Family Survival

MacNab Street North between Ferrie and Wood Streets

Preparing tomato paste on a warm summer's day

Across Hamilton’s North End during the Great Depression, even kids were expected to do their part in helping their families through tough times. Florence Fisher, Fred Purser, Floyd Reid and Ezio Settimi remember making every penny count.

Generations of families in this working-class neighbourhood have struggled through the uncertainties of the industrial capitalist economy. Surviving the tough economic times of the 1930s required the effort of one’s whole family, but these hardships were nothing new to most North End families. Their survival strategies were well developed by the time of the Great Depression.

Husbands and fathers had always been expected to “bring home the bacon,” but their wages alone could rarely support a family all year long. Part of the problem was that work didn’t last all year. In 1887, carpenter Edward Hancock of 385 MacNab Street North, for example, complained to the federal government’s Labour Commission that he could only find work for 10 months of the year. This was a common predicament for most workmen in the city. Year-round work became the standard only after World War II. Even if a man did find full-time work, his wages often fell short of the family’s cost of living.

Families in this neighbourhood had to find creative ways to stretch their meagre resources. They regularly sent other family members out to work for wages. Underpaid, unskilled labourers made up at least 40 per cent of the male heads of household along this part of MacNab Street North during the 40 years before the Great Depression. In 1891, four out of five families in this neighbourhood sent more than one person out to earn wages. Sons were usually the secondary breadwinners. Daughters entered the world of waged labour in slightly smaller numbers. Many stayed home to help their mothers. Large numbers of children worked in neighbourhood factories such as Canadian Cottons or Tuckett’s Tabacco; some as young as 12 years old worked long hours under dismal conditions for extremely low pay.

Wives were the least likely to work for wages. Household chores, daily trips to the market and child care kept most married women close to home. Married women who did work for wages often tried to find work they could do in the home. This was true for the McMahon family, who lived around the corner on Wood Street, in 1891. Bessie McMahon had four children under six years of age, and took in work as a ready-made tailoress. Her husband John earned very little as a labourer on the railway.

Tied to domestic responsibilities, married women often tried to find ways outside the world of waged work to stretch and supplement the low wages of their husbands. They trimmed the family’s food expenses by cultivating gardens. They preserved fruit and vegetables. They even kept livestock. In 1891, it was not unusual for families in this neighbourhood to keep eight or ten chickens. Taking in lodgers was the best way to generate extra income. A couple of boarders easily brought in as much as a woman could earn working full-time in the needle trades or cotton industry.