Cross-border shopping, smuggling, and scofflaws: consumers have a long history of resisting efforts to regulate what they buy

February 1, 2021

Detroit shoppers crowd a Windsor butcher shop, 1940. Detroit News Photograph Collection, Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University. Used with permission.

Written by guest blogger Sarah Elvins.

Among the myriad ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed daily life in North America has been the complete reshaping of consuming habits, as retailers and consumers grapple with shortages, new safety requirements, and limits to shopping hours. Attempts to limit consumers’ access to goods have not always met with success.  When Quebec imposed lockdowns and limited purchases to essential items only, some customers protested that the regulations were confusing and too restrictive.

In Manitoba, local officials were dismayed to see the parking lots of malls and big box retailers like Walmart and Costco full of cars despite stay-at-home orders. 

A mall in Hamilton was overwhelmed with shoppers who travelled to the city in violation of lockdowns in Toronto and Peel region.

This willingness to bend the rules in order to keep consuming has striking parallels to the history of cross-border shopping in North America.  Of course, the pandemic has closed the border to shoppers and travelers. But just as individuals today might ignore directives put in place by local authorities, those living near the Canada-U.S. border regularly flouted customs regulations, and indeed went out of their way to avoid paying duty on their purchases.  Shoppers tried to fool border guards by failing to declare items, wearing multiple layers of clothing, or disguising new items as used ones.  Middle-class families that might otherwise balk at breaking the law saw no problem with lying to border agents, and might even boast about putting one over on the unsuspecting customs man. 

During the Second World War, food became a prime target for shoppers and smugglers.  By 1943, Americans noted shortages of key foods, and many flocked to Canada to purchase poultry, meat, eggs, and butter.  Cars streamed across the border from Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, some lining up as early as 5:00 a.m. on a Saturday to purchase meat from local butchers and visit the Windsor farmers’ market.  American consumers who made purchases in Canada were technically supposed to declare these items and have them crossed off their ration cards.  Instead, many resorted to smuggling.  Local papers included reports of shoppers ducking into the restrooms of nearby shops and restaurants to hide packages of meat underneath their clothing.  Customs agents caught an average of forty-five people a day, and doled out fines for those caught with undeclared items.

In peacetime as well, customs agents became savvy about the tricks employed by shoppers looking to avoid paying duty.  Customers routinely replaced old outfits with new suits and tried to wear them back home, even sewing in labels in an attempt to disguise where the garments were made.  Women were caught wearing multiple dresses at once, their bodies noticeably padded with extra fabric and goods.  Drivers attempted to seal packages in secret compartments in their cars.  Faced with regulations that interfered with their ability to consume, both Canadian and American consumers frequently, intentionally, and often blatantly broke the law.  It was difficult, if not impossible, for governments on either side of the border to put a stop to this behaviour, as many citizens considered it well within their rights to consume as they pleased.  Authorities today are struggling with a similar sense of entitlement on the part of consumers, where the individual’s right to shop is often seen as more important than other public concerns.

Sarah Elvins is a Professor in the Department of History at the University of Manitoba, where she teaches courses in the history of American politics, popular culture, food, and consumerism. Her research involves the study of business and culture in the modern United States, particularly the history of retailing, alternative currency in the Great Depression, food history, and local consuming patterns.

Her article, “Lady Smugglers and Lynx-Eyed Customs Agents;  Gender, Morality, and Cross-Border Shopping in Detroit and Windsor” appears in the latest issue of the Canadian Historical Review.

The UTP Journals blog features guest posts from our authors. The opinions expressed in these posts may not necessarily represent those of UTP Journals and their clients.

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