Living daily life in New France

Living daily life in New FranceThe heritage left by our first ancestors, who built this country, is undeniable. In Quebec, this heritage is made obvious in numerous manners: through language, architecture, customs and beliefs, tales and legends... and many, many more. These vestiges are still very vibrant, although several practices have been shadowed in obscurity: the multitude of the daily actions taken by these ancestors. Despite interest in such matters in recent years, we still have much to learn about the history of daily life.

This new series of chronicles is intended to raise the curtain with respect to certain aspects of daily life in New France. How did these ancestors live their daily lives and deal with the major stages in their lives, from birth to death?

Click on a title to access an episode or to close the tab.

First episode
Giving birth in New France

Giving birth in New FranceUnder the French regime, raising a large family ensured survival. In a society that was essentially rural in nature, progeny provided the labour force needed to complete the thousand and one daily chores. As a result, married women of that time spent half of their married lives pregnant. A woman who married at 25 – the average age for marriage in New France – gave birth every second year, until she reached her early forties. During that period, she would give birth to eight or nine children. As a result of difficult living conditions, a lack of hygiene and rudimentary medical knowledge, 40% of these children did not live to the age of 15. The picture of the 17th and 18th centuries, when it came to childbirth, was not glorious, particularly since the infant mortality rate has to be considered along with the high maternal mortality rate. As a result of the physical wear and tear of repeated pregnancies and a return to hard labour shortly after giving birth, two percent of mothers died while giving birth or few days following that.

Under the French regime, children were generally conceived in the spring, at the same time as the crops were sown. During her pregnancy, the woman continued to perform her many chores, even during the final months of the pregnancy, in order to survive. Moreover, people paid little heed to her condition, with the exception of the woman around her who would give her advice about what food to eat or offer her protective medals. This lack of rest resulted in a large number of miscarriages, which were referred to at that time as “injuries”.

At the end of nine full moons – which is how people at that time referred to the term of gestation – the woman would give birth. When her labour started, the women in the house would gather around the pregnant woman in the common room along with a few neighbours and the midwife. Out of a sense of modesty, the men would wait outside. Everything was set into motion to prepare for the delivery. Some would heat the water needed to clean the mother and the child and close the curtains; others would arrange a bed of straw in front of the hearth where the mother would rest between contractions and they would light a fire. Through the darkness and heat, they intended to reproduce the environment which the child was leaving. Finally, when the infant was pushed out of the mother’s body, a chair was used. In fact, women gave birth in a sitting position until the 19th century.

After giving the baby a bath – which was generally rather summary – and examining him, the midwife would wrap the infant in very tight cloths. His arms would be placed alongside his body, so that he could not move. This was done, among other things, because people at that time believed that swaddling would shape the child’s body and ensure that his adult body was well formed. The swaddled baby was then placed near the mother and both would regain their strength. This period of rest was, however, very brief. After a few days, three at the very most, the baby would be taken to the church to be baptised, the mother would return to work and the cycle would start over again.

In the months following the delivery, the physical care given to the child was most unlike current practices. To learn more about personal hygiene in the daily lives of the settlers in New France, we invite you to return on October 5, 2004.

  • LACHANCE, André. Vivre, aimer et mourir en Nouvelle-France. La vie quotidienne aux 17e et 18th centurys, Montréal, Éditions Libre Expression, 2000, 222 p.

Second episode
Hygiene in New France

Hygiene in New France“The more a ram smells, the more the goat loves him.” - Translation of a proverb from the French regime

All historians agree that the 17th and 18th centuries were among the worst periods in terms of physical hygiene. Although the hot baths and public baths of the Middle Ages still existed, the French regime sounded the death-knell for this tradition, which was inherited from the Romans. Moreover, the French regime was generally a period of extreme modesty. As a result of the religious renewal that took place during this time, nudity was poorly viewed. This sense of modesty was so extreme that, even when washing, people avoided getting completely unclothed. This made complete washing almost impossible. Finally, in the 17th and 18th centuries, filth was considered beneficial and it was primarily for this reason that people of the time avoided washing. According to the medical theories of the time, germs - which were called miasmas then - floated about in the air and entered the body through the skin, contaminating it. Water - and particularly hot water - was harmful since it opened the pores of the skin, making the individual more vulnerable to disease.

Moreover, therapeutic virtues were attributed to dirtiness. As a result, for example, when a child was born, he was washed only very briefly. The placental remains and the blood on his skin were considered protection against the external elements. In a similar manner, the settlers were satisfied with simply drying urine-filled diapers before using them again, without first washing them. Moreover, urine was occasionally used as a beauty product to treat acne, among other things. Finally, people avoided washing their hair since scalp oil was considered excellent for shiny, healthy hair. As result, most people at the time had head lice.

As a result of this situation, until the end of the 18th century, most people bathed “dry” or, in other words, using as little water as possible as a cleansing agent. In the case of nobles, cleanliness was ensured through the use of cosmetics: perfume and cologne to chase away bad odours, powder to dry greasy hair, etc. All sorts of artificial means, such as wigs, were used to provide the appearance of cleanliness.

The peasants, on the other hand, settled for changing the shirt they used as their underclothing a few times a month, and washing the parts of the bodies that were not covered by clothing (neck, face, hands and arms) quickly with cold water.

Finally, everyone had poor oral hygiene. Since there were no toothbrushes, people who lived at the time of the French regime, settled for rubbing their gums and teeth with a cloth. Then they would scrape the remains of food from their teeth with toothpicks. It should also be noted that the settler in New France generally ate a raw onion per day to prevent disease and the observations made by Pehr Kalm - a traveler who visited the country in 1749 - are quite easy to understand:
“French people of modest condition occasionally smell so strong that anyone who meets them in the street and who is not used to this situation must hold his nose!”** (translation of quote)

Obviously, this lack of hygiene was responsible for several diseases. To learn more about the pathologies of New France and the manner in which they were treated, we invite you to return on October 19, 2004.

* Starting in this period, the Church condemned public baths, considering them places of debauchery.
** Quote taken from: ROUSSEAU, Jacques et Guy BÉTHUNE. Voyage de Pehr Kalm au Canada en 1749. Traduction annotée du journal de route par Jacques Rousseau et Guy Béthune, Montréal, Pierre Tisseyre, 1977, p. 413, item 833.

  • LACHANCE, André. Vivre, aimer et mourir en Nouvelle-France. La vie quotidienne aux 17e et 18th centurys, Montréal, Éditions Libre Expression, 2000, 222 p.
  • ROUSSEAU, Jacques et Guy BÉTHUNE. Voyage de Pehr Kalm au Canada en 1749. Traduction annotée du journal de route par Jacques Rousseau et Guy Béthune, Montréal, Pierre Tisseyre, 1977, 674 p.

Third episode
Illness and health care in New France

Illness and health care in New FranceThose who lived during the time of New France confirmed that the climate of the country was healthy and that most of the epidemics that affected the population - typhus, scurvy, smallpox, measles, etc. – came from the unhealthy ships that originated in Europe. However, the harshness of the climate, poor public hygiene and, moreover, the lack of personal hygiene were responsible for several illnesses. At the top of the list there were the respiratory diseases and other health problems, such as chilblains, that were caused by the cold of winter. These were followed by dysentery and intestinal worms, which were generally caused by poor water quality. The small rivers in the cities were used as open sewers and, in the countryside, the manure pile was often near the well. The hardness of daily work also led to a number of problems: back pain, hernias, and rheumatism.... Finally, there were also several cases of mange, toothaches, abscesses and cancer, not to mention venereal diseases such as syphilis.

The people used various “home” remedies to treat these problems, since they could not afford the services of a surgeon or doctor.* In most cases, the interventions of surgeons and doctors were either without effect or even made the situation worse since, at the time, most treatments involved bleeding, enemas or purging. On the other hand, home remedies were generally gentler since they were based on plants. For example, an infusion of leaves from the common yarrow (Achillea Millefolium) was used to reduce fever, while comfrey (Symphytum Officinale) leaves were used in poultices to heal wounds and garlic was used as a vermifuge.

Needless to say, it is not a good idea to idealize the pharmacopoeia of our ancestors. Popular medical practices were still thoroughly grounded in superstition and many of these home remedies were closer to witchcraft than actual cures. Also, several rather wild remedies included the most unusual of ingredients: maple syrup, urine and sheep excrement to cure coughing, lead grains to remove corns, crushed lice to treat jaundice and oil from small dogs to treat rheumatism!

Finally, if all of these treatments failed, divine intercession remained the final recourse for treating ills of all kinds. Thus, people were encouraged to pray to St. Lucy for help with eye problems or to St. Blaise for throat problems. Each saint was attributed with the ability to heal one or more diseases. The belief that diseases were a form of divine punishment encouraged these practices.

In addition to the lack of hygiene and the harshness of the climate, nutrition played a role in the development of disease in the 17th and 18th centuries. To learn more about the daily diets of our ancestors, we invite you to return on November 2, 2004.

  • LACHANCE, André. Vivre, aimer et mourir en Nouvelle-France. La vie quotidienne aux 17e et 18th centurys, Montréal, Éditions Libre Expression, 2000, 222 p.

Fourth episode
Nutrition in New France

Nutrition in New FranceUnder the French regime, the quality and diversity of food varied enormously from one table to the next, depending on the social condition of the settler. Yet, in the case of both colonists and nobles, historians agree that people ate as well as or even better than in France during the same period.

The daily menu of the settlers in New France was essentially based on meat and meat products. Bread as well was a staple under the French regime. Fish also occupied an important position since the liturgical calendar at the time included 150 lean days: Fridays, Saturdays, Advent, Lent...

Nutrition in the countryside
In the countryside, each colonist had to be self sufficient. With the exception of salt, which was essential for preserving food, and a few staples that the settlers purchased at the market, most of the foods that made up the daily diet were grown or raised. Hunting, fishing and the gathering of wild fruits completed the pioneer diet.

Each settler ate between one and two pounds of bread per day! Grains were the primary source of the energy needed for the hard daily labor. For breakfast, the settler would dip a chunk of break in milk and top this off with pancakes made of wheat or buckwheat flour. For the midday meal and supper, he would usually eat a soup or stew, namely a thick mixture of lard or game, bread crumbs and vegetables. Onions, leeks, cabbage, turnips, beets and other root vegetables were the most popular since they could be stored for a long time. Finally, for desert, they served nuts and fresh fruits, when they were in season. Although this menu would appear satisfying, we really should not idealize the nutritional habits of the colonists under the French Regime. The lack of variety resulted in nutritional deficiencies. Moreover, the colony was not safe from shortages; agricultural techniques were still precarious and the climate was capricious. Nevertheless, the situation here was much better than in France at the same time.

Nutrition in the city
In the city, the daily menu was more varied than in the countryside. The middle class and the nobles imported several products from the home country to accompany their meals, which generally consisted of several courses. Such “luxury” products included spices (cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, etc.), chocolate and coffee, olives and olive oil, vinegar, wines from Spain and fine liqueurs... In short, they had everything they needed to prepare a meal worthy of the best tables in France. According to Perh Kalm, who traveled to Canada in 1749, “The meals of the French in Canada are, if I may so, usually overabundant. A relatively large number of dishes are served: soups and a variety of meats.” From there, it’s not a large step to claim that New France has its own gastronomists.

This is the final chronicle on daily life in New France.

  • AUDET, Bernard. Se nourrir au quotidien en Nouvelle-France, Sainte-Foy, Les Éditions GID, 2001, 367 p.
  • DOUVILLE, R. et J.-D. CASSANOVA. La vie quotidienne en Nouvelle-France. Le Canada de Champlain à Montcalm, Paris, Hachette, 1967, 272 p.
  • ROUSSEAU, Jacques et Guy BÉTHUNE. Voyage de Pehr Kalm au Canada en 1749. Traduction annotée du journal de route par Jacques Rousseau et Guy Béthune, Montréal, Pierre Tisseyre, 1977, 674 p.