Wages in New France, 1700-1739

In collecting price data for New France which is a chapter in my thesis, I discovered data on wages during the era of French rule. Most of the existing data about wages concerns skilled labour, which was scarce and growing scarcer as the colony deurbanized from 1700 to 1760. Although the data I collected does not specify always what was the labour employed, the Séminaire de Québec (an institution operated by religious officials which kept very exhaustive account books) mostly hired labourers on the farms it owned and individuals who also possessed farms. In short, this was actually closer to non-specialized labour and more representative of what work individuals who shifted labour inputs between farming and other complementary activities. This dataset contained 423 observations of wage paid from 1700 to 1739. These are 423 observations spread over three types of labour duration (daily, monthly, annual).The largest sample comes from annual observations which was often contracted for transporting for the séminaire, labouring and plowing fields, clearing land, building fences etc. The annualized data is probably the most reliable. However, the data collection is not finished especially since I have yet to complete the account books after 1728. At present, all data that is annual and prior to 1728 is probably the best in the sample (I will present finalized results when completed).

This is a small sample, I wish I had a larger one, but it is at least indicative of what non-specialized workers were paid and the overall population was already very small (in 1739, there were less than 50,000 souls in the colony). However, this sample could be useful in the future in order to derive better estimates of output per capita in the colony and measure the economic growth of the colony (or at least possess a counter-reference point to confirm other trends). The graph below illustrates the index of nominal wages. 


If we attempt to use the price index I constructed in New France (see here), we can obtain a better image of how real wages evolved in the colony. The intesting result is what happens to wages from 1710 to 1728. These are the years of the disastrous Walker expedition in Quebec (a failed British invasion), the period of lax monetary policy of the french administration (when it issued notes signed on playing cards) and the post-war adjustments. As one can see, real wages fell considerably from 1710 to 1719 and then rebounded to very high levels by 1728 (which were well above the 1703 levels).


This leads me to a huge question, if wages were increasing in the postwar period (and according to other sources, wages in skilled crafts were also increasing), why would people resort to farming (land plowed increased much faster than population growth) and exit the cities where higher real wages could be commanded? I have a feeling that, if I am forced to ask this question, individuals were probably resorting to second-best options to farm industriously (and not productively since agricultural productivity was declining in the years of french rule).

I think that these confirm the implication I underlined in my working paper on prices in New France. I underlined that relative to domestic non-agricultural goods, the purchasing power of agricultural produces like wheat were barely holding their ground and others like oats and peas were clearly loosing ground.  Meanwhile, relative to the prices of imported goods (over which Quebec was merely a price-taker and possessed no influence over their fluctuations), wheat actually stayed stable or increased its purchasing power:

The share of the labour force operating in non-agricultural venues has a strong impact in the determination of prices for non-agricultural domestically produced goods. However, it does not have any effect on the price of foreign goods especially since Quebec was a very small market with very little or no influence on foreign prices. In this situation, the deterioration in the relative purchasing power of wheat to other domestic goods indicates the possibility that the agricultural labour force was increasing rapidly at the expense of other sectors that would have to pay higher wages to attract workers in their industries. Normally, higher wages in domestic industries should have eventually attracted workers to non-agricultural venues of employment and the economy should have grown increasingly more specialized. Yet, this is not what happened since the population abandoned cities in favour of the hinterland and increased the surface of land they plowed at the expense of productivity. The concurring trends described above in line with this logic suggest that what was happening in Quebec was a “second-best” approach to optimizing living standards. In short, the colonists in New France farmed wheat industriously even if the marginal productivity of each additional input was declining.

I think that the annual wage data confirm this instinct, albeit imperfectly. They confirm the fact that wages were higher in city and were growing.


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