Tuesday, June 30, 2009

What this blanket cost . . . the final stanza, more or less

More than a month has passed since my last post, and people were beginning to wonder whether starvation or some other calamity might have befallen this Post. Fear not, just life intruding.

Though no post has appeared, your Clerk has been nonetheless busy: besides work with the automatons, the past five weeks has been filled reading and research to trace the blanket's cost back toward it's source in England (much reading on blankets, weaving, and the process of producing blankets in Witney, Oxfordshire, and Yorkshire) among other pursuits. During this time, a pleasant weekend was spent on the Yellow River in the Fond du Lac District (the Folle Avoine posts of the NW Co. and XY Co.)

In previous posts, we have established, rather loosely I hope you will understand, the wholesale cost of the 2 1/2 point blanket in Montreal ( 5s., five shillings) and Grand Portage (7s.) and the "value" such an item brought when traded with the Native peoples with whom the various fur companies traded (3-4 beaver pelts or plus).

In some later post, I will endeavor to describe my search to find the source cost in England and the difficulties in terminology, differing qualities and sizes, and other conundrums which have presented themselves. For now, let me turn to what these plus represent in terms of financial return and how it compares to the wholesale cost. I will end with some information on period cost of goods and income.

The references for the worth of the plus or beaver pelt are: Harold Innis' The Fur Trade in Canada (itself a huge reference work citing other primary references) and James Parker's Emporium of the North.

To put a very short leash on the the price of beaver, lest it run amok in its wildly erratic fluctuations from the French period through the second decade of the 19th century, I take an average price of £1. for parchment beaver. My reasoning is thus:

Prices varied depending upon a number of factors from the supply (which itself was subject to the returns of any one year, the state of war which might or might not exist on the high seas, to cite just two conditions) to the quality of the fur (not just summer vs. winter, castor gras/caster sec, but spoilage, how much flesh was left on the hide, and so on) to the needs of the hatters and other end users of the furs.

Innis and Parker (citing Morton's) are somewhat at variance with regard to their understanding of the beaver prices. At the same, they do not specify the unit of pricing quoted (though Parker is somewhat more clear). Innis give a price range 1784 through 1801 of 8/6 to 14/ with a high at 15/6 in 1789 (the price in shillings, and it is assumed per pound of beaver fur given his comments elsewhere in his book). According to Parker, the price of parchment beaver, castor sec (caster gras with its thicker coat minus the guard hair being worth more), in 1784 was 19s. 9d., close to £1. After the turn of the century, prices soared to over 30s. Given Innis' price range and the context of Parker's comments, these latter prices appear to be per plus.

Beaver pelts themselves weighed in, on average, between 1 3/5 and 2 1/2 pounds each depending upon seasonal coat. Using 2 pounds as an average beaver pelt, the range of price for one beaver plus in the Innis' time frame above would be 17s to 31 shillings (£1 11s.).

Thus I take a conservative average of £1 as the return on one beaver pelt.

If each 2 1/2 point blanket cost 3-4 plus, then the average cost or return over the period is £3 to £4 for the 5s. wholesale cost. More precisely, using Innis' figures and subtracting the wholesale cost, the actual return on a blanket is between 45s. to 88s. in the period.

Of course, the "overhead" in terms of wages and supplies would come out of this amount. Not a bad sum. Philip Turnor of the HBC noted in 1792 that the total NW Co. expense on 20,000 "made" beaver taken from Athabasca region in all likelihood did not amount to more than £3000 to and from England. Perhaps a £17,000 return from that Department alone.

What do all of these financial numbers mean in the context of the period? Cost of living numbers for Canada are difficult to come by and I have not found any good overview resources of the cost of goods or comparative prices for Canada. However, some idea of what these monetary figures indicate can be seen from:

In 1797 England bread sold for 1d. (one pence) and beer for 4d. (12d.=1s. 20s.=£1). The Dobie/Badgley 1797 invoice from Montreal indicates a good Hudson Bay fusee for 21s. 6d. or 15s. for a doz. pen knives.

A typical voyageur might make £30 per year (a common laborer in England £26-40, the lowest being poverty wages), a clerk £50-150 (less than an English cabinetmaker, clerk, or weaver).

At some future point, I'll post some more cost/wage comparisons with a idea of how these compare as percentage of income with percentage of today's income.

Thanks for your patience,

I remain Yr Hmble