CHAPTER XI. HOW THE PEOPLE LIVED
Clothing was almost wholly made at home. It was warm and durable, as well as somewhat distinctive and picturesque. Every parish had spinning wheels and handlooms in some of its homes on which the women turned out the heavy druggets or etoffes du pays from which most of the men's clothing was made. A great fabric it was, this homespun, with nothing but wool in it, not attractive in pattern but able to stand no end of wear. It was fashioned for the habitant's use into roomy trousers and a long frock coat reaching to the knees which he tied around his waist with a belt of leather or of knitted yarn. The women also used this etoffe for skirts, but their waists and summer dresses were of calico, homemade as well. As for the children, most of them ran about in the summer months wearing next to nothing at all. A single garment without sleeves and reaching to the knees was all that covered their nakedness. For all ages and for both sexes there were furs in plenty for winter use. Beaver skins were cheap, in some years about as cheap as cloth. When properly treated they were soft and pliable, and easily made into clothes, caps, and mittens.
Most of the footwear was made at home, usually from deerhides. In winter every one wore the bottes sauvages, or oiled moccasins laced up halfway or more to the knees. They were proof against cold and were serviceable for use with snowshoes. Between them and his feet the habitant wore two or more pairs of heavy woolen socks made from coarse homespun yarn. In summer the women and children of the rural communities usually went barefoot so that the soles of their feet grew as tough as pigskin; the men sometimes did likewise, but more frequently they wore, in the fields or in the forest, clogs made of cowhide.
On the week-days of summer every one wore a straw hat which the women of the household spent part of each winter in plaiting. In cold weather the knitted tuque made in vivid colors was the great favorite. It was warm and picturesque. Each section of the colony had its own color; the habitants in the vicinity of Quebec wore blue tuques, while those around Montreal preferred red. The apparel of the people was thus in general adapted to the country, and it had a distinctiveness that has not yet altogether passed away.
On Sundays and on the numerous days of festival, however, the habitant and his family brought out their best. To Mass the men wore clothes of better texture and high, beaver hats, the women appeared in their brighter plumage of dresses with ribbons and laces imported from France. Such finery was brought over in so large a quantity that more than one memoire to the home government censured the "spirit of extravagance" of which this was one outward manifestation. In the towns the officials and the well-to-do merchants dressed elaborately on all occasions of ceremony, with scarlet cloaks and perukes, buckled slippers and silk stockings. In early Canada there was no austerity of garb such as we find in Puritan New England. New France on a jour de fete was a blaze of color.
As for his daily fare, the habitant was never badly off even in the years when harvests were poor. He had food that was more nourishing and more abundant than the French peasant had at home. Bread was made from both wheat and rye flour, the product of the seigneurial mills. Corn cakes were baked in Indian fashion from ground maize. Fat salted pork was a staple during the winter, and nearly every habitant laid away each autumn a smoked supply of eels from the river. Game of all sorts he could get with little trouble at any time, wild ducks and geese, partridges, for there were in those days no game laws to protect them. In the early winter, likewise, it was indeed a luckless habitant who could not also get a caribou or two for his larder. Following the Indian custom, the venison was smoked and hung on the kitchen beams, where it kept for months until needed. Salted or smoked fish had also to be provided for family use, since the usages of the Church required that meat should not be used upon numerous fast-days.
Vegetables of many varieties were grown in New France, where the warm, sandy, virgin soil of the St. Lawrence region was splendidly suited for this branch of husbandry. Peas were the great stand-by, and in the old days whole families were reared upon soupe aux pois, which was, and may even still be said to be, the national dish of the French Canadians. Beans, cucumbers, melons, and a dozen other products were also grown in the family gardens. There were potatoes, which the habitant called palates and not pommes de terre, but they were almost a rarity until the closing days of the Old Regime. Wild fruits, chiefly raspberries, blueberries, and wild grapes, grew in abundance among the foothills and were gathered in great quantities every summer. There was not much orchard fruit, although some seedling trees were brought from France and had managed to become acclimated.