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The Use of Quantitative Micro-data in Canadian Economic History: A Brief Survey

Livio Di Matteo, Lakehead University


From a macro perspective, Canadian quantitative economic history is concerned with the collection and construction of historical time series data as well as the study of the performance of broad economic aggregates over time.2 The micro dimension of quantitative economic history focuses on individual and sector responses to economic phenomena.3 In particular, micro economic history is marked by the collection and analysis of data sets rooted in individual economic and social behavior. This approach uses primary historical records like census rolls, probate records, assessment rolls, land records, parish records and company records, to construct sets of socio-economic data used to examine the social and economic characteristics and behavior of those individuals and their society, both cross-sectionally and over time.

The expansion of historical micro-data studies in Canada has been a function of academic demand and supply factors. On the demand side, there has been a desire for more explicit use of economic and social theory in history and micro-data studies that make use of available records on individuals appeal to historians interested in understanding aggregate trends and reaching the micro-underpinnings of the larger macroeconomic and social relationships. For example, in Canada, the late nineteenth century was a period of intermittent economic growth and analyzing how that growth record affected different groups in society requires studies that disaggregate the population into sub-groups. One way of doing this that became attractive in the 1960’s was to collect micro-data samples from relevant census, assessment or probate records.

On the supply side, computers have lowered research costs, making the analysis of large data sets feasible and cost-effective. The proliferation of low cost personal computers, statistical packages and data spread-sheets has led to another revolution in micro-data analysis, as computers are now routinely taken into archives so that data collection, input and analysis can proceed even more efficiently.

In addition, studies using historical micro-data are an area where economic historians trained either as economists or historians have been able to find common ground.4 Many of the pioneering micro-data projects in Canada were conducted by historians with some training in quantitative techniques, much of which was acquired “on the job” by intellectual interest and excitement, rather than as graduate school training. Historians and economists are united by their common analysis of primary micro-data sources and their choice of sophisticated computer equipment, linkage software and statistical packages.

Background to Historical Micro-data Studies in Canadian Economic History

The early stage of historical micro-data projects in Canada attempted to systematically collect and analyze data on a large scale. Many of these micro-data projects crossed the lines between social and economic history, as well as demographic history in the case of French Canada. Path-breaking work by American scholars such as Lee Soltow (1971), Stephan Thernstrom (1973) and Alice Hanson Jones (1980) was an important influence on Canadian work. Their work on wealth and social structure and mobility using census and probate data drew attention to the extent of mobility — geographic, economic and social — that existed in pre-twentieth-century America.

However, Canadian historical micro-data work has been quite distinct from that of the United States, reflecting its separate tradition in economic history. Canada’s history is one of centralized penetration from the east via the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence waterway and the presence of two founding “nations” of European settlers – English and French – which led to strong Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions. Indeed, there was nearly 100 percent membership in the Roman Catholic Church for francophone Quebeckers for much of Canada’s history. As well, there is an economic reliance on natural resources, and a sparse population spread along an east-west corridor in isolated regions that have made Canada’s economic history, politics and institutions quite different from the United States.

The United States, from its early natural resource staples origins, developed a large, integrated internal market that was relatively independent of external economic forces, at least compared with Canada, and this shifted research topics away from trade and towards domestic resource allocation issues. At the level of historical micro-data, American scholars have had access to national micro-data samples for some time, which has not been the case in Canada until recently. Most of the early studies in Canadian micro-data were regional or urban samples drawn from manuscript sources and there has been little work since at a national level using micro-data sources. However, the strong role of the state in Canada has meant a particular richness to those sources that can be accessed and even the Census contains some personal details not available in the U.S. Census, such as religious affiliation. Moreover, earnings data are available in the Canadian census starting some forty years earlier than the United States.

Canadian micro-data studies have examined industry, fertility, urban and rural life, wages and labor markets, women’s work and roles in the economy, immigration and wealth. The data sources include census, probate records, assessment rolls, legal records and contracts, and are used by historians, economists, geographers, sociologists and demographers to study economic history.5 Very often, the primary sources are untapped and there can be substantial gaps in their coverage due to uneven preservation.

A Survey of Micro-data Studies

Early Years in English Canada

The fruits of early work in English Canada were books and papers by Frank Denton and Peter George (1970, 1973), Michael Katz (1975) and David Gagan (1981), among others.6 The Denton and George paper examined the influences on family size and school attendance in Wentworth County, Ontario, using the 1871 Census of Canada manuscripts. But it was Katz and Gagan’s work that generated greater attention among historians. Katz’s Hamilton Project used census, assessment rolls, city directories and other assorted micro-records to describe patterns of life in mid-nineteenth century Hamilton. Gagan’s Peel County Project was a comprehensive social and economic study of Peel County, Ontario, again using a variety of individual records including probate. These studies stimulated discussion and controversy about nineteenth-century wealth, inheritance patterns, and family size and structure.

The Demographic Tradition in French Canada

In French Canada, the pioneering work was the Saguenay Project organized by Gerard Bouchard (1977, 1983, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1998). Beginning in the 1970’s, a large effort has been expended to create a computerized genealogical and demographic data base for the Saguenay and Charlevoix regions of Quebec going back well into the nineteenth century. This data set, known now as the Balsac Register, contains data on 600,000 individuals (140,000 couples) and 2.4 million events (e.g. births, deaths, gender, etc…) with enormous social scientific and human genetic possibilities. The material gathered has been used to examine fertility, marriage patterns, inheritance, agricultural production and literacy, as well as genetic predisposition towards disease and formed the basis for a book spanning the history of population and families in the Saguenay over the period 1858 to 1971.

French Canada has a strong tradition of historical micro-data research rooted in demographic analysis.7 Another project underway since 1969 and associated with Bertrand Desjardins, Hubert Charbonneau, Jacques Légaré and Yves Landry is Le Programme de recherche en démographie historique (P.R.D.H) at the University of Montréal (Charbonneau, 1988; Landry, 1993; Desjardins, 1993). The database will eventually contain details on a million persons and their life events in Quebec between 1608 and 1850.

Industrial Studies

Only for the 1871 census have all of the schedules survived and the industrial schedules of that census have been made machine-readable (Bloomfield, 1986; Borsa and Inwood, 1993). Kris Inwood and Phyllis Wagg (1993) have used the census manuscript industrial schedules to examine the survival of handloom weaving in rural Canada circa 1870 (Inwood and Wagg, 1993). A total of 2,830 records were examined and data on average product, capital and month’s activity utilized. The results show that the demand for woolen homespun was income sensitive and that patterns of weaving by men and women differed with male-headed firms working a greater number of months during the year and more likely to have a second worker.

More recently, using a combination of aggregate capital market data and firm-level data for a sample of Canadian and American steel producers, Ian Keay and Angela Redish (2004) analyze the relationships between capital costs, financial structure, and domestic capital market characteristics. They find that national capital market characteristics and firm specific characteristics were important determinants of twentieth-century U.S. and Canadian steel firms’ financing decisions. Keay (2000) uses information from firms’ balance sheets and income accounts, and industry-specific prices to calculate labor, capital, intermediate input and total factor productivities for a sample of 39 Canadian and 39 American manufacturing firms in nine industries. The firm-level data also allow for the construction of nation, industry and time consistent series, including capital and value added. Inwood and Keay (2005) use establishment-level data describing manufacturers located in 128 border and near-border counties in Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Ontario to calculate Canadian relative to U.S. total factor productivity ratios for 25 industries. Their results illustrate that the average U.S. establishment was approximately 7% more efficient than its Canadian counterpart in 1870/71.

Population, Demographics & Fertility

Marvin McInnis (1977) assembled a body of census data on childbearing and other aspects of Upper Canadian households in 1861 and produced a sample of 1200 farm households that was used to examine the relationship between child-bearing and land availability. He found that an abundance of nearby uncultivated land did affect the probability of there being young children in the household but the magnitude of the influence was small. Moreover, the strongest result was that fertility fell as larger cities developed sufficiently close by for there to be a real influence by urban life and culture.

Eric Moore and Brian Osborne (1987) have examined the socio-economic differentials of marital fertility in Kingston. They related religion, birthplace, and age of mother, ethnic origin and occupational status to changes in fertility between 1861and 1881, using a data set of approximately 3000 observations taken from the manuscript census. Their choice of variables allows for the examination of the impact of both economic factors, as well as the importance of cultural attributes. William Marr (1992) took the first reasonably large sample of farm households (2,656) from the 1851-52 Census of Canada West and examined the determinants of fertility. He found fertility differences between older and more newly settled regions were influenced by land availability at the farm level but farm location, with respect to the extent of agricultural development, did not affect fertility when age, birthplace and religion were held constant. Michael Wayne (1998) uses the 1861 Census of Canada to look at the black population of Canada on the eve of the American Civil War. Meanwhile, George Emery (1993) helps provide an assessment of the comprehensiveness and accuracy of aggregate vital statistics in Ontario between 1869 and 1952 by looking at the process of recording vital statistics. Emery and Kevin McQuillan (1988) use case studies to examine mortality in nineteenth-century Ingersoll, Ontario.

Urban and Rural Life

A number of studies have examined urban and rural life. Bettina Bradbury (1984) has analyzed the census manuscripts of two working class Montreal wards, Ste. Anne and St. Jacques, for the years 1861, 1871 and 1881. Random samples of 1/10 of the households in these parts of Montreal were taken for a sample of nearly 11,000 individuals over three decades. The data were used to examine women and wage labor in Montreal. The evidence is that men were the primary wage earners but the wife’s contribution to the family economy was not so much her own wage labor, which was infrequent, but in organizing the economic life of the household and finding alternate sources of support.

Bettina Bradbury, Peter Gossage, Evelyn Kolish and Alan Stewart (1993) and Gossage (1991) have examined marriage contracts in Montreal over the period 1820-1840 and found that, over time, the use of marriage contracts changed, becoming a tool of a propertied minority. As well, a growing proportion of contract signers chose to keep the property of spouses separate rather than “in community.” The movement towards separation was most likely to be found among the wealthy where separate property offered advantages, especially to those engaged in commerce during harsh economic times. Gillian Hamilton (1999) looks at prenuptial contracting behavior in early nineteenth-century Quebec to explore property rights within families and finds that couples signing contracts tended to choose joint ownership of property when wives were particularly important to the household.

Chad Gaffield (1979, 1983, 1987) has examined social, family and economic life in the Eastern Ontario counties of Prescott-Russell, Alfred and Caledonia using aggregate census, as well as manuscript data for the period 1851-1881.8 He has applied the material to studying rural schooling and the economic structure of farm families and found systematic differences between the marriage patterns of Anglophones and Francophone with Francophone tending to marry at a younger average age. Also, land shortages and the diminishing forest frontier created economic difficulties that led to reduced family sizes by 1881. Gaffield’s most significant current research project is his leadership of the Canadian Century Research Infrastructure (CCRI) initiative, one of the country’s largest research projects. The CCRI is creating cross-indexed databases from a century’s worth of national census information, enabling unprecedented understanding of the making of modern Canada. This effort will eventually lead to an integrated set of micro-data resources at a national level comparable to what currently exist for the United States.9

Business Records

Company and business records have also been used as a source of micro-data and insight into economic history. Gillian Hamilton has conducted a number of studies examining contracts, property rights and labor markets in pre-twentieth century Canada. Hamilton (1996, 2000) examines the nature of apprenticing arrangements in Montreal around the turn of the nineteenth century, using apprenticeship contracts from a larger body of notarial records found in Quebec. The principal question addressed is what determined apprenticeship length and when the decline of the institution began? Hamilton finds that the characteristics of both masters and their boys were important and that masters often relied on probationary periods to better gauge a boy’s worth before signing a contract. Probations, all else equal, were associated with shorter contracts.

Ann Carlos and Frank Lewis (1998, 1999, 2001, 2002) access Hudson Bay Company fur trading records to study property rights, competition, and depletion in the eighteenth-century Canadian fur trade and their work represents an important foray into Canadian aboriginal economic history by studying role of aboriginals as consumers. Doug McCalla (2005, 2005, 2001) uses store records from Upper Canada to examine and understand consumer purchases in the early nineteenth century and gain insight into material culture. Barton Hamilton and Mary MacKinnon (1996) use the Canadian Pacific Railway records to study changes between 1903 and 1938 in the composition of job separations, and the probability of separation. The proportion of voluntary departures fell by more than half after World War I. Independent competing risk, piecewise-constant hazard functions for the probabilities of quits and layoffs are estimated. Changes in workforce composition lengthened the average worker’s spell, but a worker with any given set of characteristics was much more likely to be laid off after 1921, although many of these layoffs were only temporary.

MacKinnon (1997) taps into the CPR data again with a constructed sample of 9000 employees hired before 1945 that includes 700 pensioners and finds features of the CPR pension plan are consistent with economic explanations regarding the role of pensions. Long, continuous periods of service were likely to be rewarded and employees in the most responsible positions generally had higher pensions.

MacKinnon (1996) complements published Canadian nominal wage data by constructing a new hourly wage series, developed from firm records, for machinists, helpers, and laborers employed by the Canadian Pacific Railway between 1900 and 1930. This new evidence suggests that real wage growth in Canada was faster than previously believed, and that there were substantial changes in wage inequality. In another contribution, MacKinnon (1990) studies unemployment relief in Canada by examining relief policies and recipients and contrasting the Canadian situation with unemployment insurance in Britain. She finds demographic factors important in explaining who went on relief, with older workers, and those with large families most likely to be on relief for sustained periods. Another unique contribution to historical labor studies is Michael Huberman and Denise Young (1999). They examine a set of individual strike data of 1554 strikes for Canada from 1901 to 1914 and conclude that having international unions did not weaken Canada’s union movement and that they became part of Canada’s industrial relations framework.

The 1891 and 1901 Census

An ongoing project is the 1891 Census of Canada Project at the University of Guelph under Director Kris Inwood, which is making the information of this census available to the research public in a digitized sample of individual records from the 1891 census. The project is hosted by the University of Guelph, with support from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, the Ontario Innovation Trust and private sector partners. Phase 1 (Ontario) of the project began during the winter of 2003 in association with the College of Arts Canada Research Chair in Rural History. The Ontario project continues until 2007. Phase II began in 2005; it extends data collection to the rest of the country and also creates an integrated national sample. The database includes information returned on a randomly selected 5% of the enumerators’ manuscript pages with each page containing information describing twenty-five people. An additional 5% of census pages for western Canada and several large cities augment the basic sample. Ultimately the database will contain records for more than 350,000 people, bearing in mind that the population of Canada in 1891 was 3.8 million.

The release of the 1901 Census of Canada manuscript census has also spawned numerous micro-data studies. Peter Baskerville and Eric Sager (1995, 1998) have used the 1901 Census to examine unemployment and the work force in late Victorian Canada.10 Baskerville (2001a,b) uses the 1901 census to examine the practice of boarding in Victorian Canada while in another study he uses the 1901 census to examine wealth and religion. Kenneth Sylvester (2001) uses the 1901 census to examine ethnicity and landholding. Alan Green and Mary MacKinnon (2001) use a new sample of individual-level data compiled from the manuscript returns of the 1901 Census of Canada to examine the assimilation of male wage-earning immigrants (mainly from the UK) in Montreal and Toronto. Unlike studies of post-World War II immigrants to Canada, and some recent studies of nineteenth-century immigration to the United States, they find slow assimilation to the earnings levels of native-born English mother-tongue Canadians. Green, MacKinnon and Chris Minns (2005) use 1901 census data to demonstrate that Anglophones and Francophone had very different personal characteristics, so that movement to the west was rarely economically attractive for Francophone. However, large-scale migration into New England fitted French Canadians’ demographic and human capital profile.

Wealth and Inequality

Recent years have also seen the emergence of a body of literature by several contributors on wealth accumulation and distribution in nineteenth-century Canada. This work has provided quantitative measurements of the degree of inequality in wealth holding, as well as its evolution over time. Gilles Paquet and Jean-Pierre Wallot (1976, 1986) have examined the net personal wealth of wealth holders using “les inventaires après déces” (inventories taken after death) in Quebec during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. They have suggested that the habitant was indeed a rational economic agent who chose land as a form of wealth not because of inherent conservatism but because information and transactions costs hindered the accumulation of financial assets.

A. Gordon Darroch (1983a, 1983b) has utilized municipal assessment rolls to study wealth inequality in Toronto during the late nineteenth century. Darroch found that inequality among assessed families was such that the top one-fifth of assessed families held at least 65% of all assessed wealth and the poorest 40% never more than 8%, even though inequality did decline between 1871 and 1899. Darroch and Michael Ornstein (1980, 1984) used the 1871 Census to examine ethnicity, occupational structure and family life cycles in Canada. Darroch and Soltow (1992, 1994) research property holding in Ontario using 5,669 individuals the 1871 census manuscripts and find “deep and abiding structures of inequality” accompanied by opportunities for mobility.

Lars Osberg and Fazley Siddiq (1988, 1993) and Siddiq (1988) have examined wealth inequality in Nova Scotia using probated estates from 1871 and 1899. They found a slight shift towards greater inequality in wealth over time and concluded that the prosperity of the 1850-1875 period in Nova Scotia benefited primarily the Halifax- based merchant class. Higher levels of wealth were associated with being a merchant and with living in Halifax, as opposed to the rest of the province. Siddiq and Julian Gwyn (1992) used probate inventories from 1851 and 1871 to study wealth over the period. They again document a greater trend towards inequality, accompanied by rising wealth. In addition, Peter Wardhas collected a set of 196 Nova Scotia probate records for Lunenburg County spanning 1808-1922, as well as a set of poll tax records for the same location between 1791 and 1795.11

Livio Di Matteo and Peter George (1992, 1998) have examined wealth distribution in late nineteenth century Ontario using probate records and assessment roll data for Wentworth County for the years 1872, 1882, 1892 and 1902. They find a rise in average wealth levels up until 1892 and a decline from 1892 to 1902. Whereas the rise in wealth from 1872 to 1892 appears to have accompanied by a trend towards greater equality in wealth distribution, the period 1892 to 1902 marked a return to greater inequality. Di Matteo (1996, 1997, 1998, 2001) uses a set of 3,515 probated decedents for all of Ontario in 1892 to examine the determinants of wealth holding, the wealth of the Irish, inequality and life cycle accumulation. Di Matteo and Herb Emery (2002) use the 1892 Ontario data to examine life insurance holding and the extent of self-insurance as wealth rises. Di Matteo (2004, 2006) uses a newly constructed micro-data set for the Thunder Bay District from 1885-1920 consisting of 1,293 probated decedents to examine wealth and inequality during Canada’s wheat boom era. Di Matteo is currently using Ontario probated decedents from 1902 linked to the 1901 census and combined with previous data from 1892 to examine the impact of religious affiliation on wealth holding.

Wealth and property holding among women has also been a specific topic of research.12 Peter Baskerville (1999) uses probate data to examine wealth holding by women in the cities of Victoria and Hamilton between 1880 and 1901 and finds that they were substantial property owners. The holding of wealth by women in the wake of property legislation is studied by Inwood and Sue Ingram (2000) and Inwood and Sarah Van Sligtenhorst (2004). Their work chronicles the increase in female property holding in the wake of Canadian property law changes in the late nineteenth-century, Inwood and Richard Reid (2001) also use the Canadian Census to examine the relationship between gender and occupational identity.


The flurry of recent activity in Canadian quantitative economic history using census and probate data bodes well for the future. Even the National Archives of Canada has now made digital images of census forms available online as well as other primary records.13 Moreover, projects such as the CCRI and the 1891 Census Project hold the promise of new, integrated data sources for future research on national as opposed to regional micro-data questions. We will be able to see the extent of regional economic development, earnings and convergence at a regional level and from a national perspective. Access to the 1911 and future access to the 1921 Census of Canada will also provide fertile areas for research and discovery. The period between 1900 and 1921, spanning the wheat boom and the First World War, is particularly important as it coincides with Canadian industrialization, rapid economic growth and the further expansion of wealth and income at the individual level. Moreover, the access to new samples of micro data may also help shed light on aboriginal economic history during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, as well as the economic progress of women.14 In particular, the economic history of Canada’s aboriginal peoples after the decline of the fur trade and during Canada’s industrialization is an area where micro-data might be useful in illustrating economic trends and conditions.15


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1 The helpful comments of Herb Emery, Mary MacKinnon and Kris Inwood on earlier drafts are acknowledged.

2 See especially Mac Urquhart’s spearheading of the major efforts in national income and output estimates. (Urquhart, 1986, 1993)

3 “Individual response” means by individuals, households and firms.

4 See Gaffield (1988) and Igartua (1988).

5 The Conference on the Use of Census Manuscripts for Historical Research held at Guelph in March 1993 was an example of the interdisciplinary nature of historical micro-data research. The conference was sponsored by the Canadian Committee on History and Computing, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the University of Guelph. The conference was organized by economist Kris Inwood and historian Richard Reid and featured presentations by historians, economists, demographers, sociologists and anthropologists.

6 The Denton/George project had its origins in a proposal to the Second Conference on Quantitative Research in Canadian Economic History in 1967 that a sampling of the Canadian census be undertaken. Denton and George drew a sample from the manuscript census returns for individuals for 1871 that had recently been made available, and reported their preliminary findings to the Fourth Conference in March, 1970 in a paper that was published shortly afterwards in Histoire sociale/Social History (1970). Mac Urquhart’s role here must be acknowledged. He and Ken Buckley were insistent that a sampling of Census manuscripts would be an important venture for the conference members to initiate.

7 Also, sources such as the aggregate census have been used to examine fertility by Henripin (1968) and mortality by Bourbeau and Legaré (1982)).

8 Chad Gaffield, Peter Baskerville and Alan Artibise were also involved in the creation of a machine-readable listing of archival sources on Vancouver Island known as the Vancouver Islands Project (Gaffield, 1988, 313).

9 See Chad Gaffield, “Ethics, Technology and Confidential Research Data: The Case of the Canadian Century Research Infrastructure Project,” paper presented to the World History Conference, Sydney, July 3-9, 2005.

10 Baskerville and Sager have been involved in the Canadian Families Project. See “The Canadian Families Project”, a special issue of the journal Historical Methods, 33 no. 4 (2000).

11 See Don Paterson’s Economic and Social History Data Base at the University of British Columbia at

12 Examples of other aspects of gender and economic status in a regional context ar e covered by Muise (1991), Myers (1994) and Seager and Perry (1997).

13 See

14 See for example the work by Gerhard Ens (1996) on the Red River Metis.

15 Hamilton and Inwood (2006) have begun research into identifying the aboriginal population in the 1891 Census of Canada.

Citation: Di Matteo, Livio. “The Use of Quantitative Micro-data in Canadian Economic History: A Brief Survey”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. January 27, 2007. URL