VALLEY LIFE IN 18th AND 19th CENTURIES (August 25/00)

He was one of the Annapolis Valley’s first major merchants. He opened what may have been the first super-sized retail store and mill in Kentville; and in the days before the chartered banks arrived, he may have been the county’s first financier.

Henry Magee was a prominent early merchant but before he settled here he lead an adventurous life. In two earlier columns last winter (column1, column2) I wrote about Magee’s flight to Nova Scotia during the American Revolution and about his career in the Valley as a merchant and entrepreneur. A Loyalist who lost heavily during the Revolution, Magee was compensated with cash and a land grant which he apparently parlayed into a prosperous business in Kings County.

As well as being an astute businessman, Henry Magee was also a meticulous keeper of records. And for this contemporary historians are grateful.

While researching for the columns on Henry Magee, I found several references to his old store ledgers. The story goes that the ledgers had been discovered when his son’s former home in Aylesford was being renovated. The ledgers were donated to the Nova Scotia Historical Society. Some 50 years ago the ledgers were said to have been the subject of several detailed articles in the Society’s quarterly magazine.

The Kirkconnell Room at Acadia University holds various old Historical Society publications and it was there that I discovered a volume with an article on the Magee ledgers. Published in 1953, volume 33 of the Society’s quarterly magazine has an extensive analysis of the Magee ledgers by Rev. Kennedy E. Wainwright. The article – “A Comparative Study in Nova Scotia Rural Economy 1788-1872” – looks at Magee’s ledgers, 1788-1806, the ledger of an Aylesford merchant, dated 1865-1867, and the desk book of Lyon’s Inn, Kentville, dated 1867-1872.

After a brief overview of the period examined, Wainwrights’s article accomplishes exactly what is indicated in its title. In his examination of the ledgers, Wainwright gives us an illuminating look at life in the Valley through the 18th and 19th centuries simply by telling us what our ancestors ate, what they wore on their backs and what they did for entertainment.

About Magee’s store, for example, we hear that it “dealt in everything from a needle to a plough, not to mention such items as wheat, gaspereaux, rum, snuff and even a New Testament.” From an itemized list of the goods and transactions recorded in the ledgers, said Wainwright, it is almost possible to reconstruct the economy of the period, the decades immediately before and after 1800.

I hope I’m not accused of being biased by noting only what the ledgers say about men’s clothing in those all-revealing decades. Taking the ledger’s at face value, we find that men favoured beaver hats, took snuff, smoked clay pipes, wore corduroy breeches, cherry coloured waistcoats, had buckles on their shoes and had a penchant for silk stockings. Full Wellington boots were popular with men and they apparently carried umbrellas. For outdoor activities, the men of the period donned gray homespun flannel shirts which were well stocked by Magee.

As well as rum for the men, Magee’s store stocked several varieties of tea and coffee. According to ledger entries, tea was four times as expensive as coffee.

Next week a look at what Magee’s store stocked for the ladies of Kings County and a bit about some interesting entries in the ledger of Lyon’s Inn.

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