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10.6: Social Classes

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  • The social classes of British North America at mid-century were a mix of old and new elements. The seigneurs of New France survived into the 19th century, their ranks inflated by the arrival of British gentry who bought up seigneurial titles and lands. And, of course, seigneuries depended utterly on the perpetuation of feudal relations with censitaires. It wasn’t until 1854, with the passage of An Act for the Abolition of Feudal Rights and Duties in Lower Canada by the now-united Province of Canada, that the system truly began to disappear. It would take another 80 years before it was wound up completely, but 1854 marks the beginning of the end of feudalism in British North America.

    The seigneurs and censitaires had roots that ran deep into the history of New France, as did the merchants (or burghers or bourgeois) whose claims to legitimacy might go as deep as the fur trade. The seigneurs retained importance politically and socially, but it was the merchants who emerged in the 19th century as the leading social class. By the 1820s, liberal professionals were beginning to make a significant appearance (especially in the towns and cities), and throughout this period the clergy were effectively a social class in their own right, one with considerable clout in all colonies.

    Farmers and artisans remained, by far, the largest social category, but by the mid-19th century their numbers were being challenged by a growing working class, or proletariat. (The latter became more organized and significant in size only after Confederation.)

    Self-awareness or class consciousness is what makes social classes matter. Not all of these social classes were able to act with a singular will, although their interests were often quite clearly distinct.

    Exercise: Documents

    Fashion plates

    One of the features of vernacular (or folk) culture is that it is slow to change. Below are five visual records of the clothing styles of Canadien men and women in the 19th century (Figures 10.E1 – 10.E5).

    To what extent are they durable? What changes do you notice? What elements stand out?

    All of these illustrations were made by Anglo-Canadians or British army personnel. What do you think they saw when they looked at their subjects?


    Figure 10.E1 Sempronius Stretton’s 1805 depiction of a Canadien man and woman in winter clothing.


    Figure 10.E2 John Lambert’s 1816 illustration of a Canadienne and a Catholic Priest in winter dress.


    Figure 10.E3 John Lambert’s 1816 depiction of “Habitants in their Summer dress.”


    Figure 10.E4 John Crawford Young’s ca. 1825-36 watercolour of “Canadian Habitants”.


    Figure 10.E5 Frances Anne Hopkins, “Canadian Habitant in Winter,” ca . 1858-59.