Grassroots Consumption: Ontario Farm Families’ Consumption Practices, 1900-45

by Andrea M Gal

Institution: Wilfrid Laurier University
Year: 2016
Keywords: rural history; everyday life; agrarian history; consumption; textiles; food; Cultural History; History; History of Gender; Social History
Posted: 02/05/2017
Record ID: 2083915
Full text PDF: http://scholars.wlu.ca/etd/1807


Popular culture and academic perceptions typically view farmers of the past in one of two ways. On the one hand, we tend to emphasize their roles as producers of agricultural commodities, and marginalize or underemphasize their roles as consumers. On the other, we might believe that farmers were simply the passive recipients of broader societal trends and developments, and think that they followed in the footsteps of their urban counterparts. A small but growing number of scholars are engaging with these views, as they examine the consumption practices of rural North America. This historiography, however, is largely centered in the American context, and the key works north of the border concentrate on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Rural residents, however, continued to account for a sizable minority of the Canadian population into the mid-twentieth century. In order to begin to redress this gap, this study focuses on Ontario from 1900 to 1945. In terms of geographical location, Ontario is a logical choice, as it had the largest rural population of all the provinces in this period, and also had the most occupied farms. In contrast to the tendency to focus on broad, overarching sources, this study builds on the historiographical push to search for the voices of consumers. Specifically, it analyzes diaries and account books kept by farm families in the prime agricultural areas of Ontario. This central source base is supplemented by a range of other primary sources, including memoirs, the farm press, and the annual reports of the Women’s Institute, an influential rural women’s organization. The study argues that these families blended a myriad of provisioning practices, including household production, local exchange, participation in co-operative ventures, and formal purchasing to acquire the food and textiles they desired for their households. Their purchases document their connections to a complex marketplace, and demonstrate that farm families were active and discerning shoppers. Their decisions were shaped by seasonal, individual, and familial factors. Specifically rural consumption practices thus existed into mid-twentieth-century Ontario.