M985.230.5023.1-5 | The Wood Famine
The Wood Famine
Anonyme - Anonymous
1872, 19th century
Ink on newsprint - Photolithography
24 x 35 cm
Gift of Mr. Colin McMichael
© McCord Museum
Keywords: Genre (188) , Print (10661)
Keys to History
During the late 19th century, the winter months were the hardest for the city's most destitute inhabitants. Few poor households had the means to purchase wood and coal in summer when the prices were at their lowest. And fall brought the water tax. So the poor had to buy their fuel in winter when supplies were low and prices high. This situation was made all the more difficult by the fact that the heads of many of these families were out of work in winter.
The text accompanying this illustration, which appeared in the Montreal weekly newspaper The Canadian Illustrated News, describes the wood shortage that took place in the city during the winter of 1872:
« It was a sad misfortune for the poor of Montreal and for many other people besides that the ice should have taken in the canal and the river before the full supply of wood for winter had reached the city. Immediately on the close of navigation the wood merchants sent up their prices some two or three dollars per cord (...). The Corporation, startled into something like feeling by the freezing of (...) two children (...) made a large purchase of wood at Acton, which, by arrangement with the Grand Trunk Railway, was delivered in small quantities to the poor, at the rate of 4.50$ per cord. In addition to this, (...) Mr. A.B. Foster gave a hundred cords free, and the generous farmers of the parish of St. Jerome, under the leadership of the good Father Labelle, brought in to town a great number of loads of wood to be given free to the poor under the direction of the several Charitable organizations in the city."
In the left corner of the illustration we see a train owned by the Grand Trunk Railroad Company. As the inscription ("Free wood for the poor of Montreal") suggests, it carried wood to the city's destitute.
In Montreal, winter temperatures often reached -20o Celsius. In such conditions it was very hard to save on wood for heating.
Many families were hit by unemployment in winter, when the prices of food and clothing were at their highest. Moreover, as unemployment figures rose and the pool of available manpower grew, employers did not hesitate to cut salaries.
During the winter, the most vulnerable people were the manual labourers like the port of Montreal's stevedores, who depended on seasonal work.