From village to village... Traveling trades

They traveled from village to village. They stopped by the roadside or in public squares; they knocked at doors. Their clothing was covered with dust from their travels. But make no mistake about it: they were not homeless! For a long time, men, women and even children traveled the roads of Quebec, practicing a traveling trade.

Traveling tradespeople were generally well known to the settlers and their skills were greatly appreciated. Roaming from place to place, they also traded news, which gave them an important social role in villages and townships. In exchange, these travelers often called on the generosity of the colonists when, for example, they had to find lodging for the night.

They were craftspeople, merchants, repair people, artists... They were individualistic personalities who, for a long time, were part of the Quebec landscape. This new series of chronicles is dedicated to them.

From village to village... Traveling trades

Aquarelle: Deux habitants, l'un avec un cheval, traîneau et un tonneau, l'autre avec des mocassins
Source: Bibliothèque et Archives Canada/Collection Sir George Gipps/C-000117

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First episode
Traveling Tradespeople with a Thousand Talents
Traveling Tradespeople with a Thousand Talents

Peinture : Jeune fille avec des paniers
Source : Bibliothèque et Archives Canada/Collection Cornelius Krieghoff/C-004669

Throughout the winter, craftspeople worked relentlessly to make tools, furniture, containers and fabrics. When the good weather arrived, many of them took to the road to meet their clients in towns and villages. They offered their products and their know-how. On site, the traveling tradespeople could make certain parts, accept special orders, make repairs and provide advice. Each individual’s vocation was generally recognizable from the merchandise they proudly displayed in the streets.

Traveling by foot with a packsack, the tinsmith would hold a long iron spike in his hand, displaying a sample of each of the tinplate objects he had for sale. These included, for example, candle and cake moulds, funnels, teapots, and measuring containers of all sizes. The smallest objects, such as goblets and candlesticks, would be hung around his waist. Such objects had no bottoms. When the tinsmith would sell one, he would take out the welding tools he carried with him and finish the piece on site. The smoke from this welding work would give him a rather dirty appearance. Towards the end of the 19th century, the tinsmith would use a horse cart, which enabled him to carry larger pieces such as large basins or cream skimmers.

Three or four times a year, the potter would make his tour. Protecting his merchandise carefully in straw, he would display a few samples at the end of long sticks. In order to make themselves standout, some potters would blow in a jug, while others would hit two pots together to make noise. This would demonstrate the solidity of their wares at the same time. Some of these traveling potters merely sold products made by other potters. Yet, some manufactured their own objects from terracotta. In Canada, the First Nations had made pottery for thousands of years whereas the French had only started practicing this trade in the 17th century. Clay is the primary raw material. It would be cleaned, to remove the stones and other debris, stamped down and cut into balls to be worked.

For their part, the basket weavers carried light woven objects such as hats and baskets. A good number of these tradespeople were women, particularly Amerindian women, who often sold their products along the roads. Basket waving is an ancient skill, practiced since pre-historic times in a great many countries. In North America, the materials used to weave containers were generally straw, which was solid and flexible, osier, bark, the wild dogwood and even fine strips of wood. The Amerindians also worked with reeds, elk hair, corn husks and thongs.

Using threads of wool or flax instead of straw, weavers made fabric. A great many women used cards and spinning wheels to practice the trade of weaving at home. Some of them decided to make a profit from their skill and took to the roads to offer their services. Rather than carrying her merchandise, the weaver would travel with her spinning wheel. She would offer her assistance with spinning and weaving, as well as with other jobs such as stuffing pillows and mattresses and repairing fishing nets. Occasionally, she would work from home. For payment, she would receive wool, blankets and tow.

Many traveling tradespeople specialized in wood working. Traveling during the summer with a cart filled with chairs, the chair maker knew how to distinguish green wood from dry wood which would be used to make the frame of the chair. He was able to assemble chairs solidly, without glue. For his part, the shingle maker traveled to sell his shingles of oak, pine or cedar. He would carry his tools with him since he also offered to shape the shingles on site and install them. The bushel maker manufactured and sold wooden containers such as pails, basins and churns. The barrel maker took to the roads to deliver his rounded barrels, which he made to order. All of these containers were in great demand at harvest time. And they had to be of good quality to preserve foods such as butter, lard and fish. Large quantities of barrels were also need to ship food.

Although manufacturing objects was very important, knowing how to maintain and repair them was just as essential. Several traveling tradespeople specialized in repairing objects. To learn more about them, we invite you to return on November 25, 2008.

  • LESSARD, Michel. La nouvelle encyclopédie des antiquités du Québec. Montréal, Éditions de l'Homme, 2007. 1103 pages.
  • POMERLEAU, Jeanne. Métiers ambulants d’autrefois. Montréal, Guérin littérature, 1990. 467 pages.
  • SENTANCE, Bryan. La vannerie: techniques et traditions à travers le monde. [Paris], Flammarion, 2001. 215 pages.

Second episode
Repairing Broken Pots

Repairing Broken PotsIn the 21st century, throwing out a broken object is a common act. When an object is of poor quality and inexpensive, why bother repairing it? Yet, for a very long time, Quebeckers preferred to repair or transform their old objects. In this way, they managed to extend their live or even give them a second one. Give this situation, traveling repairmen never lacked for clients.

The spoon maker, also known in Quebec as a “pewter potter” was, of course, the best known of these traveling repairmen. It was towards the end of the French régime that this craftsman appeared on roads in the St. Lawrence Valley. He would visit villages once a year, at least. Those who had set aside their brokenpewter spoons would then call on his services to have them transformed into shiny new spoons. In order to melt the pewter, the spoon maker would use the household pot. He was familiar with the art of heating molds, so that the molten pewter would not solidify too quickly. Once the spoons were taken out of the molds, he would have to remove the excess metal. Pewter utensils, which were very popular, were considered silverware for those of modest means. This artisan also sold various pewter objects such as crucifixes, buttons and pins.

When making knives, the grinder was the craftsman responsible for using the grindstone to shape the blade and give it its first cutting edge. The sharpener, for his part, performed the same actions to sharpen knives whose blades had been dulled. The sharpener would install his grindstone along the roadside in cities. He would be known by the leather apron he wore to protect himself from sparks and water. When he did not use his grindstone, he would work with a simple stone and a leather belt. After completing their work, some sharpeners would pretend to pull out a hair and cut it in two in order to demonstrate the perfection of their work. Sharpeners were in less demand in the countryside since farmers could generally sharpen their sharp objects on their own.

Under the French régime, terracotta objects were commonly found in homes whereas earthenware and porcelain objects were only for the most fortunate. After the Conquest, these luxury objects were much more widespread. A special artisan was responsible for repairing these fragile objects. Carrying his tool box, he would make one tour a year. With a great deal of care, the artisan would pierce the enamel and then the terracotta. He would join the pieces of earthenware with pins and then cover everything with a putty. He would conscientiously try to hide the traces of the repairs inside the pot and on the back of plates. Repairing porcelain was much easier. The artisan would use a putty made of quicklime and egg white and merely had to tie up the piece while the putty dried.

The glazier would carry sheets of glass on his back, tied to a small ladder, which he would use when installing windows. His appearance was greatly appreciated, particularly as winter approached and the settlers were more concerned about repairing their windows. Glaziers were present in the colony as of the 18th century, but not all homes had the means to purchase glass. When making repairs the glazier was able to cut the glass to size, although most often he used pre-cut panes that fit most windows.

During the time of New France, it was the most fortunate families and the religious communities that owned clocks. Two centuries later, few settlers did not have one! During the 18th century, the first clockmakers arrived in the colony and then in the 19th century, strong competition came from America clock sellers who made their way along the roads. Along with these salesmen, there were traveling clockmakers who focused specifically on maintaining and adjusting clocks. To lubricate them the clockmaker would use a special “clockmaker's oil”, made from a secret recipe, which he would apply with a goose feather. If the clock was defective, the clockmaker would sometimes suspect that the house had shifted, creating a lack of balance in the clock.

Many other objects used in homes benefited from the work of a traveling repairman. For example, the artisan who re-seated chairs was able to work with various materials when replacing worn seats and the harness repairman knew all the ins and outs of sewing leather. Our ancestors repaired a wide variety of objects but, above all, they got rid of certain things. To learn more about the traveling tradesmen who focused on recovering used materials, we invite you to come back on December 9, 2008.

  • LESSARD, Michel. La nouvelle encyclopédie des antiquités du Québec. Montréal, Éditions de l'Homme, 2007. 1103 pages.
  • POMERLEAU, Jeanne. Métiers ambulants d’autrefois. Montréal, Guérin littérature, 1990. 467 pages.
  • RICHET, Pascal. L’âge du verre. [Paris], Gallimard, 2000. 159 pages.

Third episode
Nothing Waisted
Nothing Waisted

Photographie: Beaupré, [vers 1900]. Photographe: Livernois Source: Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, P560, s1, p110

Although recycling is very fashionable now at the start of the 21st century, it is far from a new practice. For centuries, men have been picking up certain types of “garbage” and using these materials to make new objects. Some of the traveling tradesmen focused on collecting all sorts of materials. While helping people get rid of their “old stuff”, they were occasionally prepared to pay a few cents.

Specializing in collecting old fabric, the ragman held a special place in the public's imagination. In his tale, La petite patrie, Claude Jasmin described, for example, the ragman as a frightening and enigmatic person, teased by children calling out: “guenillou plein d’poux, les oreilles plein’d’poil!” (“ragman covered with fleas, ears filled with hair”). The ragman traveled by foot, carrying a pouch or pushing a cart. Some ragmen used horse-drawn carts, which enabled them to carry even more objects. The ragman was poorly dressed and made his tours during the good weather. People in Quebec who wanted to get rid of their used fabric would call out “guenille, hou-hou”, which turned into the French word for ragman: “guenillou”. Fabrics in good condition would be sold for a few cents; others were generally given to the ragman for free.

Cotton and linen rags, as well as old nets and old ropes were very much in demand since they were long used to make paper. The ragman earned his income from selling his rags to papermakers. Before being used to make paper, the old fabric would be sorted by type, color and quality. Seams and buttonholes would be undone. Then the rags would be shredded, and set to ferment. The fibers would be beaten and bleached, then placed in a vat to make people pulp. In the 19th century, as a result of a shortage of textile fibers, papermakers looked for new raw materials. They opted for wood fibers.

In addition to used fabrics, the ragman also collected objects made of brass, tinplate, copper, carpets and occasionally, fat, bones and candle remnants. The metal would be sold to manufacturers and the bones would be transformed into fertilizer. Wool would be offered to mills which used it to make new fabrics. Fat would be used to make feed and soap.

Sometimes, the settlers would boil table scraps in order to remove the fat. When this fat was added to lye, resin, water and salt, it became soap. Lye was obtained from ashes and has a potash, base; potash is an essential substance for making glass, paper and fabric.

Until the start of the 20th century, ashes were very much in demand and the person responsible for collecting ashes would travel from house to house during the winter. Those who lived in the cities and villages would keep their ashes in a container stored in the cellar or outside, far from their homes. Ashes were exchanged for a little money or occasionally traded for perishables such as molasses. Since demand was high, many of those who were clearing the land burned the trees directly on their site so they could sell the ashes.

In 1671, Jean Talon had a special building built to produce potash. Hundreds of potash and “pearl ash” factories were then founded. Some colonists made their own potash to sell to merchants. Or they sold it to the potash buyer who traveled from village to village collecting this material.

The traveling tradesmen who collected certain materials provided valuable services for the public. Other traveling tradesmen also provided services. To learn more about the chimney sweep, the laundress, the bootblack, the snow clearer and the sawyer, we invite you to return on December 23, 2008.

  • DESAUTELS, Yvon. Les coutumes de nos ancêtres. Montréal, Éditions paulines, 1984. 55 pages.
  • JASMIN, Claude. La petite patrie: récit. Montréal, La Presse, 1972. 141 pages.
  • POMERLEAU, Jeanne. Métiers ambulants d’autrefois. Montréal, Guérin littérature, 1990. 467 pages.
  • SIMARD, Cyril. Les papiers Saint-Gilles: héritage de Félix-Antoine Savard. Québec, Presses de l'Université Laval, 1988. 157 pages.

Fourth episode
Need a small service?
Need a small service?

Illustration: «Rien à boire!», caricature de Edward Jump parue dans L'opinion publique, vol. 4, no 9, p. 102.
Source: Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, collection numérique

The traveling trades in the service sector were practiced by men, women and even children. These valiant workers, small and large, offered to take charge of chores that were onerous and often boring. As a sign that such services are still appealing: most of these trades still exist today.

The chimney sweep has been hard at work in the St. Lawrence valley for more than 300 years. In the time of New France, numerous regulations made it obligatory to clean chimneys in cities on a regular basis. When soot, accumulates on the chimney walls, it can ignite and start fires. The chimney sweep was easy to recognize in the streets. He was generally small and covered with soot. For this reason, the chimney sweep was commonly called “Mr. Soot” or even “Savoyard” since, in France, a large number of them were recruited from the Savoie.

In New France, starting at the age of 13 or 14, the sweep learned his trade from a master. At that time, hearths and chimneys were large. A small man or a child could easily slip inside to remove the soot with a scraper or broom. To avoid being asphyxiated, the chimney sweep would cover his head as best he could. He would wear long clothes and knee pads but often worked barefoot, which made it easier to climb up the chimney walls. Occasionally, he would use a rope to protect him from falls. The sweep's work was difficult and he was often subject to certain diseases such as tuberculosis.

In the 19th century, wood stoves replaced fireplaces and the chimneys were smaller. As a result, the chimney sweep’s techniques changed. In order to scrape the walls of the chimney, he would use a pine tree pulled up and down with ropes and equipped with a counter-weight. He could also use a metal chain that he would turn or a chimney sweep's brush. To prepare for his arrival, the chimney sweep would ask his clients to abstain from using the fireplace one day in advance. And while the women would take care to cover the furniture and the dishes, they had to wait until after the sweep had left to wash their floors.

Like the chimney sweep, the laundress was also around in the time of the French régime. For example, around 1660, Marguerite Bourgeoys and her companions did needlework and laundry in order to earn their keep. This was very useful in a fledgling colony where there were few women and few clothes, as well. In a similar manner, in the 19th and 20th centuries, women offered laundry services to middle-class families and certain hôtels. The laundress would pick up the dirty laundry, wash it and return it clean, folded and sorted, in large wicker baskets.

The laundress would work along the river shores, during the good weather, with a large cauldron. Washing clothes was long work that involved several steps. Before clotheslines came into use, the laundress would spread her clean laundry out wherever she could, even using shrubs and fences. In the 20th century, laundresses had a place when they had all the equipment they needed: large wooden barrels, a cradle, a place for a fire and clotheslines.

While the young girl learned to wash clothing, the young man, for his part, was initiated into the art of cutting wood for heating. After making a saw and a swhorse, he would learn how to split a log with an iron angle, how to remove a blade that was jammed, and how to cord wood in order to protect it from water. At the age of about 13, some boys became sawyers. They would go from house to house, offering to chop firewood, carrying a sawhorse, a saw and an axe with them. Their clients included widows and elderly couples, among others. Several sawyers would later go to work for logging operations.

Other young men offered to remove snow from entrances and off roofs. Towards the end of winter, when snow and ice was coming loose and threatening to fall on passersby and injure them, removing the snow from roofs was a necessity. When working on a roof, this tradesman would use a broom, a scraper with a very long handle and a wooden hammer to break the ice. He would often ask a colleague to stay on the ground and warn him when passersby approached.

In the 19th century, the shoe black, for his part, would be a young boy who frequently was not “lucky” enough to find work in a factory. He would set up business in a place with a lot of traffic, such as a market or a station. Dirty and poorly dressed, he would carry a brush, black polish and a box on which his clients were invited to place their feet. In the 21st century, this trade is more often practiced by adults who rent space inside buildings and make seats available to their clients.

Traveling tradesmen who provided services had to work very heard. Working along with them in the streets, other people offered a multitude of objects and goods for sale. To learn more about traveling salespeople, we invite you to return on January 6, 2009.

  • POMERLEAU, Jeanne. Métiers ambulants d’autrefois. Montréal, Guérin littérature, 1990. 467 pages.
  • PROVENCHER, Jean. C'était l'hiver: la vie traditionnelle rurale dans la vallée du Saint-Laurent. Montréal: Boréal, 1986. 278 pages.
  • SAINT-LAURENT, Agnès, et al. L'art de vivre au temps jadis: tout le savoir-faire de nos grands-parents. Montréal, Sélection du Reader's Digest, 1981. 384 pages.
  • SIMPSON, Patricia. Marguerite Bourgeoys et Montréal, 1640-1665. Montreal, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1999. 269 pages.
  • Au sujet des petits ramoneurs, le site de l’Assemblée des pays de Savoie présente des informations intéressantes. Voir, entre autres, le texte de Monique Dejammet, Les "hirondelles d’hiver" (

Fifth episode
Traveling “stores”
Traveling “stores”

Peinture: Le vendeur de mûres
Source: Bibliothèque et Archives Canada/Collection Cornelius Krieghoff/C-010698

Even today, roaming salespeople set out their wares along roads or sidewalks in the large cities. They appeal to crowds and tourists and make the most of certain events. They are not a new phenomenon. On market days, in the cities, many settlers would go from door to door, selling their merchandise. Here are a few of these trades which were long a part of the landscape in the St. Lawrence valley.

A veritable little traveling store, present in both the cities and the rural areas, the door-to-door salesman was particularly popular with the settlers who were unable to visit the merchants regularly. He sold everything: medications, moth balls, sewing tools, combs, jewelry, pocket knives, toys, matches, etc. Obtained from a wholesaler, this merchandise would be carried in a rack, in a bag, in a suitcase carried on the salesman’s back, in a cart. To attract attention, the salesman would occasionally pin a few products to his hat.

Certain salespeople specialized in the sale of medications, books, watches, newspapers. When they had a vehicle, they could sell larger items such as clothing and carpets. When a salesman was invited into a home, he always aroused the curiosity of the children. Occasionally, he would give them gifts, in an effort to encourage sales.

Many traveling salespeople focused on selling food. The first to make his rounds in the morning was the milkman. He would get up before dawn to milk his cows or to go and get milk from a farmer. The milk containers were then placed in a cart drawn by a dog or a horse. The milkman would then transfer the milk into containers left out by his clients. To keep the milk out of the reach of cats, the containers would be placed in a closed box made of wood or metal. Some milk men delivered milk that was already in bottles, merely replacing empty ones with full ones.

The fishmonger’s day for visiting people’s homes was Thursday, the day before a lean day. First, he would go to the homes closest to the shores, offering frsh fish. Then he would visit more distant areas, carrying salted or smoked fish, along with some live fish. During Lent and on lean days, people would buy large quantities of frozen fish. Some fish were not sold by weight or unit, but by the bowful.

Eggs, which were also eaten during Lent, were sold by some farmers, from door to door, in the cities and villages. Carrying fresh eggs in baskets or crates, these merchants would use bells to announce their arrival. Some of the buyers did not eat the eggs. Instead, they would hatch them in order to renew their flock. Of course, they made sure the eggs came from a site with a rooster.

Buying their stock at the market in the morning, the fruit and vegetable sellers would travel through the city offering bananas, corn, pumpkins, potatoes, apples, etc. During good weather, the children would imitate them, selling wild berries. The spice seller, for his part, carried a very precious commodity that served to improve the taste of food that was less than fresh. Among other things, he sold cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, tea, coffee and occasionally medicinal herbs.

In the 20th century, shortly before Christmas, the rural areas would be visited by sellers of candies, apples and oranges. These sweet treats and fruits would be offered to children during the holiday period. As winter approached the honey merchant would also find takers for his goods which, it was said, cured colds. In the spring, the maple product seller would make his rounds. Maple syrup was carried in large containers, and then transferred into smaller ones. As for sugar, pretty molded pieces were appreciated for gifts during the Easter season. Maple sugar was also offered in the shape of large cakes that were to last the entire year.

Other merchants made the most of certain events to solicit clients, such as the French fry and hot dog vender, in the 20th century, who would set up shop near churches on Sundays and feast days. The ice cream and spruce beer vender would also be at work during the summer in busy areas. For his part, the pork and bean vendor was highly appreciated in the lumber camps where there were no cooks. When he left, he would carry boxes of letters for the loggers’ families.

The traveling salespeople satisfied the needs of the people, whether this meant their daily needs or more exceptional ones, related to festival events. The portrait painter, for his part, satisfied a very particular need, that of immortalizing important events in life and faces. To learn more about this individual, we invite you to come back on January 20, 2009.

  • LACHANCE, André. Vivre à la ville en Nouvelle-France. Outremont: Libre expression, 2004. 306 pages.
  • POMERLEAU, Jeanne. Métiers ambulants d’autrefois. Montréal, Guérin littérature, 1990. 467 pages.

Sixth episode
Having your portrait made
Having your portrait made

Photographie: Couple Wilfrid Sanche et Dona Laflèche, 1903
Source: Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, P106,s1,p15

The portrait painter was highly esteemed, but going to see him was considered a luxury. He did not keep people’s feet warm in winter or fill their bellies in hard times. Yet, by immortalizing the faces of loved ones, he offered a small treasure that nourished heart and soul. From village to village, the traveling painter and later photographer offered to make such portraits which were long considered a luxury but became more affordable in the 19th century through the development of photography.

Under the French régime, portrait makers found their clients in the religious communities and high society. Several painters had to travel about to meet their subjects since they were often dying or already dead. This was the case, for example, of Abbey Hugues Pommier who painted a portrait at the Hôtel-Dieu de Québec of Mother Marie-Catherine de Saint-Augustin, or of Pierre Le Ber who made a posthumous portrait of Marguerite Bourgeoys in 1700. Other painters painted living people such as Brother Luc who drew the portrait of Jean Talon in 1671. The custom of preserving the images of aged, ill or dead people continued until 20th century and lies behind a superstition to the effect that the portrait could cause death.

In the more affluent parts of societies, painting the portraits of adults or children was popular until the middle of the 19th century. Some were miniatures, occasionally painted on ivory; others were merely black silhouettes. The middle-class clients liked their portraits to reflect their social status. Drapes of velvet, jewelry and lace could contribute to create an impression of wealth. Certain portrait painters personalized their works with accessories such as a book or a game.

Of the many artists who dedicated their work to making portraits, Jean-Baptiste Roy Audy is know for having been a traveling painter from 1815 to 1848. He would go from manor to manor looking for clients and would place ads in newspapers. Other painters, such as Frances Ann Hopkins, accompanied the explorers to bring back souvenirs of their discoveries.

In the 19th century, the demand was so strong that it contributed to the development of a new process for making portraits: photography. It was in about 1840 that the daguerreotype, arrived in the St. Lawrence valley, offered in Quebec and Montreal by itinerant American photographers. At that time, sitting time took between three and 30 minutes, depending on the light, and the first sets and accessories were essentially intended to help the subjects remain still. Fortunately rapid technical progress served to reduce this time to less than a few seconds.

Se faire tirer le portrai

Photographie: Ulric Léger et son épouse Alexandrine Monette. Photographe: Rodolphe Léger
Source: Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, P28,d209,p2

As of the 1860s, the daguerreotype was replaced by a new process that included the use of negatives and was developed by Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot. This process, which was less costly, allowed people to obtain several copies of an image. The media used for negatives were waxed paper and then glass plates. Around 1880, cellulose nitrate films similar to those we have today appeared. Until 1890, the photos were printed on albumenized paper then glued to cardboard. In the case of ferrotypes (tintypes), the image appeared directly on a sheet of black tin.

In the urban areas, the clients would meet with the photographer in his studio. In the countryside, they would wait for a traveling photographer to pass by. Since negatives on glass had to be processed immediately, this photographer would carry a small laboratory with him, either on his back or in a hand cart or horse-drawn cart. Fortunately, the photographer’s equipment became lighter when a camera equipped with ingenious, folded shutters was developed.

Since the traveling photographer did not have a studio, he would set up his equipment in a private house and receive clients wearing their finest clothes there. Photos were costly and not accessible to the poorest families. Nevertheless, certain modest middle-class families found ways to economize by having their photo taken as a group. This only became possible, of course, when techniques allowing photos to be taken almost instantaneously.

In order to enhance portraits, the photographer would prepare sets, and offer clothes and jewelry to his clients to make them look richer. And he would loan a bouquet of flower to newly married couples, who wanted a photo of their marriage after the fact. After 1890, seasonal sets were also very popular.

Since painted portraits were still very fashionable in the 19th century, some photos were colored with pastels, water colors or paint in order to make them look like paintings. The photographer could also add curtains by hand or correct certain physical defects, either on the negative or on the photo. In this respect, much like the portrait painter, he would use his artistic skills.

Liker painters and photographers, other artists exercised their talents on the road. To learn more about public entertainers and buskers, puppeteers, poets and street musicians, we invite you to return on February 3, 2009.

  • LEMAGNY, Jean-Claude et André Rouillé, dir. Histoire de la photographie. Paris, Larousse, 1998. 296 pages.
  • LESSARD, Michel. La nouvelle encyclopédie des antiquités du Québec. Montréal, Éditions de l'Homme, 2007. 1103 pages.
  • MUSÉE MCCORD. Exposition virtuelle consacrée à William Notman:

Seventh episode
Entertainment for all tastes
Entertainment for all tastes

Source: Canadian Illustrated News, vol. XIV, no 6, p. 81.
Reproduction à partir du site Web de Bibliothèque et Archives Canada Nouvelles en images: Canadian Illustrated News.

Gifted with a thousand talents, buskers (or street entertainers) mastered the art of making people laugh, filling them with emotions and piquing the curiosity of crowds. They would set up on sidewalks in cities, in parks, or tour the countryside to demonstrate their ingenuity and skill at providing the best performance possible. In a hat or other container, they would collect a few coins, evidence of the public’s appreciation of their efforts.

As appealing to adults as to children, puppet shows could deal with the craziest, or the most serious subjects. Puppet theatres had existed in the St. Lawrence Valley since the late 18th century. The sketches by the first puppeteer, Jean-Sébastien Natte, portrayed historical personalities such as Louis XV, Voltaire and Montcalm, as well as the classic characters of the commedia dell’arte, such as Harlequin and Columbina. The puppets performed in front of landscapes painted by Natte himself. In addition to putting shows on in his home, Natte also occasionally set his theatre up in the public square or even in private homes. In the 19th century, some puppeteers also put on shows in the rural areas, traveling from village to village, and setting up where they could. They often made do with whatever was on hand and some would even use chairs to mark off the space for their performance. Needless to say, in such cases, the puppeteer’s talent had to compensate for the lack of equipment.

With their treats for the ears, the street musicians brightened up the trips of passersby, playing instruments such as the accordion, flute or harmonica or singing. In the cities, they could be found on the sidewalks, in parks, on ferries and even in the port where they occasionally went to welcome new arrivals. In the countryside, local musicians were regularly called on to provide entertainment for gatherings. In the 20th century, some artists joined forces and toured together. La Bolduc, for example, founded a troupe. When they arrived in the villages, the troupe would ask the local priest for permission to use the church, going so far as to offer him money if he agreed to announce the performance from the pulpit. During the performance, of course, the holy objects were removed. Other traveling musicians were well known in their region. This was the case, in the Saguenay and Charlevoix, of Louis l’Aveugle, who had been blind from birth. He told stories, sang, and played the violin and the "bioune”, a form of percussion harp he carried in a cart.

Occasionally accompanied by a small monkey, the organ grinder merely had to turn a crank to produce enchanting music for passersby in the good weather. His prettily decorated instrument could be equipped with a mobile foot so that he could set up comfortably. When traveling, the organ grinder carried his instrument on his back. Several melodies were available, such as the music of Carmen or waltzes by Strauss, but once a roll was installed on the hand organ, the instrument only played one tune, over and over.

Ever curious, crowds of people would be attracted by the unusual. In this respect, the mechanical puppeteer was always a success when he presented his mechanical puppets, which he often made himself. Using a rope or a pedal, he would activate his little people. In the 19th century, the colourful automated puppets of Godefroy Ladouceur, for example, represented trades, animals and dancers.

For his part, the projectionist would use a magic lantern, to project a variety of landscapes that were painted or photographed on glass, and accompany his show with a narrative. In the early years, many people were suspicious of those who projected images and would make the sign of the cross as they left the show. At the dawn of the 20th century, the first silent movie traveling projectionists appeared. Touring Quebec between 1897 and 1905, Henry de Grandsaignes d’Hauterive and his mother stopped in villages that had at least a few thousand inhabitants. They would set up their “historiograph” in schools and church basements. This first movies presented, which often covered historical or religious topics, consisted of a series of photographs which the projectionist would comment on, accompanied by music.

Physical strength was long considered a very useful quality in daily life and some strong men became veritable heroes. Louis Cyr, for example, displayed his strength in public, pulling against four horses. Strong women, dwarfs and giants, such as Édouard Beaupré, also captured people’s notice. At the end of the 19th century, several athletic and gymnastic clubs, which focused on agility and balance, were founded. Several public entertainers such as tightrope walkers, jugglers and acrobats also strove to impress people with their prowess.

Impressive, and sometimes frightening, shows involving wild animals also had their fans. Up until the First World War, several bear trainers traveled through the St. Lawrence Valley. Their animals were generally brown bears whose claws had been cut and who were muzzled and on leashes. To announce the show, the bear trainer would walk about the streets with his animal. When curious people stropped, he would have the animal perform a few tricks. He would have the bear stand on its hind legs and walk, climb a post, pass the hat around, etc. If the audience was pleased, the trainer would invite the spectators to a more elaborate show in the village. Pregnant women would generally avoided such shows since, according to superstition, there was a risk that the child would be born with hair like a bear, disabled, or marked with a wine spot where the mother, surprised by the show, had placed her hands.

This concludes the series of chronicles on the traveling trades.

  • POMERLEAU, Jeanne. Métiers ambulants d’autrefois. Montréal, Guérin littérature, 1990. 467 pages.
  • BEAUREGARD, Yves. «Jean Grimaldi, le "papa des artistes"», Cap-aux-Diamants, no 35, automne 1993, pages 21 à 25.


Resisting a portrait, even after death
Certain nuns, as a result of modesty and humility, refused to have their portraits made. One of them apparently resisted even after death. In fact, when Liébert set up his easel near the remains of Marguerite D’Youville, in 1771, he barely had time to complete his work since her features rapidly faded.
The giant Édouard Beaupré
Born in 1881, Édouard Beaupré was eight feet tall and weighed 350 pounds. One of his feats involved lifting a 600-pound horse.
The magic lantern
The first lanterns, which arrived in Quebec in the middle of the 19th century, used candles. The person showing the images had to work with a box that occasionally filled with smoke. Following this, the gas lamp and the light bulb were used.
The hand organ
The melodies played on this instrument were written on perforated cards that were inserted on a cylinder which the organ player turned with a crank. A mechanism consisting of pipes and a bellows produced the sound.
La Bolduc
Born Marie Travers, this musician had many talents. She was an author, composer, and singer; she also played the accordion, harmonica and jew’s harp. She was very successful in the 1930s.
Making the world topsy turvy
In the 19th century, puppeteers took great pleasure in portraying unlikely situations, such as a woman pulling a plough.travaillant à la charrue.
Group photo...
In the early decades of photography, as a result of the lengthy time subjects had to remain still, good group photos were hard to produce. As a result, the photographer would make a composite photo, namely he would photograph each subject individually and then make a montage.
Albumenized paper
Egg albumen served to fix silver salts on fine paper.
Good lighting
Natural lighting was essential in the first photography studios. Instead of walls, some of them had large glass windowpanes. In Montreal, around 1860, William Notman’s studio had a large window measuring three metres high by four and a half metres wide, as well as a small skylight in the ceiling.
This process was developed in France by Louis Jacques Daguerre. It served to make images appear on silver coated copper plates. The image was positive or, in other words, it was obtained directly.
Taking the photo of a dead person
Until the early 20th century, it was still common to photograph dead people.
The legend of Father Rouillard
A legend by Charles-Arthur Gauvreau specifically deals with this superstition. In Trois-Pistoles, in 1769, a portrait maker apparently stopped at the home of Seigneur Rioux and was asked to paint the portrait of Father Ambroise Rouillard. It was decided that this portrait did not look like the subject since the pale face looked like that of a drowned person. Oddly enough, Father Ambroise drowned a few days later.
Spruce beer
This drink was made from the needles of the white pine. Boiling produces an essence that is then put to ferment with yeast, molasses and water. The spruce beer salesperson would pull a cart that carried an actual traveling brewery. It contained fermenting beer that would be filtered slowly, as it flowed into a second container. The seller’s wares also included ice to cool the product.
Pretty little sugar molds
The most popular sugar molds includes those shaped like hearts, fish, roosters, and small houses
Storing eggs
Eggs go bad quickly, especially when it’s hot. To store them for longer periods, they can be placed in a large jar filled with coarse salt and kept in a cool place.
A good bowlful...
The fishmonger occasionally sold the entire contents of a bowl.
Fresh fish
The fish offered depended on the season. The fish available included capelin, sardines, smoked herring, turbot, salmon, haddock, and halibut.
Lean days
According to the Catéchisme du diocèse de Québec, published in 1702, the faithful were required to respect certain days of abstinence on which they could eat no meat. This applied to Fridays and Saturdays. In the case of Lent, they had to fast on certain days. In addition to not eating meat, they had to settle for the midday meal and a small snack in the evening. Nevertheless, the Church did allow for certain exceptions and occasionally allowed people to eat eggs and dairy products. Following the conquest, the rules for lean days were reduced.
This was a large tray carried in front, suspended from the merchant’s neck by a strap.
The market in New France
Under the French régime, in the urban areas food was purchased at the market, which took place once a week in Montréal and twice a week in Quebec. There, the settlers would sell their fruits and vegetables as well as animals they had raised or hunted. When the bell rang at 11:00 a.m., the merchants were free to wander about the streets and knock on the doors of houses to offer unsold food.
This tool looks like two large wood “X’s” attached to another piece of work. It makes it easier to saw logs, by holding them off the ground, at a convenient height.
This was a cedar bucket equipped with a cover and two handles. It was possible to rock it.
A very onerous chore: laundry
Before clothes were washed, they had to be repaired in order to make sure they were solid. Then the lights and darks had to be separated. The dirtiest items had to be soaked in water along with lye and occasionally boiled. Then the clothing had to be wrung before it was either rubbed, wet, against a scrub board or beaten. Following this, the laundry would be rinsed. If necessary a small amount of bluing could be added to make whites even brighter. The laundry would then be wrung, dried and ironed. The collars and cuffs of shirts could be starched in order to give them a certain stiffness.
Vacation sites
These services were in particular demand in major vacation sites such as Charlevoix or the Côte-du-Sud.
Marguerite Bourgeoys, laundress...
Around 1660, Marguerite Bourgeoys received money to launder altar cloths and maintain sacerdotal clothing. Her companion, Catherine Crolo, was specifically responsible for laundry.
Chimney sweep’s brush
This is a brush equipped with steel blades that is pulled by means of a cable to clean the inside of a pipe.
The small Savoyards
In Savoie, the harsh winters motivated people to take to the road and practice traveling trades. Many of the mountain people, who had a reputation as good climbers, became chimney sweeps. The small Savoie chimney sweeps, aged 6 to 12 years old, were taken in tow by recruiters. They would take them to the cities, provide support and take all of their income. In May, when the chimney sweeps returned home to work in the fields, the recruiters would give their parents a certain sum of money that had been determined in advance. A law was passed in 1863 prohibiting the recruiting of girls and boys under the age of 12.
Smoke contains unburned matter that is deposited on the walls of the chimney. When hot, it looks like viscous tar. Cold, it takes the form of flakes of black ash that can block pipes or even worse catch fire. Soft wood produces more soot than hard wood. Soot can be transformed into black paint or even medications for animals.
Pearl ash
Potash could be dried in an oven to make a purer product, intended for export, called pearl ash.
Ashes outside…
The settlers kept their ashes away from their homes because they feared the barrel would be set on fire by any hot coals that remained.
Potash is a solid extracted from wood ashes. It was produced by boiling lye until a solid residue was obtained. This residue looked like glass powder and was easy to store and transport. In a solution, potash is caustic or, in other words, corrosive.
Making soap
When heating the various ingredients used to make soap, the mixture had to be stirred constantly. Then it had to be cooled for a day. The soap was yellow. It would be cut into blocks and stored in containers to keep rodents from eating it. Making soap often resulted in a brown residue that some people called potash. This could be used to clean household linens.
Made by boiling ashes and collecting the liquid, lye was also use to soak clothing and wash floors. To determine if it was just strong enough, it had to be gentle to the touch. Lye was too strong when a small amount burned your tongue.
Soap time
In the spring when the table scraps that had been accumulated over the winter started to smell bad, it was time to make soap. Soap could also be made in the fall during butchering time.
Long live progress
A machine called a “Hollander” was invented in the Netherlands, accelerating this process. This machine was made of a cylinder equipped with blades that shredded the rags quickly without any need to prepare them.
The process for making paper that involved beating vegetable fibers with water to make a pulp was developed in China. It was introduced to Europe in the 12th century. Before they had paper to use, the Europeans generally wrote on parchment or vellum (animal skins).
Harness repairs
When sewing leather, the artisan had to use a thread made from twisted flax threads which he then covered with a substance made of tar, resin and fat.
Seat maker
Before the 19th century, the most popular materials used for make chair seats were rye straw, marsh grass and hemp strands. One technique for repairing chair seats involved making a straw lattice. The space between the top and bottom of the lattice would then be stuffed with scraps of straw.
Before the invention of mechanical clocks, men measured time using sun dials, sand glasses or graduated candles. It seems that clocks appeared in Europe towards the end of the 13th century, but it was only two centuries later that they became common in homes.
What to do without glass?
Up to the 19th century, glass was imported from Europe. People who could not obtain glass had to settle for using waxed fabric, skins, oiled paper or wooden shutters to protect their windows.
Glass, a wonderful invention
People have known about glass since Antiquity. When manufacturing pots or bricks, some of the material often turned into glass. Nevertheless, efficient techniques for manufacturing plate glass (for windows) were only developed in about the 14th century. One technique involved blowing a wide vase with a flat bottom which would then be opened at the edges. Another involved blowing a long vase and cutting the end to form a cylinder. This cylinder would then be cut lengthwise and placed flat. The large sheet of glass would then be cut into smaller panes.
Unlike terracotta, porcelain is impermeable and does not need a glaze. It is very white and very resistant. The secret of how it is made lies in the material used, kaolin, as well as the baking temperature, which is very hot.
Common earthenware is red, ochre or grey/yellow terracotta covered with a glaze. Fine earthenware is white and covered with enamel.
This is a form of pottery which is porous and not covered with enamel.
Water needed
The sharpener’s grindstone had to be kept moist. If the water ran out, he would either spit on his grindstone or ask the people around him for water. To make the people who brought him water laugh, he would pretend to drink it all
Pretty molds
The molds used in Quebec were designed so that the spoonmaker could pour the bowl of the spoon before the handle. They often included designs such as plants, animals, religious symbols and letters.
Common pewter is an alloy of pewter, copper and another metal (lead, bismuth or antimony). It is less resistant than fine pewter which generally contains more copper and, above all, much less lead.
To make shingles, a log of wood had to be split into strips which were then planed.
Wise chairs
As it dried, the green wood used for the uprights firmly compressed the dry wood used for the cross-pieces and the bars.
The weaver could sell the tow to shipbuilders, who used it for caulking.
This strip of leather, which had had all the hair removed and would then be salted, was very solid.
This consists of strips of willow branches that have been soaked in water before being woven. It is also possible to strip the bark off these branches and split them for more delicate works.
The colony’s first potters
In 1655, Nicolas Pré, dit DuPré, of Lauzon owned a potter’s wheel with pedals to shape clay. Following him, many others took to manufacturing containers from rough terracotta.
Potters known for their sizeable production included the Dion family of L’Ancienne-Lorette and the Farrar family of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. Dion pottery was generally made of local clay, which was red-brown in colour. The business, founded in 1851 by Jean-Baptiste Dion, was taken over by his brother and his sons. Farrar pottery is known for its gray pots decorated with blue flowers. The business was founded by a family that originally came from Vermont.
Flamboyant potters
In order to catch the clients’ attention, one pottery merchant with red hair died his beard purple
Developed by the Germans in the 14th century, tinplate was made of a sheet of iron covered with pewter to protect it against oxidation and rust. Light and affordable, this metal became very popular. It came to the St. Lawrence Valley in the second half of the 18th century.