At the start of the post-Napoleonic era cities in British North America were mostly large towns. They were small in population and area, they served very local markets, and their people consisted mainly of merchants, artisans, physicians and lawyers, government and military officials, clergy, and not much more. Until the 1840s, Halifax, for example, was essentially a city built of wood; in the generation that followed, its centre would be largely rebuilt in stone and brick. By the 1860s, the most dynamic cities had grown significantly and were much more complex places.
The Modern City
Civic buildings became common and were a source of pride for the citizens. There was confidence and ambition in a young city that invested in stone buildings; the resident merchants and professionals located their mansions near the centre of town where they could be pointed to as evidence of community wealth; infrastructure like waterworks, board sidewalks, and a firehall were indicators of a commitment to the future and an enterprising attitude. The optimism of the age — the belief that a community’s citizens were building a glorious society with a long life expectancy — was embodied in the move to neoclassical design in these new public and civic spaces that suggested (not very modestly) a common and timeless connection with ancient Greece and Rome.
Few of these small cities had rows of shops just yet — they typically had public markets where grocers, butchers, fishmongers, and bakers hawked their wares. There was space as well for farmers from the nearby countryside to sell cash crops to the growing town population.
Michael Katz studied the people and patterns of life in mid-century Hamilton and he closely observed the transition that was underway there (and in many other cities):