I often contemplate the lives of women who lived in the past. Since girlhood, I’ve always been drawn to stories of yesteryear and so it seems fitting that in the novel I’m currently writing, I inhabit the lives of fictional women characters from the 1800s. To accurately reflect their daily existence through story telling, I comb through historical texts to develop an understanding of women’s lot in life—joys and sorrows, the restrictions they navigated, and in the absence of today’s technology, the never-ending day-to-day work of caring for a home and family.

In her book Backwoods of Canada, Catharine Parr Traill who herself came from well-to-do English family, touched upon her observations of other women from various classes. Husbands often complain that, “the women are discontented and unhappy. Few enter with their whole heart into a settler’s life. They miss the little domestic comforts they had used to enjoy; they regret the friends and relations they left in the old country; and they cannot endure the loneliness of the backwoods.”

Catherine Parr Trail (February 1884), Ottawa, by Topley Studios, photo source: Library and Archive Canada

She goes on to comment about how men writing about emigration to Upper Canada painted an overly rosy picture of the experience because so few had visited the “Bush”. They generally toured established areas and had no understanding of the years of labour required in advance of such comfort. She cited that “the farmer’s wife makes her own soap candles and sugar; the family are clothed in cloth of their own spinning and hose of their own knitting. The bread, the beer, butter, cheese, meat poultry are all produce of the farm.” Most of these tasks—including child care, management the dairy and caring for hogs, poultry and gardens—fell under the wives’ jurisdiction.


For many reasons, historians and scholars studying the early 1800s have largely focused their interests on colonial economic and political evolution. At that time, few farms and businesses were owned and operated by women in the early 1800s. Women were barred from both voting and running for public office. A woman’s raison d’être was derived from her household and her duty to family. From every front—church, printed works, and community—the definition of a good woman was reinforced as one who perpetually strives to ease her husband’s life.


In reality, households functioned because wives, mothers, and neighbour women had skills that translated into economic and social value. When a family required it, wives worked outside the home. Although in York (current day Toronto), milliners and other craftswomen furnished goods and services to growing colonies, but few female proprietors were applauded.

Corporal’s House on the Portage between Lake Simcoe and the Nottawasaga (Ont.) River (April 16, 1825), Water colour over pencil, Artist: Back, George, 1796-1878. Sir,, Photo source: Library and Archive Canada

One successful woman entrepreneur, Jane Jorden of York, opened a hotel in 1817. She provided travellers and locals with food and drink as well as room rentals, and allowed travelling business men to set up temporary shops in her parlour. Jane also oversaw staff and renovation contractors in addition to negotiating for goods at a local market. At this time, most women`s commercial ventures were made known through word of mouth and operated only until the she married. Jane was one of a small and remarkable group of women that had sufficient confidence and financial where withal to assume the risk of business.


From the earliest days of Upper Canada, women participated in formal and informal economies. Whether in rural or town and village businesses, wives (often with the assistance of a daughter) worked alongside their husbands and widows frequently took over as proprietor following the death of a husband.


Wives of the working class found markets for their resources and skills. Many took in boarders; washed clothes, mended and sewed; or became teachers. A few turned to houses of ill-repute. The work an Upper Canada woman chose to perform was influenced by factors like her family’s wealth or community standing and whether she lived in an expanding community, a small town, or on a farm. Age, marital status, and the woman’s personal aspirations also impacted the type of work she chose. Thousands of such women worked as domestic helpers in someone else’s home. The families whose wives or mothers became ill or pregnant, often paid for other women’s help with tasks like caring for the dairy or washing.

Portrait depicting three women chatting, Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1979-14-74 Source: Miss S. Hensley, London, Ontario.

Jessie Geddes wrote in her diary on February 1, 1900, that “Annie Goodall came and washed. We gave her 1 dollar. She will just have to get 50 cents next time.”


There is not a lot written about exactly what work women did in the employ of others. They had, for the most part, neither resources or knowledge of writing to record their lives on paper. (The same could be said of many men as well.) Much of what is known comes from the journal entries and correspondence of middle-class women. These sources typically reveal the concerns of financially advantaged colonists, but also a glimpse into the workings of rural homes. In this age before industrialization, the colony relied heavily on women to fill the roles of wife, mother, scullery maid and teacher.


The day of a live-in servant employed in a grand house began long before her wealthy mistress and master rose in the morning. The kitchen stove must be lit, then water heated and delivered to bedrooms for start-of-the-day bathing. Next, rugs would be shaken out in the breakfast room, and the fire lit. Fire irons were cleaned, furniture dusted, hall and stairs swept and dirt removed from the boot scrapers at each entrance. Even mud splatters were scrubbed from the door and all exterior hardware a visitor might encounter upon arrival were cleaned then polished. That being done, she could eat, albeit quickly, so she could don a clean apron and serve breakfast to her employer’s family.

unknown woman, year artist unknown, Library and Archive of Canada

Destitute women labelled as vagrants were brought before the court and told to leave the area. If the offense of loitering and begging was repeated, they could be sentenced with jail time. Homes, rural and otherwise, were often visited by women seeking charity. On February 3, 1856, Catharine Merritt of St. Catharines, Ontario, wrote in her diary, “A poor woman gave us a fright last night. She came for some milk for her child and fell from her chair to the floor, in a fit. She recovered in about half an hour and we sent her home in the sleigh. She was very ill through the night. There is a great deal of suffering in this place, about fourteen were relieved here today.”


Upper Canada was comprised of three different interdependent communities of women. First came the family circle. Then followed neighbours and communities centred around shared religion. Lastly, there were the higher status women who relied on women domestic workers or servants; who in turn relied on higher status women for income; and the women goods and services providers who relied on the patronage of the higher status women.


(Photo Credit for Lead Photo: An old servant-21yrs old, 1912, locaton unknown, photo credit: Credit: William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada/PA-010671)


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