19th Century Informal Economy

An informal economy is one in which people provide for their own needs by engaging in a variety of noncommercial activities, including what used to be thought of as subsistence farming, hunting, berry picking, animal husbandry, carpentry, woodcutting, and knitting, while a formal economy is based upon commercial activities and requires its members to pay money for goods and services provided by another person or group.

Petty Harbour, pre-1898 Petty Harbour, pre-1898.
A view of houses and gardens at Petty Harbour.

Photo by Robert Holloway. Reproduced by permission of the Archives and Manuscripts Division (Coll. 137 07.04.004), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University, St. Johnís, NL.
with more information (67 kb)

Although different, the two economies are not mutually exclusive and are sometimes interdependent; households in isolated areas, or those where labour is scarce or unreliable, sometimes supplement their commercial earnings with informal activities. People engaged in informal economic activities directly provided for the needs of their households and communities rather than for the market. However, the marginal surpluses of informal economic activity could be exchanged, just as were the goods and services people produced formally for the market.

This was the case in 19th-century Newfoundland and Labrador, where many households combined formal and informal economic activities to make a living year-round. Although most families participated in the commercial cod and seal fisheries, these industries were not consistently profitable and frequently subject to outside forces over which the Newfoundland and Labrador people had no control, including fluctuations in catch size and market prices. To compensate for the unpredictability of their commercial earnings, families often found it necessary to engage in seasonal subsistence activities. They fished in the summer, hunted in the fall, cut wood in the winter, and farmed in the spring and summer before the fall harvest.

Aboriginal People

Before contact, Aboriginal people in Newfoundland and Labrador maintained a subsistence economy characterized by seasonal migrations to harvest resources as they became available. Animal resources, including fish, marine mammals, caribou, and game birds, migrated regularly and were only accessible for part of the year, while edible plants and berries were also available for a limited period of time and only in certain areas. To adapt to the variable nature of their surroundings, many Aboriginal groups moved to different areas of their territory for different parts of the year.

After European settlers arrived at Newfoundland and Labrador, many Aboriginal groups supplemented their subsistence economy with commercial activities, including trading furs with the new arrivals or working as guides for explorers, prospectors, and hunters. Despite these commercial interactions, many Aboriginal people maintained a largely informal economy for much of the 19th century, making seasonal use of local resources.

Caribou crossing a river, pre-1908.
The annual caribou hunt was an important activity for many Aboriginal people in Newfoundland and Labrador during the 19th century.

Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of the Archives and Manuscripts Division (Coll. 137 25.02.001), QE II Library, Memorial University, St. Johnís, NL.
(60 kb)
Caribou swimming across unidentified river, pre-1908

The Innu, for example, hunted caribou, wolves, ptarmigan, and other game in the Québec-Labrador interior during the winter and travelled to the coast in the summer to harvest fish, seals, and sea birds. Similarly, the Inuit maintained a largely nomadic seasonal economy that included hunting caribou in the spring and winter, harvesting marine resources in the warmer months, and foraging for berries and edible plants when in season. The Métis generally trapped furs in the winter, hunted seals in the spring, and caught cod and salmon in the summer. On the island of Newfoundland, the Mi'kmaq spent the winter months inland hunting caribou, beaver, and bear before moving to the coast during the spring and summer to catch fish and sea birds.

Rural Household Economy

A large influx of European immigrants arrived at Newfoundland and Labrador during the first half of the 19th century, with most people arriving from England and Ireland. While some immigrants eventually moved elsewhere, many settled permanently in the colony, where they raised future generations. By the end of the 1800s, Newfoundland and Labrador's population jumped from 19,000 at the start of the century to approximately 220,000.

Although large concentrations of people moved to commercial centres at St. John's and Conception Bay, most lived small settlements scattered across the island and Labrador. Unlike many communities today, these towns and villages did not have access to grocery stores, shopping malls, and other conveniences. Coastal boats brought food, supplies, and mail to some villages at certain times of the year, but residents had to provide for most of their own needs. As a result, many people engaged in a dual economy that blended commercial and subsistence activities. Families traded fish to merchants for goods in their stores – including tea, flour, sugar, and other imported items – and performed a variety of noncommercial activities to supplement their earnings and compensate for years when the fishery failed.

Hay-making Unidentified women hay-making, n.d.
Vegetable and hay gardens were common in most outports.

Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL A12-122), St. John's, Newfoundland.
with more information (48 kb)

This diverse system required residents to budget their time around an annual cycle of regularly shifting activities: fishing, farming, and berry picking in the spring, summer, and early fall, hunting in the fall and winter, woodcutting in the winter, and sealing in the spring. Many Newfoundland and Labrador people adopted a system of seasonal migration to better exploit resources, moving inland during the colder months to harvest wood and hunt game before returning to coastal settlements in the spring and summer to catch fish and other marine resources.

To increase their productivity, each family member assumed different duties at different times of the year. Men and older boys went to sea to fish, while women, girls, and young boys stayed on shore to help cure the catch. It was largely the female members of a family who gathered and preserved berries, made clothes, cooked, baked, and cared for young children, while the males hunted, trapped, and harvested firewood as well as timber for the construction of homes, furniture, boats, flakes, barns, and other structures.

Vegetable Gardens

Subsistence vegetable gardening was an important and time-consuming activity that was largely the responsibility of female family members. Although men often helped with the digging, women removed stones from the soil, planted seeds, and weeded the garden regularly. Most households grew cabbages and a variety of root crops, including potatoes, turnip, carrots, parsnip, beets, and onions. These vegetables were easy to care for, preserved well, and were compatible with Newfoundland and Labrador's poor soil and cold climate. They also provided a variety of vitamins and nutrients not available in fish, game, bread, and other foods dominating local diets. In addition, some families cultivated herbs and small fruits, including currants, plums, and rhubarb.

Families typically planted in late May and harvested in September and October; cabbages, however, often stayed in the ground until December. To allow their vegetable and fruit supply to last throughout the winter, most households stored crops in a cellar, pickled them in brine, or preserved them as jams and jellies.

Many rural households also kept animals, including hens, cows, sheep, goats, and pigs. Alongside meat, these livestock provided dairy products, eggs, and wool for clothing, quilts, and other household materials. They also provided manure, which many rural families combined with seaweed and capelin to fertilize their vegetable gardens. While all family members helped care for livestock, they were largely the responsibility of women and older girls, who milked goats and cows, collected eggs from hens, sheared any sheep, and made clothes from the wool.

While under ideal conditions all informal economic activities complemented each other and the commercial fishery, they could not always safeguard rural families against poverty and hardship. Some years were poor ones for farming, while others saw the fishery fail. If family members were ill or injured, it became difficult to hunt enough game, catch enough fish, chop enough wood, or harvest enough vegetables to provide for their household's needs. It was also not unusual for families to exhaust their vegetable supply before the winter ended or to each year sink into deeper debt to the merchant.

Technological advancements and a wider range of employment opportunities prompted many families to reduce their subsistence activities by the end of the 19th century. Closed iron stoves and better insulated houses decreased the amount of firewood households required, while the emergence of commercial mining and forestry industries provided jobs for local residents. As cash became more common, and as year-round employment gradually replaced seasonal work, many families found it easier to buy groceries and material goods instead of satisfying their needs through informal economic activities.

Article by Jenny Higgins. ©2008, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site.

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