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© McCord Museum
Houses for Mr. Meredith, Montreal, QC, 1903
Wm. Notman & Son
1903, 20th century
Silver salts on glass - Gelatin dry plate process
20 x 25 cm
Purchase from Associated Screen News Ltd.
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

At the turn of the 20th century the average Canadian worker could not support his family on his wages only. Pay was generally very low since few workers were unionized, the unions were insufficiently funded and the legal system did not encourage collective bargaining. Family incomes were also affected by periodic slowdowns in the economy and seasonal unemployment. To make ends meet, working-class families had to cut corners wherever possible, primarily by finding the cheapest possible lodging.

Yet the situation varied enormously depending on the class of work. Railroad employees earned an above-average wage as a result of their highly marketable skills and the power of their unions. At the other end of the scale workers in more precarious trades as well as day labourers took home very low and irregular pay packets. These were the workers who tended to live in the most pitiful conditions.


This photograph shows working-class housing in a shocking state. While the better-off minority of the working class moved to new housing in the suburbs, the poorest moved into the houses abandoned by the privileged few among the workers.


The photograph shows an old working-class district of Montreal. Municipal regulations did not allow for a yard in front of or behind the apartment buildings.


In 1903, when this picture was taken, the sordid appearance of working-class housing was beginning to attract the attention of unionists and reformers.


Living conditions in workers' houses, huddled together in the shadow of the factories, were appalling. In 1896 the reformer Herbert Brown Ames found over five thousand outdoor privies in a single sector of south-west Montreal.

© Musée McCord Museum