Academic journal article Early American Studies

Merchant and Plebeian Commercial Knowledge in Montreal and Quebec, 1760-1820

Academic journal article Early American Studies

Merchant and Plebeian Commercial Knowledge in Montreal and Quebec, 1760-1820

Article excerpt

The stereotypical French Canadian is represented during the Lower Canadian Rebellion of 1837-38 dressed in his étoffe du pays (homespun), blue capot (knitted hat), and ceinture fléchée (arrow-patterned sash). This portrayal of French Canadian habitants persisted well into the nineteenth century, as is illustrated in the renowned work of Cornelius Krieghoff, whose paintings continued this folkloric presentation of French Canadians. Indeed, the concept of the French Canadian people as a peasantry mired in the past continued into the twentieth century and was articulated both by antimodernists in Quebec, such as Clarence Gagnon, and by social scientists in North America, such as Horace Miner and Everett C. Hughes.1

Other than these artistic renditions of French Canadians, we know relatively little about what they looked like in the eighteenth century, although a 1785 advertisement in the Montreal Gazette, one of Quebec's two bilingual newspapers, seeking to recapture three fugitive felons, furnishes some clues. Two of the men who escaped from jail, Antoine Gosselin and Caron Vivert, were clothed in traditional dress, namely, blanket coats and Canadian "mugusins" (moccasins).2 Their trousers, however, were not household productions but were made of osnaburg cloth, conventionally worn by slaves in the United States. The conclusion of the advertisement presents a very different portrayal of French Canadians, one suggesting a quite dissimilar relationship with the expanding commercial empire of Britain. It is clear that their comrade J. B. LaMontagne had already acquired the new values of Anglophone culture. In the first place, he wore European shoes, white stockings, black breeches and waistcoat, a striped cotton shirt with ruffles, and a black silk cravat-ready-made luxury goods manufactured in England. More significantly, the legal authorities who wrote the advertisement also conveyed the assimilative power of British fashions by stating that the runaway felon also spoke English.3

The discursive trope of the French Canadian dressed in his blue capot and étoffe du pays was not a descriptor of how French Canadians actually dressed; rather, it was deployed for polemical purposes, as a means to demean Canadians and portray them as immiserated cultural "others" who were marginal to the modernizing modalities of commerce. As the advertisement for the escaped felons suggests, dressing in luxury imports from Britain was a mode of disguise. This was increasingly understood by French Canadians such as Hypolite Caban, who sought to erase his class and ethnic origins, for after selling stolen goods he immediately set about having a new suit made in the latest English fashion.4

While it is true that well into the nineteenth century habitants such as Louis Durand dressed entirely in clothing of "domestic manufacture," and some farmers' wives may have continued to wear clogs in the fields,5 there is also compelling evidence in the depositions from the criminal courts of Quebec that indicates a large proportion of French Canadians participating in trans-Atlantic commerce that had reached deep into the Quebec countryside by the early nineteenth century. Rural knowledge, values, and desires had been altered accordingly. As household manufacture of clothing, shoes, and cloth continued within many rural French Canadian homes, an article penned in the Quebec Gazette in 1767 recommended the continuing household production of homespun, as a means not to resist British imports but to produce sufficient cash to pay for imported British ready-made goods.6

The idea that there might be a counternarrative to that of French Canadians as autarchic peasants is borne out by the rich and extensive court records in Quebec that show a slow but steady incorporation of French Canadians and other plebeians into the world of goods. By the turn of the nineteenth century it was not uncommon for hairdressers like Constant Continue to own several expensive watches, for black servants like Robert Thompson to express modern notions of comfort and style that compelled him to steal clothing that "fit him well," or for indigenous men like Grand Blanc, a member of the Saulteaux nation, to view hunting as a means to buy new clothing rather than to feed his starving family. …

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