Life in the 1800s

Vintage family souvenirs, including photographs.
Immigrants to Canada on a boat waiting to go ashore.
Boys or young men playing ice hockey outdoors.

19th century Canada saw many major political changes. Nevertheless, ordinary people’s everyday lives went on more or less unchanged, regardless of whether or not they lived through historically important times.

In the countryside, where most people lived, there was usually farm work to do from dawn to dusk most days throughout the year. Farming families lived close together, generally appreciated being in nature and enjoyed whatever income their land and animals could bring. Periods of bad harvests could be tough, though, especially for tenant farmers, who had to give away parts of their harvest to the landowners every year, even during times when yields were low and people starved.

Town life

As opposed to the agrarian countryside, Canadian towns were busy hubs of commerce, though far from as populous as they are today. Sanitation here was an afterthought, especially for the poor, and with many people in the same place, disease easily spread. Particularly severe, in the way of disease, was a cholera epidemic in 1832, affecting cities like Quebec and Montreal. At its peak, this epidemic caused hundreds of deaths every day, leading to townies isolating themselves from other people to try to avoid cholera infection.


The risk of contracting disease and the previously mentioned risk of low yields notwithstanding, throughout the 1800s, Canada, just like the United States, was an attractive destination for poor European emigrants. Landless natives of the British Isles, especially, settled here in large numbers, but other Europeans and Chinese also came. The primary reason to leave Europe for North America was the hope of being able to own land, something that could generate income and improve living standards. Even so, for some people to decide to cross the Atlantic, they only needed the excitement of adventure.


As immigrants arrived in increasing numbers in the latter half of the 19th century, Canadian society developed considerably. Large industries sprang up, railroads were built and team sports such as ice hockey and lacrosse emerged as structurally organized activities. The invention of photography, furthermore, amazed people, and sitting in front of the camera became popular. However, only people with patience could have their photos taken, since not being completely still for several minutes risked ruining the shot. This slow process of taking a photo in the 1800s, quite interestingly, is most likely why we see so few smiley faces in really old photographs.