canada. Davis and Engerman (1999: 14) suggest that, for nineteenth-century Upper Canada (the modern-day province of Ontario), in “the absence of a second source of farm income, workers would not have chosen to migrate [to farming] even if, in the long run, farm income would have been more than three times the nonfarm alternative.” However, when a second source of income becomes available (such as wage-earning supplements to household income), farming becomes a viable alternative when the “nonfarm income was as high as one half of long-run farm income.”

  20. 20.

    The proportion of the population living outside the colony’s three main cities grew to more than 80% over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Public Archives of Canada 1874: 21–63).

  21. 21.

    Readers familiar with Canadian economic history will notice that I do not mention the fur trade sector. Most workers were in the agricultural sector, and as such, I focused on the living standards of the vast majority. By the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the sectoral share of the fur trade had fallen to less than 10% of the economy (Altman 1988). Its share of employment was also negligible (Allaire 1980: 21): the average number of departures for the trade in the first part of the eighteenth century was 7.88 per 1000 inhabitants. Figures for the late eighteenth century point to a lower level (Paquet and Wallot 1988: 5).

  22. 22.

    The “Appendix” to this article compares the prices and wages collected from the religious congregations with prices and wages from government reports relating to the urban areas in order to confirm the data’s rural nature.

  23. 23.

    Using the generally proposed figure of 68.25 L of wine for Quebec creates a basket where wine represents an unrealistic share of the basket’s total cost (see “Appendix” for discussion). However, if the baskets below are modified to include only wine which would make a perfectly identical basket as for Paris, Quebec’s respectable welfare ratios average for the entire period falls to 0.78—more than 10% below the level observed in Paris.

  24. 24.

    I made additional modifications to increase calorie needs resulting from colder temperatures (see footnote 28).

  25. 25.

    Unfortunately, there are no remedies with regard to Paris.

  26. 26.

    I also computed a different basket that increased the quantity of calories in the bare bones basket to 2100 rather than the 1940 calories in the ones used here. This adjustment reflects Allen’s (2015: 6) concession to Humphries’s (2013) objection that there were not enough calories in the baskets. The modification did not affect this paper’s conclusions, as all baskets were similarly affected (results available on request).

  27. 27.

    The disparity between baskets also applies to comparisons between Quebec and Southern England: at the bare bones level, the settlers of Quebec enjoyed living standards equal to 118.7% of those of wage-earners in Southern England as opposed 103.7% at the respectable level. It is also worth noting that modifying the Quebec basket (with 30 MBTU) to use only wine (rather than spirits and wine) reduces Quebec's welfare ratio to 0.8 which is equal to 87.5% of the level in Paris.  

  28. 28.

    If we change only the fuel quantities back to their original specifications of 2 and 5 MBTUs (but keep the new specifications for alcohol in the respectable bundle), the inhabitants of Quebec enjoyed bare bones welfare ratios equal to 153.7% of those in Paris as opposed to 121.0% with the respectable basket. Using the original respectable basket specification with 68.25 L of wine and 5 MBTUs instead of the mix of rum and wine eliminates Quebec’s advantage; it becomes virtually equal to Paris. Finally, increasing calories by 10% to reflect a colder Quebec’s greater calorie needs (Jones and Lee 1996) reduces Quebec’s bare bones (my own specification) advantage by a third (results available on request) which translates into an advantage of roughly 10% over Paris. Also, with 10% more calories at the respectable level, Quebec is poorer than Paris with the respectable basket (its ratio is equal to 98.5% of the ratio in Paris).

  29. 29.

    Lindert and Williamson found similar results when comparing the American colonies with England (2016: 69, 74). In their case, the shift did not alter the general conclusion that the American colonies were richer than England, it merely caused a modest reduction of the advantage.

  30. 30.

    Wien (1990: 556) point to a frost-free season in Quebecof 150 days. Using killing frost records, Baron and Smith (1996: 15) found that the average season in New England lasted 150 days (with a standard deviation of 32 days) from the 1740s through the 1770s. However, Canada is colder. Nonetheless, the environmental factors affecting the length of the work year are more similar than different, as is the case when we compare Quebec with France or England.

  31. 31.

    Large families are the reason why, on top of the environmental constraints, Lindert and Williamson (2016: 68–70) found that welfare ratios based on incomes showed a smaller advantage for the American colonies relative to Britain than welfare ratios based on wages.

  32. 32.

    Lindert and Williamson (2016: 55) point out that 46% of New England’s population was younger than sixteen in 1774. In comparison, the 1734 census proposes that 43% of Quebec was below the age of fifteen (Public Archives of Canada 1874: 57).

  33. 33.

    With the adjusted wage levels for New England (see “Appendix”).

  34. 34.

    This ordinal ranking corroborates recent anthropometric evidence relating to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Quebec (Arsenault Morin et al. 2017).

  35. 35.

    Quebec’s respectable welfare over the period is equal to 68.7% of New England’s, while the proportion at the bare bones level is 71.7%.

  36. 36.

    Recent research on living standards outside of Paris suggests that the rest of France lagged less than previously thought (Ridolfi 2017; Geloso 2018).

  37. 37.

    Lindert (2016) and Lindert and Williamson (2016) argue that using a bare bones basket can effect real differences in living standards because of the role of nontraded commodities and the difference in land-to-labor ratios. This argument is confirmed by the vanishing of Quebec’s advantage over Paris in the switch to the respectable basket. The economic structures of the Old and New Worlds were different enough to affect relative prices and foil our measurements. Alone, this difference should invite future efforts to extend the range of baskets used to compare New and Old Worlds in order to properly determine the extent of the gap.

  38. 38.

    This explanation is bolstered by the fact that the gap between Quebec and New England is not affected by a switch in baskets. Both economies could easily produce basic necessities, but it was equally hard for both to acquire luxury goods, services, and other more elaborate goods.

  39. 39.

    A large share of Canadian immigrants were soldiers, a total of 13,076 (Boleda 1990: 171). The bulk of the coerced in the eighteenth century were either fils de famille (wayward young men) or faux-saulniers (salt smugglers). The former were given lettres de cachet, royal orders for punishment of certain individuals that included deportation to Quebec. From 3 to 7% of the migrants from 1720 through 1760 arrived under these circumstances (Paul 2008: 70). The salt smugglers represented half the migration from 1730 through 1749 (Paul 2008: 126).

  40. 40.

    Moreover, migration out of France (100,000 individuals) was small compared to the migration out of Britain (746,000) and Spain (539,000) during the same period (Eltis 1999: 151).

  41. 41.

    While this paper is the not proper place to expand on this point, it is worth underlining that low real wages in Quebec could have been a strong (dis)incentive affecting the colony’s human capital formation.

  42. 42.

    Before 1698, there was one British ship of the line for every French ship of the line. By 1718, this ratio had fallen to less than 3:1 and remained largely below a 2:1 ratio in favor of Britain until 1760 (Modelski and Thompson 1988). This falling ratio should be interpreted as the French navy’s diminishing capacity to protect the colony’s trade, which would have made it more vulnerable to war-induced trade shocks. The vulnerability of the colony had, according to Dechêne (2000), a major concern of the settlers.

  43. 43.

    The best census that provides us with occupational data in a readily usable form is that of 1681 which, unfortunately, is a few years before sufficient wage data could be collected. In that census, of the male population above 15 years old, only 8.3% reported being skilled workers (Public Archives of Canada 1874: 12–13).

  44. 44.

    It should be noted that the Séminaire’s estates provided 97% of the wages collected and the Ursulines provided very few observations.

  45. 45.

    The books of the Séminaire de Québec were more problematic, as they were organized by accounts, while the books of the Ursulines de Québec were organized chronologically.

  46. 46.

    For this reason, I collected a sample of annual wage rates. However, upon closer inspection, they do not offer details as rich as the daily wage rates. For example, it was impossible to assess the method of payment and, in a large share of cases, it was hard to assess the nature of the work being contracted. As such, I could not use the annual wage rates I collected for the purposes of this paper. However, I do not believe this to be an issue.

  47. 47.

    The work is available at http://etheses.lse.ac.uk/3442/. However, a caveat should be noted that the numbers contained in the dissertation have changed since the dissertation's publication as a result of the peer-review process and the addition of the period from 1760 to 1775. The numbers contained in this article should be considered as the definitive numbers.

  48. 48.

    This can also be observed in the work of Richard (1973) who found that firewood prices in Quebec City tended to be significantly lower than in Montreal between 1731 and 1752.

  49. 49.

    These transport costs were not small. For transport between Quebec City and Montreal, Louise Dechêne (1994: 195) found rates that varied between 4 and 5 sols per minot of wheat between 1732 and 1742. Given that the average price of a minot of wheat was 51.8 sols, these transport costs represent between 7.7 and 9.6% of the price.

  50. 50.

    Desloges (1991: 143) asserted that “while barley and oats could substitute for wheat during shortages, Quebeckers definitely preferred oats” even if in good times it served as fodder.

  51. 51.

    The set-asides for seed are 10% for oats and 13% for wheat (Atack and Bateman 1984: 304).

  52. 52.

    To get an order of magnitude, in the years available, the average per capita consumption of only the imported wines and rums was worth 14.96 livres. For the years 1732–1739, Altman found per capita incomes averaging 127.6 livres (1988: 702), meaning that alone, imported wines and rums represented 11.72% of income. Factoring in eau de vie as well as domestically produced alcohols would likely drive this figure much higher. This assumption is well in line with Fyson’s estimates for workers on the Lachine Canal in the 1820s, where 24% of food expenditures are related to alcohol (1992: 74). If food expenditures represented 60% of total expenditures, then 14% of all expenditures were related to alcohol.

  53. 53.

    The basket specifies 68.5 liters for the first member, but since the basket is multiplied by three to reflect the consumption of a four-member household, this represents 51.375 L (68.5 L times three adult equivalents divided by four members).

  54. 54.

    Ferland (2005: 43) points out that 3 minots of grain are required to produce a barrel (228 L) of beer. Assuming those proportions and the barley output of 4585 minots and 3462 minots in 1721 and 1734 (the only years when the census reported them separately) (Public Archives of Canada 1874: 53 and 57) yields a maximum annual per capita output of barley-based beers of 14.27 and 6.98 L. On the basis of Allen (2009: 36), one liter of beer is equal to 0.375 L of wine, meaning that an additional 2.61–5.35 L of wine equivalents must be added to the figure above. This does not include beers made from other grains or the bière d’épinette.

  55. 55.

    To arrive at this estimate, I divided cattle according to the herd composition of steers, milk cows and bulls found by Dépatie (1988). Then, I used the dressed weights and slaughter rates from Rothenberg (1979: 995) to estimate the output. The figures for swine required no adjustments, and I used Rothenberg’s estimates to obtain the quantities. Desloges (1991: 148) proposes that in 1745, Quebec City dwellers consumed 21.84 kg of beef per year. He also reports that 80–90 animals were slaughtered every week to feed 7300 people in 1757 in Quebec City. Using the proportion of 200 pounds he reports for dressed weight yields 51.7–58.2 kg of beef per year. However, he reported a rate of 77.2 kg per year because he assumed that the 80–90 animals were slaughtered over a 5-day week rather than a full week. My estimate of 42.5 kg seems to fall between Desloges’s two estimates.

  56. 56.

    Because there are no reliable prices for cheese, I transferred cheese to butter.

  57. 57.

    In comparison, the Allen bare bones basket would have implied, for the typical Canadian household, a per capita consumption of 0.22–0.36 French cords of firewood, well below the observed levels.

  58. 58.

    However, maple and birch tended to be heavily consumed according to Sweeny et al. (1988) and these have energetic values located well within those bounds so that an average of the two bounds should not cause problems. According to Paquet and Wallot (1998: 311), the common cord of firewood in Quebec was six feet high, four feet deep and two feet long (48 cubic feet). I had to adjust for the use of French cords. The number of MBTUs for each type of wood was derived using the computations at https://chimneysweeponline.com/howood.htm (consulted November 4, 2014).


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The authors wishes to acknowledge the help of Alexandra Foucher, Stephen Broadberry, Chris Minns, Alexandre Padilla, Gloria Main, Vadim Kufenko, Judy Stephenson, Peter Sims, Jeffrey Williamson and Peter Lindert. Special acknowledgments go to Gilles Paquet and Peter Gagné. Professor Paquet helped me navigate the sources thanks to his pioneering work in Quebec's economic history and who also provided numerous comments early on. Mr. Gagné, the archivist of the Séminaire de Québec and the Musée de la Civilisation de Québec, helped me understand the sources I was using and gave me the necessary materials to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the data. Finally, I thank Claude Diebolt and the anonymous referees who provided insightful comments prior to publication. All errors remain my own.

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Correspondence to Vincent J. Geloso.

Appendix: Data, validity, baskets and tables

Appendix: Data, validity, baskets and tables

Metrological and monetary notes

The units of measurement used to measure goods changed in some years for some goods. Rousseau (1983) provided equivalences in his work on the Augustines congregation that ran a hospital in Quebec City. Most researchers rely on Rousseau and simply quote him. These figures are illustrated in Table 4. One should be very careful not to confuse the French livre and the English pound. Although the two are generally considered linguistic equivalents (livre in French means pound in English), they represent different weights in grams. The French livre (translation for pound) carries 489.5 g against 453.6 g for the English pound, a 7.91% difference. In the course of my research, I have seen historians derive conclusions without making this important correction. The conversion of grain volume units to weights was based on a minot of wheat or peas weighing 60 livres, while a minot of oats weighed 34 livres.

Table 4 Metrological table of conversions

The monetary system of Canada was the monnoye du Canada. Its main unit was the livre, which could be subdivided in twenty sols, which could in turn be further subdivided in twelve deniers.

Notes regarding prices used for the goods basket

The prices used in this paper are retail prices. This is made clear by Ouellet et al. (1982: 89–90) who collected prices for a few agricultural goods from these account books between 1760 and 1850. The retail nature of the price quotations is clearest when we compare those from Paquet and Wallot (1967) with those from Ouellet (1972) and Ouellet et al. (1982). Paquet and Wallot relied on the price quotations from the urban produce markets reported in newspapers. These prices are systematically lower than those provided by Ouellet. This is unsurprising given that the price quotations from the urban produce markets are generally considered to be wholesale prices (Ouellet et al. 1982: 89; Brouillette 1991; Bergeron 1992). This supports the contention that the account books of the congregations provide price quotations that can be qualified as retail prices.

Can the account books of the two congregations be mixed? In his work, Fernand Ouellet uses the two and he seems to believe that they can be mixed (1966: XXI). However, he never compared the two series for readers to assess. In Fig. 4, I compare the price of wheat as reported by each of the two congregations in order to assess comparability. As can be seen, the two series evolve in lockstep at the same level thus confirming that they can be mixed.

Fig. 4

Wheat prices (in sols per minot) in the two congregations from 1719 to 1775

Unfortunately, it was impossible to reliably convert the prices into silver units. There is some existing series for silver prices between 1693 and 1749 (Desloges 1991), but the series has gaps, does not extend to 1775 and also differs modestly from the official conversion rates. This made me reluctant to provide the conversion especially given that this step was not required in order to generate the ratios as it would have been only helpful to compare nominal prices and wages.

Below are notes regarding each good and the way they were treated to insure quality. The years covered are also identified. In Table 7 at the end of the “Appendix,” readers are provided with the individual prices.

Wheat The predominant crop of New France, its inclusion was crucial given that the literature gives it roughly three-fourths of the land sown in the colony.

Coverage All years were accounted for.

Firewood An obviously important item in the cold weather of Canada, it required particularly careful handling for the purposes of this research. First of all, it was reported as a corde of the French metrological system, which is not the same as a cord in the British metrological system. Secondly, the Séminaire and the Ursulines often had to pay for the wood plus the cost of transport. Reported as charroy or charrier, it needs to be retracted from the total price, as this would reflect the urban price premium. Peasants who owned their own farms and simply chopped firewood in order to heat their households, while clearing land in the hinterland would not pay that premium. They would, however, forego its sale to urban dwellers.

Coverage The missing year is 1760.

Wine Price quotations rarely made a distinction between red and white wine. A “pot de vin” was often all that was mentioned. When this was specified, the price was often the same for both products. As a result, I concluded they were interchangeable without any loss of informational quality. Forays into the data past 1790 show that this is not the case after that point, as the British begin importing vin de port (port wine) and vin de ténériffe (Spanish wines).

Coverage The missing year is 1758.

Spirits The prices I collected were for eau de vie which is a more expensive alcohol than rum (Ferland 2010: 95). I took the relative price of eau de vie to the price of guildive reported in Ferland (2005: 95) between 1733 and 1754. The ratio was 0.463.

Coverage The missing years were 1745, 1754, 1758, 1759 and 1769.

Oats This crop was significant in the colony and was often used as feed for livestock. It was either the second or third largest crops (in competition with peas) after wheat.

Coverage All years were accounted for.

Peas Second only to wheat, peas were used to feed both farm households and livestock.

Coverage The missing years are 1705, 1728, 1741, 1746, 1752.

Burning oil Generally imported, but not always (it could be substituted by oils from sea products produced in the colony in particularly dire times), burning oil was a major consumption item in New France.

Coverage The missing years are 1688, 1689, 1745, 1755, 1759, 1760, 1765, 1769 and 1775.

Butter Dairy products have been a generally important item in the agriculture of Quebec. Ill-suited for crop growing, Quebec is very well suited for herding animals. As a result, butter was an important good.

Coverage The only missing year is 1760.

Eggs Egg prices were very well recorded in the archives of the Séminaire up to 1725, after which they were less frequently mentioned. When they were, it was to say “this amount was spent on eggs” with no specification for quantities. However, the Ursulines reported dozens of transactions involving eggs every year from 1716 (the start date of their account books) to 1760. From 1716 to 1725, both sources showed egg prices behaving identically and being at similar levels.

Coverage The missing years are 1696, 1699 and 1700.

Beef Beef was sold by the livre, and it was frequently consumed. This is a considerable advantage, as I do not have to rely on the price of animals. This is a retail price. Some prices for veal, pork and sheep were found, but these products were not as frequently consumed as beef.

Coverage The only missing year is 1723.

Soap Soap was also sold by the livre, but it was used infrequently by the average household, and in small quantities. It was one of the items for which the most observations were missing.

Coverage The missing years are 1697, 1703, 1704, 1706, 1708, 1715, 1718, 1724, 1726, 1740, 1741, 1744, 1745, 1749, 1750, 1752, 1754, 1755 and 1756.

Candles Candles were also sold by the livre, its prices matched closely the price of tallow in terms of evolution.

Coverage The missing years are 1701, 1711, 1712, 1717, 1721, 1722, 1724, 1726, 1727, 1729 to 1732, 1735 to 1740, 1742, 1754, 1755, 1757 to 1760, 1769, 1770 and 1773–1775.

Cloth (toile) Clothing items were measured by the aune and were imported in numerous kinds: carizé, indienne, mazamet, cotton, soie, mesly, de Russie, du païs, toile, d’herbes, voile, chanvre, azur and molton. Wool, not faithfully reported in many years, was measured in livres. Numerous clothing items were luxuries, whose prices differed massively from other cloth items. Hence, attention was given only to the cheapest kinds of cloth: (1) toile (unspecified type of cloth, which was always far cheaper than others reported in the same transactions. Generally, they were rags); (2) d’herbes; (3) voile (a proxy for rough clothing items); (4) chanvre and; (5) du païs or indienne, which was domestically produced and tended to be very coarse. These types of cloth were the ones generally consumed by the population as a whole. The others are of great quality and would have been used by aristocrats, merchants and rich artisans.

Coverage The missing years are 1729, 1739, 1740, 1741, 1743, 1746, 1749, 1755, 1756, 1757 and 1764.

Notes regarding wages and table of wages

Are the wages used representative? Given that agriculture represented a growing share of the economy over the course of the eighteenth century (Altman 1988: 702) and that a very small share of the overall population was skilled,Footnote 43 daily wages for unskilled workers doing agricultural work in rural areas constitute a most representative form of data. As the map included in the text suggests, the majority of the estates were outside the main cities which also confirm the required rural nature.Footnote 44 This is also confirmed in the types of tasks workers were hired for. In more than 80% of cases, the unskilled wage rates specified the nature of the work contracted. Most of those pertained to agricultural tasks (see more below). This is consistent with Baillargeon’s assertion (1977) that the Séminaire’s farm holdings were of great significance to the congregation. In most of the instances remaining, the wage rates were reported next to another wage rate whose task was reported and also had the exact same rate. Also, the wealth of information in the account books allowed me to track down a wage-earner’s occupation when his name was reported. (This method could only be used for skilled workers.)

The different types of work were récoltes (harvesting), foins (feeding livestock or working in the fields), étable (working at the stable), fauchage (mowing), à la ferme (at the farm), aux clôtures (enclosing), défrichages (land clearing), aux fossés (ditch digging) and au vacher (cowherding). The non-agricultural unskilled work was for entreprise de bois or bûcher du bois (chopping or sawing wood) and pour peinturer (for painting). These two tasks had wages identical to those in agriculture when they were reported. The only difference for the unskilled was for ouvriers (workmen) generally on very heavy manual work like building roads. Bairoch (1989) pointed out that when workmen were hired for heavy manual work (like ouvriers), they generally earned a premium which may bias the data. However, in this case the issue is limited. Only three observations were related to ouvriers, and their wages were not out of line with those of other unskilled workers. The same was true of workers engaged in reaping (which can be said to be part of the récoltes category) who could also have earned a premium. However, when récoltes wages were reported alongside other tasks, there were no signs of a premium. As a result, I kept both the ouvriers and récoltes inside the sample.

The wage rates are also very clear about the type of compensation. When workers received in-kind payments, the account books added the notice of “et nourry” (and fed) to the wage rate or mentioned a specific item that was offered. In those instances, the Séminaire also reported the value of the payments-in-kind in total compensation. However, payment-in-kind was infrequent. While this may appear surprising, it is important to consider that workers offered work on the labor market for the purposes of acquiring specie useful to the acquisition of imported and manufactured goods that they could not produce on their farm. Many sources report that occasional workers often insisted on specie payment. In addition, figures proposed by Bessière (2007: 253) are quite telling: for a sample of 1299 annual and monthly wage contracts between 1640 and 1710, 51% were stipulated exclusively in terms of payment in specie, while an additional 25% stipulated payment in a mixture of services and in-kind compensation in addition to payment in specie. Long-term employment contracts imply some wage rigidity and workers who sign such contracts can be expected to prefer a larger share of their compensation to be in-kind than daily workers (who can renegotiate wage rates more often) would. As such, the proportions found by Bessières appear in line with the finding that daily wage rates rarely included in-kind payments.

However, there are downsides to the data. When wages were reported, they did not always include the months in which they were contracted.Footnote 45 This affects largely skilled workers like masons, carpenters and millers who did work year-round. The vast majority of the observations that specified winter work affected skilled workers—which are not used in the present paper. I prefer to relegate them to future work. Fortunately, the unskilled jobs from which wages were taken relate to tasks that would have occurred during the growing season, roughly from April to November, and to workers operating on a piecemeal basis. Moreover, the few observations that had the mention en hiver (during the winter) either did not provide enough information to be included in the calculations or reported wages in line with other rates observed for the year.

Another potential downside is that I am not capturing the labor market for domestics. However, this is quite a small problem. First, according to the 1762 census of the Quebec district, in which the Séminaire and the Ursulines were located, only 2.83% of the population was hired as domestics (Gouvernement du Québec 1926: 1–32). Second, domestics were generally young women (Bessières 2008: 43; Dechêne 1974: 362). As welfare ratios for other regions rely on wages for adult male workers, this downside does not affect the present paper even if it limits the scope for future research.Footnote 46

Figure 5 illustrates the distribution of the observation and Table 5 illustrates the years. In Table 7 at the end of the “Appendix,” readers are provided with the individual wages. All the available annual values were averaged and the missing years were interpolated using a nearest neighborhood method. Finally, a longer discussion of Quebec’s labor market before 1760 can be found in my doctoral dissertation Geloso (2016: 67–76)Footnote 47 and it provides further details which would needlessly lengthen this paper if included here. However, one of the key elements discussed in the dissertation is that the areas from which wages were collected had similar levels of improved lands (they were settled roughly at the same moment) and were all in proximity to an urban market which would have provided occasional employment.

Fig. 5

Distribution of recorded wages. Note I also collected annual and monthly wages which were reported in previous versions of this paper for the sake of information. However, the graph was reorganized for clarity and focuses only on daily wages. The “unspecified tasks” generally reported high wage rates which suggest that most of them concerned skilled workers

Table 5 Years missing for wages

Confirmation of rural prices and wages and geographic representativity

There is a need to confirm the rural nature of the prices and wages reported in the account books. In order to provide such a confirmation, I collected prices from government reports (see Table 6) that concerned acquisitions for defense-related projects in the cities. The bordereaux (expense accounts) (found the years between 1742 and 1745) clearly specified the urban nature of the prices and wages reported by stating the purpose of the expenditures (construction, maintenance, provisions).

Table 6 Average price (1742, 1744, and 1745) and wage differences (1742–1745) between urban and rural areas

If the prices and wages I collected from the religious congregations are rural, three things should be observed. The first is that items produced in the countryside (wheat, peas, meat and firewood) should be cheaper there than in the cities. As the farmers around the cities had to get these goods transported to the cities, one should expect a price premium. The second is that imported goods be more expensive in the countryside. This is because these goods had to enter through the port cities and then be sold in the countryside by merchants. As such, a price premium should be expected in the countryside. Finally, cities have a well-documented tendency to have higher nominal wages than the countryside.

Domestically produced goods like grains, butter and meats were dearer in the city than in the countryside. Imported goods (with the notable exception of wine) cost more in the countryside than in the city. Wages were also lower in the countryside than in the city. In fact, it was not only the mean wage rate that was lower in rural areas, but the range of wage rates also tended to be higher in the city. As such, all three expectations are met. Not only that, but the price differences match the land transport costs discussed at length by Dechêne (1994: 195). As such, I feel reassured that the dataset I assembled relates to rural areas.

These sources also provide a chance to assess the comparability of wages in the Quebec area with those in the Montreal area. As can be seen from the column regarding urban wages in Montreal, wages in Quebec City were higher than in Montreal in 1745 and lower in 1742 and 1744. However, prices were also moderately higher in Montreal (not shown in Table 6). In 1742, and 1745 wheat prices in Montreal were 10% above those of Quebec City, while they were 3% lower in 1744. The same is true for beef prices which were lower in Quebec City than in Montreal by 7% and 5% in 1742 and 1745, respectively, while they were higher in Quebec City than in Montreal by 3% in 1744. A similar price differential appears for goods such as wine, spirits, salt, firewoodFootnote 48 and cloth. For imported goods, this is not surprising as they would have had to enter in Quebec City and then incur additional transport costs to arrive in Montreal.Footnote 49 As such, differences in real wages appear to be minimal. Moreover, it is worth pointing out that 52.3% of the population of the colony lived in the district of Quebec as opposed to 39.8% in the district of Montreal in 1739 (Public Archives of Canada 1874: 60), which suggests that the concentration of observations in the Quebec area may be more representative of the majority of the population.

Baskets and welfare ratios

One important justification and three key modifications had to be made to the Allen consumption bundles to reflect Canadian realities: the use of oats in the bare bones basket, the computation of alcohol consumption, the level of meat consumption and the level of fuel requirements.

The “subsistence” crop used was oats. French Canadians rarely ate oats themselves, reserving them instead for their animals, and preferred wheat (Desloges 1991: 143; Altman 1988: 698). However, oats were the crop of choice in hard timesFootnote 50 and it was the cheapest way to acquire calories. One bushel of oats provided only 62% of the calories of a bushel of wheat (Dessureault 2005: 265). This lower caloric content was more than compensated for by the differential in yields per unit of land. According to Marvin McInnis (1981: 227), who used mid-nineteenth-century data, one acre could yield either 9.2 bushels of wheat or 18.6 bushels of oats. Adjusting for seed set-asides, one acre of oats yielded 31% more calories than one acre of wheat.Footnote 51 The price data employed in this paper suggest that, on average from 1688 to 1775, one thousand calories from oats could be acquired at 64% of the price of one thousand calories from wheat. Given all these proportions, it is easy to see why oats should be the subsistence crop to be used in the bare bones basket.

French Canadians tended to import large quantities of alcohol. The problem is that picking one type of alcohol is difficult as consumption products were diversified and we cannot assume that they drank only wine, spirits or beer. Ferland’s (2010: 74–75) data on alcohol imports suggest that the annual average consumption of wine per person between 1699 and 1754 stood at 14.4 L and that it was rising throughout the period. For the few years she has spirits (eau de vie) and rum (guildive, tafia) consumption, per capita consumption stood at 0.6 and 14.3 L per year, respectively. We must also consider home-made distillation of spirits from grains produced in Canada, as well as ciders, beers and bière d’épinette (made from the foliage of white spruces boiled in water with molasses or maple syrup) (Ferland 2010: 37–66). These are substantial quantities of alcohol representing close to 12% of income per capita as measured by Altman (1988: 702).Footnote 52 The basket computed by Allen implies a per capita consumption of wine equal to 51.375 L per year.Footnote 53 When I convert the imports of spirits into wine on the basis of the relative calorie content of each, I arrive at a wine-equivalent consumption of 54 L per year. Given that unknown but probably considerable quantities of grain-based beersFootnote 54 and bière d’épinette must be added, the level of alcohol consumption seems in line with the respectable basket but it is obvious that we cannot only choose one alcohol. As such, I opted to create allotments of 17.9 L for wine and 20 L for spirits (to include imports and domestic alcohols).

The quantity of meat in the respectable basket (26 kg) is inappropriately low for Canada. Generally above subsistence levels, the inhabitants did enjoy larger quantities of meat. Between 1713 and 1739, which were peaceful years, the average colonist consumed 42.5 kg of meat.Footnote 55 This is in line with Lewis and McInnis (1984: 56, 76–77) who found a production of 55 kg per person in Quebec in 1851. While these proportions are greater than in Allen’s basket, they are in line with those for Latin America where meat was inexpensive (especially relative to European countries) and constituted a sizable share of local diets (Abad et al. 2012: 152). For Canada, I opted for a quantity of 42.5 kg at the respectable level and I attribute a consumption of 10.4 kg of butter because I do not possess information about cheese.Footnote 56 Differences in calories were subtracted on proportional basis from the other grains contained in the basket.

The last substantive modification relates to the role of fuel. Normally, the bare bones basket assumes 2 million BTUs (MBTUs), while the respectable basket assumes 5 MBTUs—which is woefully insufficient given Canada’s harsh winters. Consumption figures are well above those levels: the household of an eighteenth-century priest is estimated to have required 25 cords of wood per year (Mousette 1983: 35), while that of a widow was equivalent to 20 cords of firewood (Ibid: 37). In his work, Greer (1985: 35) reports that a farm household in St-Ours (southeast of Montreal) consumed 25 cords of firewood in 1791. This suggest that households tended to consume somewhere between 20 and 25 cords which, given the modal household size of six individuals per household, is somewhere 3.33 and 4.17 cords per person.Footnote 57 The type of firewood is very rarely reported and, as testified by the work of Sweeny et al. (1988), all types of wood were used: maple, birch, oak, pine and beech. Thus, there is no way to assess the actual consumption in terms of BTUs. The only solution is to derive a range with pine (at 14.8 MBTUs per cord of 128 cubic feet) as the lower bound and oak (at 24.2 MBTUs per cord of 128 cubic feet) as the higher bound.Footnote 58 An annual household consumption of 20 cords was equal to somewhere between 18.48 MBTUs to 30.22 MBTUs per capita (assuming 6 persons household) per year and a consumption of 25 cords represented between 23.15 MBTUs and 37.84 MBTUs. These numbers are in line with numbers for the American colonies in the North, colonial households in Boston having required 30 cords of firewood per year in terms of consumption (Gordon 2005: 25), while students at Princeton and Harvard in the early nineteenth century were allotted 3 cords of firewood each (Cole 1970: 340). Fuel requirements in North America were much more considerable than in the Old World and I opted for a bare bones basket containing 20 MBTUs and a respectable basket containing 30 MBTUs. I feel that anything below those levels would have threatened survival.

In Table 7 at the end of the “Appendix,” readers are provided with the individual values of the respectable and bare bones basket (in livres). I also provide in Table 7 the values of the different baskets had I computed them following the basic Allen requirements at both the respectable (5 MBTU, 68.25 L of wine, 26 kg of meat and Allen quantities for all other food items) and the bare bones level (2 MBTU, 5 kg of meat and Allen quantities for all other food items).

Table 7 Prices of goods used for the welfare ratios, wages, costs of the different baskets and resulting welfare ratios

Regarding New England wages and prices

I used the same source as Allen et al. (2012a, b) (namely Main 1994) for the entire period. However, the wage rates for New England are different than those in the Allen et al. (2012a, b) file. The wage rates they used were taken from Main (1994), but they are systematically lower than hers (by roughly 20%) or those of other scholars (Vickers 1994: 248). The explanation for the difference appears to be an incorrect conversion in monetary units. Gloria Main quoted the wage rates per day in pences sterling rather than pences of the colonial currency (1994: notes on p. 46, notes in p. 48 and Table III). The two systems yield different silver equivalents. Converting Main’s data using sterling exchange rates into silver yields wages 20% above those of Allen et al. in their datasheets. However, when the colonial exchange rates are used, we arrive roughly at the values provided by Allen et al. which reinforces the plausibility of the use of the wrong conversion factor. This was confirmed in correspondence with Gloria Main.

In the bare bones basket, I also made a modification to the clothing item series. Colonists generally wore mixed garments, whose prices were lower than those suggested. Historian Weedon (1890 [2011]: 890) suggested that in 1713, one yard of plain cloth and one yard of checkered shirting both sold at 1.25 shillings. With one yard representing 0.9144 m, the price per meter stood at 1.367 shillings. Using the exchange rate of 3.7127 g of silver per shilling (Lindert and Williamson 2016), this means a price of 5.08 g per meter which was indexed to the price movements of linen in England using Clark (2005).

For the prices needed for the respectable basket, I used the same assumptions and interpolation methods as Allen et al. (2012b) where possible (candles, lamp oil, beans, butter and soap). For wheat prices, I used Weedon (1890 [2011]) and Cole (1938). Weedon (1890 [2011]) also provided rum prices. I assumed a constant cost of 6.12 g of silver for 52 eggs.

Tables of raw data

In Table 7, I provided the raw data used in this article. The prices of individual goods are provided as well as wage rates, the costs of the different bundles and the resulting welfare ratios.

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Geloso, V.J. Distinct within North America: living standards in French Canada, 1688–1775. Cliometrica 13, 277–321 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11698-018-0177-1

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  • Canadian economic history
  • Quebec economic history
  • Colonial origins of divergence
  • Living standards
  • Welfare ratios
  • Real wages

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  • N31
  • N91