Saturday, July 18, 2015

Cost of Living 1880-1920


Read Threshold Girl about a Life in Canada in the Laurier Era. On Amazon.


Electric fixtures: 1920 Eaton's Catalogue

Norman Nicholson, of Richmond, Quebec started keeping track of his expenditures in 1881, two years before he married (with 10 cents spent on phrenology and 10 cents for a peek into a telescope, 25 cents for a bottle of musk and 09 for saltpetre (sic) 10 cents for a straw hat, 40 cents for a pair of drawers, 1.25 for a shirt and 55 for one silk handkerchief and 14.00 for a suit of clothes or soot of clowes as he wrote; 25 cents for a shave and a haircut and 50 cents to Masonic dinner and 2.00 to race pool.) until December 1921, a couple of months before he died.

It's fitting, as the year 1922, the year my own father was born, is considered by some as the birth of the modern age with the publication of Ullysses and The Waste Land.

If I compare the 1915-1921 household lists to the household lists from the 1880's, I don't see a lot of difference in what was purchased to eat. This is proof that housewives like Margaret weren't keen to change their ways. Margaret was so proud of her abilities as a cook and baker, why would she? She had her recipes (neatly locked in her head) and she kept to them.


The direct mail 3 part flyer sent through mail in 1916 in Richmond, 


Now, I must admit, I jumped the gun about Crisco. In an earlier post I wrote that Margaret received a 1916 advert for a new product, Crisco shortening, but didn't use it, and I had her 1917 butter bill to prove it! True, there are huge butter bills during the war, but in 1918 Norman started making entries for '1 pail of domestic shortening 1.00.' Butter was bought again in 1920, at great expense.

Anyway, the Nicholsons were living in 'genteel poverty' in 1920. Norman was still looking for work, so perhaps that's why there aren't any entries for newfangled things like wax cylinders for the Victrola.

The few 'new' items on the war time list, 2 cans of Campbell's soup, entered once, and can of tomato soup entered once, box of corn flakes (oh oh) toilet paper 10 cents (which makes me wonder what they used before) olive oil! (considered medicinal back then as today) a duster coat, which is a coat to wear over clothes when driving in a car (for a woman) and auto hire, instead of horse hire. Once.

(As it was, Margaret's grandchild, Marion Blair Wells, my late mother-in-law, born 1917, fed her own kids nothing but canned stuff, vegetables, soups, and the other famous fake food brands of the 60's. )


The biggest change, in the Nicholson household lists between 1885 and 1920, is in fruits purchased. In the 1920 period there are purchases of pears, peaches, and grapefruit and grapes to add to the earlier purchases of bananas, oranges, plums and berries up the ying yang. (For preserves). It seems strange to me that bananas were eaten as early as 1885. (And they liked bananas.) This might be a reflection of the fact Jamaica was a British holding.

Yes, of course, there are plenty of 'new' charges: electricity and phone bills including long distance to Montreal, to talk to Marion Blair, their daughter, 35 to 40 cents. Oddly, a phone call to Lingwick, around the corner, cost the same. Tighsolas was electified in 1913, and instead of buying coal oil and lamp chimneys (which must have gotten broken a lot) they bought electric fixtures.

But one thing they continued to buy over and over throughout the decades: whisks. Margaret must spent a lot of time whisking to wear out so many. (They didn't have built-in obsolescence back then) No, you wouldn't have wanted to arm wrestle with Margaret or any Mom in those days! I made a cake 'from scratch' the other day and had to pause 10 times as I beat the batter. And I do weights.

I took the picture above from the 1920 Fall Winter Eaton's catalogue online. It is 600 pages. The similar one for 1889 is 260 pages. But the 1920 one still starts with women's clothes and ends with horse products. No automotive products yet!!



Some things don't change. Furnishings for instance. The fixtures above look no different from ones you see today in stores. Even Ikea didn't change the style too much.

And I have a living room full of furnishings from the turn of the last century. They look OK, although they clash a bit with the Big Screen HD TV -four years old and already a relic, and the various laptops and iPods and now my Kindle which are strewn about.

Anyway, this is nothing new, that older people are loathe to change their buying habits. Advertisers know that TV shows all want to attract young men, 18-35, who, they say, have little brand loyalty. Just show them a gorgeous girl and they'll buy anything :)