Friday, April 24, 2009

What this blanket cost . . . first stanza

As a clerk in the fur trade I am always asked "How much does that [fill in the trade good] cost?"

Of course, the historian in me wants to open with "Well, it depends." But that isn't either the answer or even the opening gambit to conversation desired by the visitor. They want something concise, without all the background and context (which admittedly can get quite convoluted).

So, a straightforward answer is required and generally is stated in terms of beaver pelts, the plus in the terminology of the fur trade (as traders in what became "Upper Canada" there isn't any coinage, nor the need; we operated on the barter system).

But the real answer is much more complex, and really much more interesting. Those involved in reenacting and interpretation here in the Great Lakes understand that and actually ask to hear "the rest of the story".

When I chose the personna of a clerk, I quickly became aware of the need to understand the rudiments of the business transaction. This swiftly slipped into accounting procedure, then inventories, and tumbling into what sort of profits were realized, which resulted in what was a beaver pelt worth and what was the wholesale cost of trade goods. . .

I took as my "standard" the 2 1/2 point blanket. Of course this, too, lead into another convoluted labyrinth of how blankets were produced (which, mercifully, I will spare you the Reader). However, this side excursion was pivotal in my making sense of the financial data I was reading.

In a nutshell, inventories and other such documents mention "prs" or pairs of blankets. At first I glossed over that note, not giving much thought to it. A "pair of pants" after all refers to one, 1, uno, eine, en, un, a singluar piece of apparel. A "pr of blankets" must be the same, right?

Wrong. Blankets were created on12 ft. wide looms in long lengths. Hung on tenterhooks on tenter racks to dry in lengths of 24 blankets or so after fulling, they were eventually cut into the appropriate sizes for shipping. The piece size for shipping was a two blanket length, of whatever blanket size area (or point).

The point refers to the blanket size. "Pr" refers to the fact that blankets were shipped as a double length (we'll come back to this).

So, "how much does that 2 1/2 point blanket [about a twin bed size] cost?"

According to the trade lists and journals, the quick, straightforward answer is "Generally, 3 plus, or beaver pelts."

But what does it mean that a single 2 1/2 point blanket equals 3 beaver pelts? How much is that in "real money"? What is "real money", or rather in what currency do you figure "real money"? What is a beaver pelt worth in "real money"? What did that blanket cost?

The answer to those questions and more in the following postings on currencies, prices of goods, and prices of beaver peltry.

The Clerk


  1. This sounds like these "pairs" were cut into a single blanket after delivery, but I seem to recall that some blankets actually had to be joined because the loom width was not very wide. Original blankets they say can be identified by the join down the centre of the blanket. Does this post indicate that not all original blankets will show this join?
    Regards, Keith.

  2. The "pairs" were indeed cut up into singles for trade with Native bands, though some (like their counterparts in Montreal and Quebec) would also want the double "pair". I'm not quite sure to what you're referring in the "join down the centre of the blanket", but I don't believe that was the case. I haven't heard of or seen such a "join", but I can check with others.

    The Clerk