Manitoba History: Book Reviews: Donica Belisle, Retail Nation: Department Stores and the Making of Modern Canada and Consuming Modernity: Gendered Behaviour and Consumerism before the Baby Boom and A Small Price to Pay: Consumer Culture on the Canadian Home Front, 1939–45
by Scott Stephen
Two of the most interesting and fastest-growing fields of North American history in recent years have been retail history and the his-tory of consumption. The two are obviously closely related, and together they make the important point that a community’s patterns of buying and selling tell us a lot about how that community defines itself and what it values. Much of the recent literature has been interested less in specific products in and of them-selves, than in more intangible commodities. Throughout the twentieth century, gender roles and evolving definitions of ‘modern’ identity have been implicitly and explicitly wrapped up in products, advertising, and the evolving culture of consumption in which we live.
The history of department stores has long recognized the connection between consumer culture and gender roles. Even the most diversified of the early department stores focussed much of their attention on women’s and children’s clothing: for instance, combined with drapery those categories accounted for as much as three-quarters of the total turnover in British department stores before 1914.  These emerging retail giants appealed specifically to female customers, mostly of the middle classes—or those aspiring to be middle-class. Many department store employees were female, too, and their images were carefully managed by their employers.
Donica Belisle’s Retail Nation is a welcome addition to this growing field. Saturated as the field seems to be with studies of department stores in France, Britain, and the United States, Belisle turns away from Macy’s and the Bon Marché to investigate these retail phenomena in Canada. Between 1890 and 1940, Simpson’s and the Hudson’s Bay Company were two of Canada’s biggest retailers, but they were dwarfed by the quintessential Canadian department store, Eaton’s. Part of the strength of the big department stores was that they were involved in every realm of the marketplace: they purchased manufactured goods (usually in bulk), they processed their own commodities, they advertised, and they sold both goods and services. Belisle perhaps overstates the extent to which they “monopolised” the Canadian retail market—she admits that the ‘big three’ accounted for less than twenty percent of retail sales even at their peak—but there can be no overstating their impact on the retail industry and on the country (pp. 4-7).
Part of the power of department stores was their obvious, even ostentatious, modernity. Stores were fitted out with the latest in elevators, ventilation systems, electric lighting, and often incorporated cutting-edge construction and design elements. They were even modern behind the scenes, utilising the latest techniques in accounting, cost control, inventory management, organizational structuring, and personnel training. After providing a useful and up-to-date survey of the rise of mass retail in North America and western Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s—surely one of the most fascinating stories in the business history of that or any other period—Belisle lays out the foundation of her argument. Canadian department stores, especially Eaton’s, did not just influence people’s spending habits, material culture, and patterns of movement (department stores have usually been associated with downtown business districts, the rise and fall of which deserve more attention than urban historians have given them). They actively helped construct a particular vision of ‘modern’ Canada, with specific hierarchies of class, race, and ethnicity, and with consumer capitalism at its core.
If department stores were alone in this nation-building project, then their long-term success would have been doubtful, even given the massive advertising clout which they wielded in the first half of the twentieth century. The essays collected and edited by Cheryl Krasnick Warsh and Dan Malleck in Consuming Modernity demonstrate the many fronts on which retailers and advertising struggled to influence not just where Canadians shopped, but what they shopped for and why. Many of those efforts were directed at women, who were considered both the main shoppers in most households and the most easily swayed by good advertising. In the process, very clear images were articulated about what the ‘modern’ Canadian woman looked like, how she dressed, what she ate (and what she fed her family), how she behaved, etc.
One of the primary messages communicated to Canadian women in the first half of the twentieth century was their maternal role, not just within their own families, but within the nation at large. Women had an important role to play in keeping their homes clean and safe. Advertisements for Lysol played on people’s fears of infection and disease, a particularly powerful message at a time when infant mortality was still as high as ten percent (Kristin Hall, “Selling Lysol as a Household Disinfectant in Interwar North America”). Tracy Penny Light, “Consumer Culture and the Medicalization of Women’s Roles in Canada, 1919–1939,” and Denyse Baillargeon, “Medicine Advertising, Women’s Work, and Women’s Bodies in Montreal Newspapers, 1919-1939,” elaborate on this theme. Science, especially medical professionals speaking with the voice of authority, increased the pressure on wives and mothers to make certain buying choices as part of fulfilling their expected role.
Science could not just keep you healthy, it could make you beautiful too. In Jane Nicholas’ essay, “Beauty Advice for the Canadian Modern Girl in the 1920s,” beauty specialists take the place of medical professionals as the source of ‘expert’ advice, but the goal remains the same: to help women negotiate an increasingly crowded consumer scene in order to create and maintain a ‘modern’ lifestyle, with all that this entailed. The very concept of the Modern Girl grew directly out of the emerging consumer culture of the early 1900s, a product (in part) of women’s growing visibility in the workplace and other public venues. Greater visibility, especially in conjunction with the rising political voice of women, made a woman’s outward appearance more important rather than less.
Nowhere was this more the case than behind the counters of a department store. The ‘shopgirls’ (too often, they were denied full adult status) had codes for dress and behaviour, articulating clear expectations of the servile yet respectable image they were expected to portray. Their employers warned them not to be too dressy: they were not to intimidate the customers by demonstrating superior fashion sense, although such overt style may have better illustrated their ability to dress fashionably on poor wages. They were to look attractive, and staff magazines were replete with photos and text that portrayed female employees as pleasing and docile, as much ornaments as employees. But there was a moral danger in appearing too attractive: some critics worried that department store ‘shopgirls’ were as much a commodity to be purchased (or at least rented) as anything on the shelves.
Such fears say much about those critics’ poor opinion of female moral fibre, but the underlying theme of temptation was present in most discussions of department stores, whether positive or negative. Some were anxious that the sheer volume and array of the latest goods in the latest styles would be too great to resist, and would draw female customers into shoplifting. At the same time, though, temptation was a fundamental part of much retail advertising, a mechanism for luring customers into stores. Taken together, the theme of ‘temptation’ speaks to the sense of anxiety that ran through consumer culture: the fear that perhaps we can have too much of a good thing.
In general, though, department stores and other retailers had a fairly receptive audience for their overall message that happiness was not only achievable, it was on sale this week. Housewives were particularly informed what their shopping list should include in order to achieve health, beauty, comfort, and all the trappings of a snug middle-class lifestyle. The idea that shopping was not just a woman’s chore, but a means for her to achieve various desirable ends, was enhanced during times of war. The two world wars put unprecedented pressure on the nation’s resources, and military demands took precedence over the production of consumer goods. Graham Broad’s A Small Price to Pay: Consumer Culture on the Canadian Home Front, 1939–45, examines how the pervasive belief that it was virtuous to want more and better things was challenged and modified during the Second World War. ‘Thrift’ was the watchword of the day, but even in wartime that was a difficult message to get across to consumers who were finally enjoying some purchasing power after the depressions of the 1930s. People did spend money on more than just their meagre rations and some Victory Bonds. In fact, as Broad demonstrates, in the early days of the war many Canadians were advised not to cut back, because “the best service that can be rendered is to keep our national economic structure functioning as normally as possible”(pp. 4-5). Not until late in 1941, after France had been knocked out of the war, the Soviet Union was on the defensive, and several smaller countries had been occupied with alarming speed, were Canadian consumers told to shorten their shopping lists. Even after that, though, there were some decidedly mixed messages in the media: should I buy Victory Bonds or a new car?
Taken together, these three books offer diverse perspectives on the buying and selling habits of Canadians during the first half of the twentieth century. More important, they shed light on what those patterns of getting and spending can tell us about our economy and our society. The anxieties surrounding the rise of mass retail at the end of the 1800s were in many ways echoed in the Second World War, when many people tried to rationalise consumer spending in an atmosphere of thrift and sacrifice. But the Second World War was, among other things, a war in defence of capitalism and free enterprise against the managed economies of fascism. In that sense, the patriotism inherent in exercising your ‘right’ to free enterprise echoed assurances earlier in the century that the road to a better you—and to a better Canada—lay down the aisle of a retail store.
1. Alison Adburgham, Shops and Shopping 1800–1914: Where, and in What Manner the Well-dressed Englishwoman Bought her Clothes, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1964, 145-146; James B. Jefferys, Retail Trading in Britain, 1850–1950, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954, 20, 328.
We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
Page revised: 2 April 2020