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Backwoods Consumers and Homespun Capitalists: The Rise of a Market Culture in Eastern Canada

Author(s):Craig, Béatrice
Reviewer(s):Gerriets, Marilyn

Published by EH.NET (January 2010)

B?atrice Craig, Backwoods Consumers and Homespun Capitalists: The Rise of a Market Culture in Eastern Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009. ix + 349 pp. $75 (cloth), ISBN: 974-0-8020-9317-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Marilyn Gerriets, Department of Economics, St. Francis Xavier University.

Backwoods Consumers is an excellent contribution to the literature exploring the social and economic structure of early settlements in North America. Craig studies the Madawaska region (in northwestern New Brunswick and northeastern Maine) from early settlement by Acadians and Canadiens in the late eighteenth century up to the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The book?s primary theme is the evolution of the relationship between rural people and markets. The theme is developed within the context of two literatures, the largely Canadian literature first dominated by the staples thesis and now exploring local exchange, and the largely American literature tracing the rise of market exchange and capitalism in early settlements. Her detailed description of the early process of settlement provides an excellent contribution to these literatures. The wealth and variety of source material enriches the study.

Madawaska was not as isolated as its location might suggest; settlers had connections through correspondence and travel that kept them aware of external market opportunities and of opportunities to settle elsewhere. Early settlers were drawn to the region by opportunities in the fur trade and on the excellent agricultural land along the Saint John River. Preference to live with people of their own culture also led Acadians to move to the area and Catholics from nearby parts of Quebec were comfortable to join them. Fur and wheat were the first goods exported from the region and from the earliest days settlers showed no reluctance to engage in market exchange. When rust and midges made wheat production impractical, farmers shifted to fodder crops for the timber shanty market. Fortunately, timber exports became viable in time to alleviate the difficulties caused by declining wheat production. Timber production created immigration, but an agricultural community was already well established before it began.

Local production of goods for local consumption was important. Sawmills built to produce lumber for export disappeared as soon as the timber industry declined, while custom saw mills providing boards for local construction persisted. Along with grist, carding and fulling mills, the custom mills provided a focal point for the emergence of villages. Craig?s sources enable her to determine that the charter families, the Acadians and Quebecois who first settled the region, invested in these mills. They carefully sought out land with water power when they acquired farm land, apparently recognizing the value of an opportunity to exploit water power with a mill.

Craig traces changes in patterns of consumption as well as in patterns of production. Initially, general store purchases were confined to inputs to production such as tools or cotton warps used in the weaving of homespun. By the early 1860?s new consumption patterns had emerged. Rather than acquiring a cotton gown ?for ever,? less durable items in the current style were desired. Young men purchased red flannel for shirts and black silk neckerchiefs. Tea, oil lamps and chamber pots became important household items. The ?world of goods? had clearly emerged by the 1860?s.

While her work clearly supports more recent Canadian research that stresses the importance of local exchange, Craig argues that the staples trades were important to the growth of the region. Timber workers? families provided good markets for a wide variety of agricultural goods. Access to the shanty market for fodder was very important to settlers? standard of living when surpluses of wheat could no longer be produced. The timber industry helped to provide the income that permitted the growth of consumption.

Craig?s pragmatism and common sense enables her to provide an accurate description of markets and of commercialization in Madawaska. Settlers eagerly engaged in market exchange from the first days of settlement; both store owners and farmers preferred payment in cash to payment in goods. Craig argues that Madawaskan residents did not enter markets to resist change, as others have argued, but they entered the market in order to become ?individualistic consumers.? The issue of the emergence of market exchange and of capitalism has been a contentious in the American literature. Craig argues that much of the contention has arisen from misconstruing definitions. She carefully sets out her own definitions of a capitalist and of capitalism, drawing on Fernand Braudel. I found no definition of capital, and she appears to equate financial assets with capital, an equivalence offensive to any economist. This economist finds Braudel?s definitions peculiar, and would prefer reliance on standard economics for a definition of capital, Karl Marx for a definition of capitalism and Karl Polanyi for discussion of the emergence of market institutions.

Better definitions might enable her to see more deeply into the extent and the limits of capitalism in Madawaska. Nonetheless she has done very well describing changes in the role of markets. In particular, she discusses how in the early days of settlement, patronage and government favoritism were important to securing access to farm land, access to locations for inns or trading posts and to government appointments. By the end of the period, political and economic activity had become more separate. To use Polanyi?s term, the economy was becoming disembeded from society at large.

The book is very rich and addresses many additional topics. Readers have good reason to pursue her discussion of the homespun textile industry, the divisions of Madawaskan society into groups defined by religion and date of settlement and the impact of the dispute over and the creation of a border between Maine and New Brunswick. The study is unique in its linking of individuals and families to the evolution of the economy and society. Craig has done an excellent job of examining the economic and social history of a neglected region.

Marilyn Gerriets, an economic historian and a professor in the Department of Economics at St. Francis Xavier University, Nova Scotia, is interested in the origins of differences in the paths of development of the Maritimes and Central Canada. She has written about agricultural resources and settlement, tariffs and trade and coal mining in Nova Scotia.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century