Images from the Library
“Their Station in Life”
Working during the Confederation Era (1840–1890)
“I have need of their assistance to live.”
Uttered by a mother whose daughters had just been dismissed from employment in a cotton mill, these words reflected the reality of most farming and working-class households during the Confederation era. These families depended on the paid and unpaid work of wives and children because, unlike middle-class families, one male breadwinner was not enough to make ends meet.
Most hardworking farmers owned a farm measuring approximately 40.5 hectares [100 acres] by the time they reached middle age. Aided by sons who began working alongside them from about the age of fourteen, they undertook a seasonal round of demanding tasks: preparing and planting the soil in spring, followed by cutting hay and harvesting crops in summer and fall.
Caring for livestock was a year-round responsibility, while jobs such as clearing land, digging drainage ditches, setting fences and cutting firewood were completed as time allowed. During the winter, some farmers and their sons earned cash by working in lumber camps, cutting timber and readying it for spring drives to sawmills.
The farmer’s wife and daughters ensured that the household ran smoothly and economically. Girls and women cared for younger children, prepared meals, washed and mended clothes, and tended the family’s vegetable garden. They helped the family economy by putting up produce for winter, turning fat from butchered animals into soap and candles, milking cows, making butter, and spinning yarn, which they wove or knitted into clothing and cloth. They also contributed to the family income by selling butter, eggs, yarn and other produce to earn extra dollars.
During the Confederation era, a strong back was the ticket for unskilled workers looking to get seasonal jobs as general labourers in cartage, construction or public works. By the same token, nimble fingers provided women and children with an entrée to low-paying factory employment in the clothing, shoemaking and tobacco industries.
Men who had the opportunity to learn a trade were better off, but they were vulnerable to wage cuts and unemployment. From the 1860s on, skilled workers banded together in increasing numbers to form unions and labour centrals, which fought to improve the pay and working conditions of their members.
Since the paid labour of the male head of a household was often insufficient, workers’ families relied on a combination of ways to make ends meet. In towns and cities, families fortunate enough to have a yard planted a vegetable garden and might keep a cow, a pig or some hens. Women could earn money from home by taking in washing, providing lodging for a boarder or two, or sewing. While some women working outside the home found factory employment, many more worked as domestic servants in middle-class homes, accounting for about one-third of female workers in 1871. Children earned small change running errands, shining shoes or selling newspapers, fruit, pencils, and other small items.
A Precarious Balance
For farming and working-class families, calamities such as a crop failure, unemployment, illness, injury or death could seriously disrupt the delicate balance of the family economy. If the crisis was short-lived, a family could turn to their meagre savings or extended family for help.
In more serious and prolonged cases, families faced severe hardship and possible breakdown. A recently widowed mother, unable to feed her children and pay the rent, might place her children with relatives or in an orphanage until she got back on her feet. Men who frequented taverns spent precious family income and often returned home with an abusive attitude. The social reform and anti-alcohol movements of the later nineteenth century arose out of a desire to alleviate the worst of these circumstances.