Prices and wages in New France, 1688 to 1760

As I am nearing the completion of my doctoral thesis, I have begun to submit articles and share my data concerning the economy of French Canada prior to 1760. Obviously, this means that I should put up a “disclaimer” regarding the data as well as details regarding that data. Those can now be found here.


All prices are collected from account books of the Séminaire de Québec and from the Ursulines de Québec. Wages are also collected from these sources. All prices were reported in monnoye du pays – an accounting unit of money that was 25% inferior to the monnoye de France until 1720, after which date the two became identical. The prices of imported and manufactured goods were very often reported as the goods imported by the congregations for the benefits of their pupils, priests and nuns. The prices of agricultural and domestically produced goods tended to stem from the accounts related to the farms, estates and mills owned by these religious congregations. Overall, there were 27 goods for which reliable estimates of prices could be derived: wheat, flour, hay, bran, oats, eggs, socks, salt, codfish, peas, nails, shoes, savage shoes, lighting oil, firewood, wood planks, tobacco, beef, butter, lard, religious candles, wine, spirits, cloth, olive oil, soap, and eels. There were other goods, such as pepper, coal, wax, paper, molasses, glass panes, barley, sugar, guildive (rum from the French West Indies), vinegar, and iron, that were not reported continuously enough to be included in the construction of this price index, but that could, nonetheless, also be instructive. From 1688 to 1740, there were 1,431 possible data points for the above-mentioned 27 goods. Out of these data points, only 48 were missing, i.e. 3.35 % of the total. Most came from tobacco (8 missing), while the rest were evenly distributed. From 1740 to 1760—years marked by war and inflation as a result of monetary policy—there were 20 goods that were reliably collected and that represent a potential for 420 observations. Out of these, 70 data points were missing and needed to be imputed, i.e. 16.7% of the total in this 21-year period. The method used to compensate for missing data points was as follows. I took the price of these goods relative to that of wheat per five-year period (except for the periods 1688 to 1694 and 1755 to 1760) and took the average over the period to complete the gaps. The interpolation for candles and cloth was different, however. The majority of the missing observations past 1740 come from these two goods. Candles prices were accurately reported from 1688 to the 1720s. After that point, the observations become fewer and farther between, but observations for tallow continue. Simultaneously, we have long series of prices for religious candles (cierges). The difference between the chandelle and the cierge is that the former was made out of tallow, whereas the second was made with yellow wax, which was more expensive. Throughout the period, their evolution overlaps and they move quite similarly (at different levels). In the years where data was obtained for both goods, the price of candles averaged 19.92% of the price of cierges. Since tallow, candles and cierges are all products that can act as the basket of illuminates, we relied on tallow and candles (although the movements of cierges are similar, which is reassuring) to create a unified series. With regards to clothing, prices are reported sporadically after 1740. This is not the case with socks and shoes, which continue to be reported with reliable frequency. From 1688 to 1740, the price of clothing moves in the same broad direction and amplitude as the price of shoes and socks. Hence, the movements of sock prices past 1740 are given to the price of cloth.

Prices for the same months of every year were not available, so I recorded observations for all goods and services found, and a maximum of five price quotations per year were recorded. The reason for this is that, in numerous instances, prices were reported but not the month of the transaction. Although imperfect, this method of collection compares very well with the few existing datasets of prices. For example, I continued collection of wheat prices up to 1770 in order to compare with the source provided by Ouellet, Hamelin and Chabot (1982), which starts in 1760. The prices line up nearly perfectly and move in the same direction, with the exception of the year 1760. The same happens in terms of the movement of raw cloth with the prices reported by Egnal (1998) and with the prices for firewood collected from Richard (1973). Although the vast majority of the data comes from the more detailed and richer sources associated with the Séminaire de Québec, it is worth pointing out that the prices for the two sources move in the same way and at the same level, which points to the fact that using the two sources in combination is not a problematic approach.

Measurements were a considerable problem. Rousseau (1983) provided equivalences in his work on the Augustine congregation that ran the hospital in Quebec City. These are illustrated in Table 1 below. One should be very careful not to confuse the French livre and the English pound. Although the two are linguistically identical (livre in French means pound in English), they represent different weights in grams. The French livre (translation for pound) carries 489.5 grams, against 453.6 grams for the English pound, a 7.91% difference.

Table 5: Bare bones welfare ratios between Nova Scotia and New France

Liquids (spirits, wine, burning oil) Pot (one pot = 1.9 liters) 2 Pintes = 1 pot

Barrique = 120 pots

Baril = 35 to 40 pots

Velte = 4 pots

Quart = 50 pots

Tonneau = 4 barriques

Liquids (olive oil) Livre (489.5 grams) Baril = 80 pounds

Pot = 1.9 liters

1 liter = 967.88 g

Grains and others (wheat, oats, bran, flour, peas, salt) Minot (one minot = 1.1107 bushels) Setier = 156 liters

1 minot = 39.25 liters

1 minot of wheat = 60 livres

Pochetée ≈ 1 minot

1 barrique of salt = 6 minots

Lard and beef Livre (489.5 grams) Baril (lard) = 150 livres

Baril (beef) = 200 livres

Codfish Poignée (one poignée = 2 codfish) Quintal = 72 codfishes

Average net weight of a codfish = 5.107 livres

Cloth Aune Aune = 1.3 yard

Yard = 0.9144 meter

Source: François Rousseau. 1983. L’œuvre de Chère en Nouvelle-France : Le régime des malades à l’hôtel-Dieu de Québec. Québec Presses de l’Université Laval, p.394-396; Christoph F. Grieb and James Oehlschläger. 1857. A Dictionary of the English and German Languages, with a Synopsis (…), Vol 2. Philadelphia, PA: John Meif, p. 1132.

As for the wage data, figure 1 illustrates the distribution of the data collected. Monthly and annual wages are not discussed here because they are few in numbers and the nature of the work for which they were given is not always specified. Moreover, they were often indentured workers with payment-in-kinds that were not specified. The daily wages are much cleaner. Very rarely were those wages associated with payment in kind, so we have very little problems arising from underestimated wage levels. When they were, the account books added the notice of “et nourry” (and fed) to the wage rate, or mentioned a specific item that was offered. Some of the tasks of the workers were identified through their surnames (Masson meant mason, while Meunier meant miller). Most of the time, the tasks were specified. When they were not, it was possible to use the Séminaire’s indexed name cards to find who these individuals were, allowing us to complete the information about each observation. Like the prices, the wages were reported in monnoye du pays. The early data for carpenters is missing for 1688 and 1689. The value observed for 1690 was attributed to these. The same problem was observed for 1688 with unskilled wages. I attributed the 1689 value. All other subsequent interpolations, which are very rare for unskilled workers but not for carpenters, were made using the MATLAB software and the “iterpl” function from the set of the 1-D interpolation methods. The option “spline” was used for the method of interpolation. This option represents the piecewise cubic spline interpolation method as in de Boor using not-a-knot end conditions. The usage of the piecewise treatment helps to avoid Runge’s phenomenon of oscillation of polynomials of higher degrees and decreases the interpolation error compared to linear or simple polynomial interpolation methods (de Boor 2001:23). The interpolation has been kindly provided thanks to the help of Vadim Kufenko of Hohenheim University’s department of economics.


Prices for England, Paris and Strasbourg were collected from Allen (2001). The same is true for wages from England and Paris. The same original source for Strasbourg was used (Hanauer 1878), but with the substantial modifications discussed above. The wages for Boston were taken from Main (1994) and converted into grams of silver using the silver conversions proposed by Lindert and Williamsom (2014), which yielded similar rates of wages as the silver conversion for London proposed by Allen (2001). A greater discussion of the Boston wages is provided in the text. The wage rates for Philadelphia are derived from Gary Nash (1979: 392-394) and the values for 1720 to 1726 have been interpolated using the 1727 value. For Boston and Philadelphia, we used the same methods and sources of interpolations and computations as Allen et al. (2012), barring the following exceptions: the price of maize was computed the same way that Allen et al. did. The price of wheat was interpolated according to moving average of two periods were missing up to 1721. After 1721, wheat prices for Boston follow the wholesale price movements proposed by Arthur Cole (1938). We used the same weight conversions as Allen et al. (2012). For firewood, there would be too many missing observations had we used Allen’s method. We proceeded by taking Cole’s data for staves in Philadelphia (available after 1721) assuming that prices for firewood follow those of staves after 1721. Prior to 1721, linear interpolation was used. That series was used both for Boston and Philadelphia. Allen and al. did not possess clothing prices prior to 1747 in the American colonies. They assume a constant price up to 1753. They mention that “most cloth was imported from England and could be transported to Massachussets, Pennsylvania and Maryland at similar cost” (2012: 21). Yet, the price level they compute seems to be somewhat too high. Colonists tended to wear mixed garments of clothing, whose prices tended to be lower than those suggested. The historian William B. Weedon (1890: 890) suggested that in 1713, one yard of plain cloth and one yard of checkered shirting all sold at 1.25 shillings. Given that one yard represents 0.9144 meter, it means that the price per meter stood at 1.367 shillings. Using the exchange rate of 3.7127 grams of silver per shilling proposed by Lindert and Dietrich, this means a price of 5.08 grams per meter. This price for 1713 was indexed to the price movements of linen in England using Clark (2005). This results in a price for clothing closer to the reality of consumers.

Finally, with regards to the conception of the baskets, one would normally have preferred to include bread, but bread prices were not available for New France. Hence, we fell back on wheat and adjusted the basket as a result. The conversion of calories from minot of wheat to kilograms followed table 1 above and the energetic values supplied by Dessureault (2005: 265). A minot of oats was 34 pounds, while a minot of wheat weighed 60 pounds. But a minot of wheat yielded 96,728 calories and one of oats yielded 60,509 calories. Considering that this is a unit of volume of 39.25 liters, these did not necessarily have similar weights. One minot of oats weighed 34 pounds, one minot of wheat weighed 60.7 pounds and one minot of peas weighed 60 pounds. This meant 395.5 grams of oats per liter, 706.16 grams per liter for wheat and 698.01 grams per liter of peas. An adjustment for losses in the transformation of wheat into bread has been factored in, which explains the higher wheat figure in the respectable basket. The bare bones assumes that oats was simply eaten as porridge (known as gruau in New France), which is why the quantity is not adjusted.


Allen, Robert. 2001. “The great divergence in European wages and prices from the Middle Ages to the First World War” Explorations in economic history, Vol.38, no.4, pp.411-447.

Allen, Robert, Tommy Murphy and Eric Schneider. 2012. “The Colonial Origins of the Divergence in the Americas: A Labor Market Approach”, Journal of Economic History, Vol. 72, no. 4, pp.863-94.

de Boor, Carl. 2001. A Practical Guide to Splines (Revised Edition), New York: Springer.

Clark, Gregory. 2005. “The condition of the working class in England, 1209-2004”, Journal of Political Economy, vol.113, no.6, pp.1307-1340.

Cole, Arthur H. 1938. Wholesale Commodity Prices in the United States, 1700 -1861, Statistical Supplement, Actual Wholesale Prices of Various Commodities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Egnal, Marc. 1998. New World Economies: The Growth of the Thirteen Colonies and Early Canada. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hanauer, Charles Auguste. 1878. Études économiques sur l’Alsace ancienne et moderne (denrées et salaires). Paris : Société industrielle de Mulhouse.

Lindert, Peter and Jeffrey Williamson. 2014. American Colonial Incomes, 1650-1774. Cambridge, MA : National Bureau of Economic Research.

Nash, Gary B. 1979. Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness, and the Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ouellet, Fernand, Jean Hamelin and Richard Chabot. 1982. “Les prix agricoles dans les villes et les campagnes du Québec d’avant 1850: aperçus quantitatifs” Histoire Sociale / Social History, vol. 15, no. 29, pp. 83-128.

Richard, Claude. 1973. L’industrie du bois en Nouvelle-France au 18ème siècle. Master’s Thesis, Department of History, University of Montreal.

Rousseau, François. 1983. L’œuvre de Chère en Nouvelle-France : Le régime des malades à l’hôtel-Dieu de Québec. Québec Presses de l’Université Laval.

Weedon, William Babcock. 1890 [2011]. Economic and Social History of New England, 1620-1789. London: British Library Historical Print Editions.

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