Prof. Doug McCalla

Buying locally produced food and goods is often one of the goals of today’s environmentally conscious consumers, but was it in the past? We tend to imagine that farm families in the past were the stars of the buy-local ideal; that they were self-sufficient in providing for their own needs and might have bartered with neighbours for the few extra items they needed.

But how accurate is that belief? Prof. Doug McCalla, who recently retired as U of G’s Canada Research Chair in Rural History, explored the issue of local and imported goods sold in rural general stores in a presentation Jan. 18 as part of the Rural History Roundtable series.

McCalla actually developed the first Rural History Roundtable in 2003, and it has continued to be a popular annual event. Prof. Catharine Wilson, the current roundtable co-ordinator, says it gives grad students in rural history a chance to try out their research in front of an informed and friendly audience and gives the University a chance to bring in some of the foremost scholars in rural history from around Canada and the United States.

“The roundtable was originally funded through the Canada Research Chair program but is now funded by the Department of History,” she adds.

Wilson says McCalla’s work is interesting because “he challenges long-held myths about the simpler times of the past.”

But to challenge those myths, McCalla had to find a way to uncover how rural people really lived in Upper Canada. “It’s not easy to learn about the lives of ordinary people during that time, because they didn’t write much about how they lived,” he says. “We know lots about what the lieutenant governor and his wife had for dinner, but not about what the farmer down the road was eating.”

Yet, McCalla says evidence of everyday patterns can be discovered in the charge accounts that many people had at their local stores. The store owner listed what customers bought and noted the prices, and the people would pay when they could. Many of these lists have survived, and McCalla has used them to study what people were purchasing.

It turns out, he says, “the stores mainly existed to sell things that came from or through Britain:” cotton, tea, iron, rum and tobacco, among others. These imported products were the basis of the store’s stock. Those pre-Confederation farmers were not as invested in a buy-local economy as we might have imagined.

But that’s not the whole story. McCalla was also surprised to find that many locally produced items were purchased through the stores. “It might be thought that people would have bartered for anything they couldn’t grow or make themselves, but in fact there were many items ─ foods such as eggs and butter, lumber, fodder for animals, firewood and leather ─ that people bought through the store,” he says.

The most expensive and unlikely item? A pair of oxen. “The average store would not have oxen tied up out back for sale,” McCalla says, “so I’m not quite sure how this came about. The store, though, was also a source of local information about who had something to sell and who needed something. It’s possible that someone wanted to purchase the oxen from someone else, but didn’t have enough money, so they arranged to do it through the store’s charge account.”

These lists of items bought and sold also reveal the complexity of rural life in this era. “We tend to imagine that everyone was a farmer, but that isn’t so. Some people in the villages were skilled tradespeople who might not have been able to grow their own food or get firewood, for example, and it might have made sense for them to buy these items from the store.”

Others were just starting out as farmers; perhaps new to the community, they wouldn’t have been part of local networks of exchange and would have needed food and other supplies until their own crops were ready to harvest.

“Some stores had specialties, as well,” McCalla adds. “One store clearly had a lot of local whiskey in stock.”

Out of some 700 different products that he found on the various charge accounts, about 70 were locally produced. Tea was the most frequently purchased item. “In a largely local economy, there were many things that it was just better to import,” he says. “At any country museum, they’ll show you how people turned flax into linen. It’s a lot of work. Why would people do that when they could buy cotton from Britain cheaply and easily? We imagine that life was like Little House on the Prairie, and that people did everything for themselves. Really, they didn’t.”

The other side of the “local items sold in stores” topic, he adds, is imagining how the people acquired goods that were not listed in the charge accounts: things they either produced themselves or bought and sold through face-to-face interactions with their neighbours.

“These charge accounts provide helpful insights into how a local, rural economy actually functioned in the settlement era,” he says.

While many cravings were satisfied from the general store shelves ─ plenty of alcohol, tea and tobacco were sold ─ but one item that never appears on any of the charge account lists is chocolate. “Yes, it was a world without chocolate,” says McCalla.

The Rural History Roundtable series continues to the end of April. To review the list of speakers and topics, visit the Department of History website.