The Family Life of Working-Class Canadiens during the 1930s and early 1940s

Family life of Canadiens in the 1930s and early 1940s was marked by a rigid gendered division of labor. This was an immutable natural law: while a male identity depended upon his ability to materially ‘support’ his wife and children, a married woman’s role was to bear and raise children and to take care of the household which now became her designated workplace as it was not socially acceptable for a woman to work outside of her home.

However, against the backdrop of the severe economic depression of the 1930s and the unprecedented rise of unemployment levels, the sharp need for supplementary income has permitted certain accommodations within this rigid breadwinner/homemaker model.

For instance, housewives living in the industrial capital of the Quebec Province, Montreal, which in the 1930s housed around 60% of unemployed Quebecois[1], were forced to transform “their feminine expertise into hard cash”[2]: they worked as domestics, sold their home-made cuisine, managed family budgets and saved money by sewing clothes, buying cheaper foods and searching for cheaper yet cozy apartments.

Introduction

The image portrays a stereotypical gendered division of labor. Images of a woman and a man separated by a dashed line are presented in the middle of an image. A woman is surrounded by stereotypical 'female' activities and likes, such as house, arts, cocktails, flowers and makeup, while a man is surrounded by typical 'male' activities and likes, such as money, gym, computer, mental work, fixing and mechanics.
Credits: jiahao.

This article will argue that despite the traditional rigidity of gendered division of labor within the household, the oftentimes disregarded and unseen women’s domestic work was exceptionally crucial for cushioning the miserable economic situation faced by families during (and after) the Great Depression of the 1930s.

I will focus upon the effects of the Great Depression and the Second World War (1939-1945) on the private sphere of impoverished working-class families living in Quebec slums.

Sex-Based Division of Labor Within the Household

The photograph of newlyweds' holding hands.
Credits: Éducaloi.

Until the mid 1970s, French Canadian families were based on marriage, since a man and a woman could live together “only if they were bound by a legal union.”[3] It was estimated that around 90 percent of French Canadians born after 1900 and before 1950 got married and most of them were separated by death.[4]

This was mainly due to the strong regional influence of the Catholic Church, which did not accept nor tolerate divorces[5]: they were considered illegal and immoral.[6]

According to the 1930 The Canadian Bride’s Reference Book– the book usually presented to young Canadian brides at the commencement of their married life as helpful guidance on newly-appeared marriage-related problems[7] – “marriage is the highest form of partnership”[8] as it gives birth to the highest relationship in human life, enriching the bride with dignity, beauty and glory.[9]

The image of a homemaker at the doorstep waving goodbye to her husband and son who are running to work and school.
Credits: Envisioning the American Dream.

Starting from the first pages, this book emphasizes the importance of the gendered division of labor within the household by proclaiming that while “men make houses, women make home”[10]– that is, while the husband has his designated job of being a breadwinner, or the one responsible for the family’s economic stability, his wife has her job of being a housewife and a mother.[11] Thus, the book cautions the bride to “be prepared to do [her] share in the new partnership of home life.”[12]

This was a traditional and a commonly-accepted division of gender roles within a family at that time.

The photograph of a woman standing outside of a building near a sign that reads
Credits: family handyman.

As the ‘highest form of partnership’, marriage, thus, created “a community of property, legally shared equally by both spouses, but administered by the husband.”[13] While it might seem that the phrase sounds egalitarian, its last words are the most important, since the husband’s administrative rights meant that in practice he could arrange the couple’s property as he wished.[14] This gendered hierarchy pertained even after a husband’s death: if he did not write a will, his property passed to his eldest son, thus “facilitating male leadership of households and the concentration of property among a small number of men.”[15] This way, married women and minor children stayed financially dependent.

Women’s property rights under Quebec’s civil law were even more restricted: a deceased husband’s separate property in the absence of a will was distributed to all of his children or heirs, “with the spouse ranking 13th in the hierarchy of potential claimants.”[16]

Besides, in 1940, Quebec became the last province in Canada to grant women the right to vote.

The Homemaker

The photograph of a pregnant woman in a dress holding her baby bump with one hand.
Credits: lookslikefilm.

Maternity was considered “the prime object of marriage and sexuality”[17] due to the religious dogmas of the time, which portrayed it as one of the central elements of women’s feminine identity since it ensured the continuation of the ‘race.’[18] In fact, per The Canadian Bride’s Reference Book, “the dearest wish of a true woman is to be a mother”[19], since children represent the security of the household and the nation, bring about interest, stability and happiness to the family, and fulfill mother’s days with new pleasures.[20]

With regard to the fertility rates in Quebec, historians highlight 3 main periods[21]:

The photograph of a large family in the 1920s. Twelve kids are lined up (youngest to oldest) by holding each other's waist and smiling at the camera. They are followed by their mother and father. The mother is also holding her newborn thirteenth child in her arms. .
Credits: newslinq.
  • Before 1921, a woman would have 3.5 children on average, which was due to a high level of childlessness associated with the high popularity of celibate Catholic orders, as well as the very high proportion of women who had more than six children;
  • The interwar years were marked by a decreasing proportion of large families and the growth of families with three or four children, thus leading to an average of 2.5 children per woman;
The image of the 8 most popular contraception methods widely available after the 1960s: the pill, plastic IUD, shot, implant, patch, vaginal ring, copper IUD and barrier methods (condoms)..
Birth control methods widely available after the 1960s. Credits: Southern Hills Hospital.
  • The years after 1960 led to a higher proportion of childless women (due to voluntary childlessness caused by the availability of various birth control methods, major societal changes, the decline of the Catholic Church’s influence and the entry of married women into the workforce in Quebec after the Quiet Revolution) and the domination of families with two children. This led to an average of 1.6 children per woman.

Due to the economic difficulties of the 1930s, many couples tried to (illegally) control their fertility by using various contraceptive methods[22] because “larger families meant hard times”[23], as children had to be fed, dressed, educated and generally taken care of, which was both physically and economically burdensome.[24]

Nevertheless, there were still many families who, despite their miserable economic circumstances, did not revert to contraception and kept birthing as many children as they possibly could.[25]

The photograph of a hand holding a condom with an image of a Pope raising his hands underneath an exclamation that reads
Credits: The Overpopulation Project.

This was due to a combination of factors, including the religious background of a married couple, who regarded birthing children as “the law of the Church”[26], their own experience growing up in large families, and their unawareness of birth control methods.[27]

Oftentimes, however, those women who did not use birth control underwent anxiety throughout their pregnancies, “feeling they could not fulfil their children’s needs.”[28]

The Breadwinner

Husband’s role as the sole breadwinner of his family, which represented a central element of his masculine identity, was significantly shaken due to the economic repercussions caused by the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In October 1930, Sherbrooke newspaper published a public letter by the Department of Trade and Commerce aimed for Canadian housewives- described as dependents upon either a husband, father, brother or son for provisions of money aimed at completing their household chores- who were “being urged to protect the job of [their] breadwinners by always giving a Canadian-made article preference over one that has been imported.”[29]

The photograph of protesting unemployed workers in the 1930s. All of them are holding signs demanding the government to provide them with jobs. Some signs read:
Credits: Toronto Star.

However, due to the rise of these protectionist policies and the stock market crash of 1929, “the gross national product of Canada fell by 42 percent in nominal dollars, industrial activity dropped by 43 percent, and the volume of exports dropped by over 56 percent”[30], while unemployment, which was estimated at around 3 percent in 1929, has drastically risen to around 24 percent during the following four years.[31]

This decrease of international trade has launched a chain reaction process which has negatively affected every sphere in Montreal, Quebec: since the city was the largest grain port in North America, the drastic collapse of prices of wheat due to the aforementioned decrease in international trade has led to a drastic reduction of the total value of exports by more than one-third.[32] This turn of events has greatly affected port workers who suffered substantial wage cuts and layoffs, as well as hundreds of drivers and carriers who now had fewer goods to be transported.[33]

The heavy-industry, port and railway sectors, which were affected the most since they were extremely dependent on declining international trade, have subsequently affected other sectors too, such as retail, services and financial sectors, and even real estate, caused by the sudden increase in unemployment.[34]

The image represents deskilling of labor and the rise of unemployment due to the mechanization of workplaces. It portrays two robots kicking employees out of a factory and taking their places. .
Credits: phys.org.

The prime victims of unemployment were salaried employers, and, especially, unskilled and semi-skilled laborers[35], who could be fired due to deskilling that was caused by the rapid mechanization of factories and the depreciation of workers’ skills.[36]

Another important cause of the unemployment spike was the mass immigration of unskilled and agricultural workers from Asian and African countries as well as the proletarianization of Aboriginal people who were willing to work for the same wage as children.[37]

These factors forced many to work a series of random jobs up to the point when they could not find any small jobs at all and became unemployed, while still responsible for feeding their children and wives.

Any “man who had this experience, suffered a profound assault on [his] masculine dignity.”[38]

Accommodations to the Breadwinner/Homemaker Model: Survival Tactics

The photograph of the operating room of Ladies Rayon Undergarment Factory, 1920. It portrays multiple large tables with women at work seated on their both sides.
Operating room of Ladies Rayon Undergarment Factory, 1920. George Rinhart/Corbis/Getty Images
Credits: Insider.

With the onset of the Industrial Revolution women’s involvement in the labor force has increased dramatically. For instance, from 1891-1921, women’s participation in clerical and sales work grew from 8,530 to approximately 128,000 and from 150,649 to 240,572 in industrial work.[39]

Economic hardships brought by the Great Depression forced the implementation of some accommodations to the rigid breadwinner/homemaker model as even more women began working for pay during the 1930s in order to help their husbands to alleviate economic sufferings.

However, most wives were not allowed to work outside of their homes by their husbands, since this reversal of traditional roles would have been a “direct threat to their superior position as man of the house”[40] as well as a huge blow to their pride.[41]

Similarly, unemployed husbands usually did not help sharing their wives’ responsibilities related to motherhood and housekeeping due to the same threat of the reversal of traditional roles in the family and the diminution of their masculinity and pride: mothering and housekeeping were “so profoundly identified with femininity that it seemed unthinkable that it could become a male responsibility.”[42]

Domestic Production and Child Labor

The photograph of an elderly lady's hands knitting.
Credits: Wikipedia.

Most women undertook some form of domestic production or ‘outwork’, such as knitting, preparing and selling home-made meals or doing laundry for a small pay ranging between $3 and $10 a week.[43]

The reason behind the fact that women’s wages were typically a fraction of men’s, regardless of sector, was the widespread “assumption that a patriarchal breadwinner brought home the bulk of the household wage.”[44] In fact, their wages were trivialized as ‘pin money’, or a ‘tiny’ addition to a family’s budget.[45]

It would be wrong, however, to perceive housewives’ domestic labor as this seemingly little monetary contribution, since sometimes it made up to “as much as 50% of the breadwinner’s wages”[46] and has usually “made the difference between living below or just a little above the poverty line.”[47]

It should be noted that daughters have also contributed to the household wage: both monetarily by doing some ‘fine-work’ at textile factories and as their mothers’ helpers by performing domestic work and taking care of their younger siblings, thus freeing some time for their mothers’ domestic productions for pay.[48] Naturally, by taking on responsibilities for younger siblings girls were trained into motherhood- the central obligation expected from women of that time period.[49]

The photograph of a visibly exhausted young boy coal miner standing and looking at the camera.
Young boy coal miner, 1890. Boys as young as eight years, who were toiling in the nineteenth-century coal mines, were portrayed as happy and carefree. The hours were frequently long and the work was often heavy. “Men did the actual mining, but young boys worked both at the surface, and in the mines. Cleaning miners’ lamps and running errands were among their lightest chores. They loaded and unloaded the coal tubs that were hoisted to the surface, drove horse and mule teams that hauled the tubs, among other demanding jobs.”
Credits: Fossil Fire.

Boys, on the other hand, had to undergo apprenticeships with the expectation that, with age and experience, their income levels would rise. Boys could join the workplace from the age of eight years until the late 1870s, when it was changed to 12 years or age[50], and had to work hard by following “the hours of daylight rather than a clock on the wall.”[51]

Children were often sent into dangerous workplaces and could be punished by their employers through arbitrary beatings (“a crack across the head with the fist”[52]) or imprisonment in a factory’s ‘black hole’ – “a windowless room in the factory cellar for upward of 7 hours at time.”[53]

Budgeting

The photograph of an elderly lady calculating her budget at the kitchen table.
Credits: 123RF.

Housewives’ primary domestic activity, however, was the management of the family’s budget.[54]

According to The Canadian Brides’ Reference Book, “the harmony of the home largely depends on the wise disbursement of the income.”[55] The book suggests that the best method for the disbursement of the family’s income is “the equal partnership method”[56], which claims that expenditures can only be made after the prolonged discussion between both partners and their reached compromise.

This emphasis upon the mutual understanding between marriage partners has also been outlined in 1942 Ada Hart Arlitt’s book Family Relationships: in one of the chapters titled “Husband and Wife Relationships” the author emphasizes the importance of the right management of the common property- that is, the family budget- which, for the sake of family’s stability, “should be shared without quarrels and without pointing out which member of the partnership contributed it.”[57]

Per Arlitt, if the common budget is used by one partner, another one always has to be notified about it[58], since “dishonesty on the part of one or both may stain the marriage to the breaking point.”[59]

Nevertheless, oftentimes, homemakers who were dependent on their breadwinners felt that the money, which was not earned by them and which they had to manage as part of their husband-wife contract, was not theirs by right.[60] This fact was preventing them from complaining about not having enough money, and thus led to the further maintenance of “the myth that their husbands continued to be adequate providers.”[61]

The image of the basic human necessities for survival, such as food, water, shelter and clothing.
Basic Human Necessities.
Credits: Government of Sint Maarten.

The Canadian Brides’ Reference Book suggests for necessities– which are determined by the family’s standard of living- to be planned first.[62]

The authors of the book claim that the largest expenditures should be disbursed on shelter, food and operating expenses, while the remainder has to be spent on clothing and leisure.[63]

However, with the ‘arrival’ of the Great Depression, “making ends meet [became] a real balancing act”[64] for many working-class families who could have barely afforded to buy even the bare minimum for themselves.

Budgeting thus became their obsession as they tried to save money on everything: housewives cooked their family meals from the cheapest ingredients, sewed most of the clothing and household linen, and were forced to live with their families in substandard accommodations with not enough rooms for everyone due to the high rent prices.[65]

To be fair, during such grave times families could have relied on public relief payments, however, for a breadwinner to publicly admit his inability to provide for his family meant not only a painful acceptance of “a profound assault on [his] masculine dignity”[66], but also the constant humiliation from society which regarded unemployed as lazy.[67]

Therefore, many families did not depend on relief for a long time and tried to survive on their own.

The up-close shot of seven carrots with black bruising piled on top of brown packing paper
Credits: AZO Life Sciences.

To survive, women were forced to negotiate every price with a shopkeeper and to rely on various survival strategies, such as buying cut-priced meats on Saturday evenings, spoilt vegetables and fruits and even starving in order to feed their children.[68]

The importance of each cent for housewives’ budget management was illustrated in the December 1923 edition of Sherbrooke newspaper, which printed an announcement from the ‘Sherbrooke Pure Milk’- the leading distributor of milk in Montreal- that decided to not increase prices on milk by one cent per quart due to the severe competition between farmers and the laws of supply and demand that stemmed from it, preventing the price augmentation.[69]

Rent Payments

The photograph of an impoverished house and a family of 13 standing outside of it.
Toronto slums, backyard with children.
Credits: Pinterest.

Rent payments occupied the largest proportion of families’ expenses, which especially increased after the start of the Second World War, when Montreal’s population has drastically augmented due to the sudden availability of work in the city’s booming factories, which stimulated a housing crisis and permitted landlords to speculate on prices and choose among prospective tenants.[70]

Landlords could thus easily evict tenants if they delayed their rent payment or even for no reason, in order to charge new tenants with higher rents.[71]

Therefore, working-class families were forced to move out of their homes (sometimes every year), and housewives were responsible for finding cheaper and as comfortable substitutions.[72]

Return to Tradition

The photograph of a 'picture perfect family' at a breakfast table. A wife is handing a plate to her husband while smiling at her two kids- a boy and a girl- who are eating her meal.
Credits: Backtothe 50’s_NellyBromberg.

Interestingly enough, after the war, Canadians had a strong desire to return to tradition- that is, “a regime of normalization, of breadwinning fathers and homemaking mothers”[73]– as a way of security attainment. This is also one of the most crucial explanations behind the origins of the baby boom.

This search for ‘home’ or domesticity, was personified by the white middle class constantly portrayed on television. That is, “imposed from above through state policies and embraced from below by many Canadians, gender roles were shaped in the 1950s and early 1960s by conformity to a nostalgic sense of the past.”[74]

Conclusion

It is undeniable that most working-class families during and after the Great Depression have remained very poor even after housewives undertook a more stringent budget management role and performed domestic production for little pay.

However, it is also true that housewives’ economic dependence on their breadwinners, “nevertheless camouflaged the interdependence of the family and of society on the work they did, which was unpaid and disregarded”[75]– the work which has significantly helped to cushion the impact of the Great Depression on their families’(already miserable) financial situations.

Bibliography:

Notes: 

[1] Denyse Baillargeon, “‘If You Had No Money, You Had No Trouble, Did You?’: Montréal Working‐Class Housewives during the Great Depression,” Women’s History Review 1, no. 2 (June 1992): pp. 217-237, https://journals-scholarsportal-info.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/details/09612025/v01i0002/217_yhnmyhwhdtgd.xml, 218.

[2] Denyse Baillargeon, “Indispensable but Not a Citizen: The Housewife in the Great Depression,” in Contesting Canadian Citizenship: Historical Readings, ed. Dorothy E. Chunn, Robert J. Menzies, and Robert L. Adamoski (Broadview Press, 2002), pp. 179-199, 183.

[3] “French Canadian Families,” Encyclopedia.com, accessed September 20, 2021, https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/french-canadian-families.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] John Douglas Belshaw , “Gender Roles,” in Canadian History: Pre-Confederation (BCcampus, 2015), https://opentextbc.ca/preconfederation/chapter/10-7-gender-roles/.

[7] The Canadian Bride’s Reference Book (Winnipeg: Merton Corporation Ltd., 1930), http://www.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.9_08625/2?r=0&s=1, 2.

[8] The Canadian Bride’s Reference Book, Ibid, 7.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The Canadian Bride’s Reference Book, Ibid, 8.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] John Douglas Belshaw and Chris Clarkson , “Families and Property Rights in Canada,” in Canadian History: Post-Confederation (BCcampus, 2016), https://opentextbc.ca/postconfederation/chapter/7-4-families-and-property-rights-in-canada/.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Baillargeon, “‘If You Had No Money, You Had No Trouble, Did You?’: Montréal Working‐Class Housewives during the Great Depression,” Ibid, 221.

[18] Baillargeon, “Indispensable but Not a Citizen: The Housewife in the Great Depression,” Ibid, 191.

[19] The Canadian Bride’s Reference Book, Ibid, 148.

[20] Ibid.

[21] “French Canadian Families,” Ibid.

[22] Baillargeon, “‘If You Had No Money, You Had No Trouble, Did You?’: Montréal Working‐Class Housewives during the Great Depression,” Ibid, 221.

[23] Baillargeon, “‘If You Had No Money, You Had No Trouble, Did You?’: Montréal Working‐Class Housewives during the Great Depression,” Ibid, 222.

[24] Baillargeon, “Indispensable but Not a Citizen: The Housewife in the Great Depression,” Ibid, 192.

[25] Baillargeon, “‘If You Had No Money, You Had No Trouble, Did You?’: Montréal Working‐Class Housewives during the Great Depression,” Ibid, 222.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Baillargeon, “‘If You Had No Money, You Had No Trouble, Did You?’: Montréal Working‐Class Housewives during the Great Depression,” Ibid, 223.

[29] Minister of Trade and Commerce, “Protect Your Breadwinner’s Job!,” Sherbrooke Daily Record , October 13, 1930, pp. 1-8, http://numerique.banq.qc.ca/patrimoine/details/52327/3001933?docsearchtext=breadwinner, 4.

[30] Sylvie Taschereau, “The Years of the Great Depression,” in Montreal: the History of a North American City, ed. Dany Fougères and Roderick MacLeod, vol. 2 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017), pp. 5-36, 6.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Taschereau, Ibid, 7.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Taschereau, Ibid, 9.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Roy, Ibid, 151.

[37] John Douglas Belshaw, “Rise of a Working Class,” in Canadian History: Post-Confederation (BCcampus, 2016), https://opentextbc.ca/postconfederation/chapter/3-4-rise-of-a-working-class/.

[38] Baillargeon, “Indispensable but Not a Citizen: The Housewife in the Great Depression,” Ibid, 184.

[39] Belshaw, “Rise of a Working Class,” Ibid.

[40] Baillargeon, “Indispensable but Not a Citizen: The Housewife in the Great Depression,” Ibid, 186.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Baillargeon, “Indispensable but Not a Citizen: The Housewife in the Great Depression,” Ibid, 184.

[43] Baillargeon, “‘If You Had No Money, You Had No Trouble, Did You?’: Montréal Working‐Class Housewives during the Great Depression,” Ibid, 225.

[44] Belshaw, “Rise of a Working Class,” Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Baillargeon, “Indispensable but Not a Citizen: The Housewife in the Great Depression,” Ibid, 183.

[48] Belshaw, “Rise of a Working Class,” Ibid.

[49] Belshaw, “Gender Roles,” Ibid.

[50] Belshaw, “Rise of a Working Class,” Ibid.

[51] Belshaw, “Gender Roles,” Ibid.

[52] Belshaw, “Rise of a Working Class,” Ibid.

[53] Ibid .

[54] Baillargeon, “Indispensable but Not a Citizen: The Housewife in the Great Depression,” Ibid, 186.

[55] The Canadian Bride’s Reference Book, Ibid, 9.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ada Hart Arlitt, “Husband and Wife Relationships,” in Family Relationships (McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1942), pp. 126-148, https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.217081/page/n11/mode/2up, 138.

[58] Arlitt, Ibid, 139.

[59] Arlitt, Ibid, 146.

[60] Baillargeon, “Indispensable but Not a Citizen: The Housewife in the Great Depression,” Ibid, 187.

[61] Ibid.

[62] The Canadian Bride’s Reference Book, Ibid, 14.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Baillargeon, “‘If You Had No Money, You Had No Trouble, Did You?’: Montréal Working‐Class Housewives during the Great Depression,” Ibid, 225.

[65] Baillargeon, “Indispensable but Not a Citizen: The Housewife in the Great Depression,” Ibid, 187.

[66] Baillargeon, “Indispensable but Not a Citizen: The Housewife in the Great Depression,” Ibid, 184.

[67] Taschereau, Ibid, 16.

[68] Baillargeon, “Indispensable but Not a Citizen: The Housewife in the Great Depression,” Ibid, 189.

[69] “Price of Milk Is Unchanged in Sherbrooke ,” Sherbrooke Daily Record , December 1, 1932, pp. 1-8, http://numerique.banq.qc.ca/patrimoine/details/52327/3003829?docsearchtext=Montreal%20housewife, 6.

[70] Magda Fahrni, “The Second World War: Wartime Production and War Efforts,” in Montreal: the History of a North American City, ed. Dany Fougères and Roderick MacLeod, vol. 2 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017), pp. 37-73, 49.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Baillargeon, “‘If You Had No Money, You Had No Trouble, Did You?’: Montréal Working‐Class Housewives during the Great Depression,” Ibid, 227.

[73] John Douglas Belshaw and Robert Rutherdale , “Gendered Roles after the Wars,” in Canadian History: Post-Confederation (BCcampus, 2016), https://opentextbc.ca/postconfederation/chapter/10-7-gendered-roles-after-the-wars/.

[74] Ibid.

[75] Baillargeon, “Indispensable but Not a Citizen: The Housewife in the Great Depression,” Ibid, 199.

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