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Posted on June 16th, 2012, by

This paper is a book review of Retail Nation: Department Stores and the Making of Modern Canada written by Donica Belisle. This book review has two main goals: first, to provide the reader with a summary of the contents of the book, and second, to provide my personal estimation of the book’s quality.

Donica Belisle, an Assistant Professor at Athabasca University, is known for her prior Marxist-feminist works, addressing Canadian consumerism in the early- to mid-twentieth century. Her recent work Retail Nation: Department Stores and the Making of Modern Canada doesn’t alter the direction from the chosen path and serves as a nice collection of these prior arguments, taking into consideration a huge variety of organizations, counting Spencers, Eatons, the Hudsons Bay Company, Simpsons, Sears, Morgans, Woodwards and Dupuis Frères (44) for author’s present analysis. In keeping with the prior works, Donica Belisle emphasizes the diverse unequal and paternalistic relations discovered within the sphere of early-twentieth century Canadian department stores (17-20).

The author especially emphasizes the cases in which these relations are compromised.

With her book Donica Belisle hopes to push beyond the client-as-fool versus the client-as-active paradigm, which has dominated the landscape of Canadian consumer historiography. The author demonstrates the significant aim to describe a portrait of early twentieth century Canadian consumerism as a compound web of business, consumer interests and state, claiming that this approach stays away from unsophisticated depictions of clients as either passive or open-minded. This sort of approach has already been depicted in the book of Joy Parr and Cynthia Wright. They also support a comprehensive approach to investigating Canadian consumerism in the twentieth century. Donica Belisles new book points especially to the largest retail stores. She depicts Eatons and the Hudsons Bay Company since these are the epicenters of Canadian modernity during the late nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries. The author draws inspiration from the US historian Susan Porter Benson who concentrates on US department stores during the same time period (18-19). Making Canadian department stores even more remarkable than illustration was, Donica Belisle emphasizes their activity in all three spheres of the marketplace: production, distribution, and utilization. The book builds on the work of Parr and Wright who concentrate on post-Second World War consumerism and race and gender matters within Canadian consumption, correspondingly, but differs in that it points to the significance and centrality of mass retail during an earlier period and its impact on the evolvement of Canadian society in later years, in particular when concerning issues of gender and nationhood.

The significance of mass retail in Canada has been obvious since the country’s initial evolvement, when a group of traders created the primary joint-stock organization in North America (46). It was the Hudson’s Bay Company. A new book by women and gender studies professor Donica Belisle investigates the roots and impacts of the large department stores on their personnel and clients, whose roles occasionally matched in unanticipated ways. The author’s entire statement – that the stores were parts of modernization as well as nationalism provides details in a careful and methodical fashion (79; 237-238). Unlike other researches of this sort, for instance the works of William Leach’s Land of Desire, which provides much emphasis on the deception and theatricality of the early American department stores, the book written by Donica Belisle concentrates more on labor and the personnel’ lives, in keeping with Susan Porter Benson’s Counter Cultures.

Donica Belisle traces the revolution of Canada into a current consumer country from the 1880s to the 1940s and how mass merchandising actually altered local life. The author uses as the useful samples the largest department stores and the way they became the country’s major retailers. The author especially depicts retailers’ specific activities in the production, distribution, and consumption spheres of the market. Also there are several histories of regional stores like Morgan’s and Dupuis Freres in Quebec and Woodward’s and Spencer’s in British Columbia. Donica Belisle considers the activities in the context of responses of clients, employees, governments, and critics and how they manipulated the direction and character of Canadian consumption. The author writes about such issues like paternalism, the commoditization of stuff, female clients’ perceptions of different retailers, and the role of female workers (99-101).

Consisting of seven chapters, the new book Retail Nation: Department Stores and the Making of Modern Canada by Donica Belisle covers much ground, with paternalism rising as the pervading theme throughout the work. The author starts the work by arguing for the significance of department stores in the Canadian consumer evolvement. This is contrasted with the British and American cases (40) wherein department stores had a far less important status. In an attempt to clarify the exclusivity of the Canadian case, the author traces the post-1896 geographic and demographic development of Canadian arrangement during and after the Sifton period. Donica Belisle is depicting parallels between the alterations in demand that took place during this time period and the synchronized increase and the obvious growth of department stores in the country.

In the introduction, the books major theoretical contributions are outlined. To sufficiently realize the increase of current consumerism, it offers, historians should blend older, more critical approaches to consumer society with newer emphases on subjectivity (3). The initial chapters define the department store and situate Canadian evolvement in a certain worldwide context. The author also pays attention to the department stores’ advertising.

Demonstrating imperialism, class stratification, and consumerism to be the main messages of this book, the chapters reject the supposition that department stores’ publicity made a constructive contribution to the culture of Canada.

Most exciting are the connections Donica Belisle reveals between the stores, their commodities, and clients on one hand, and a growing national identity on the other. Therefore, Donica Belisle asserts department stores were actually accountable for developing a perfect identity in the country and for characterizing modern Canadian life as a consumerist and middle class. The chapters three through six concentrate mainly on the issues of paternalism and emotional labor, stressing particularly on the author’s prior works and works of American historian Arlie Hochschild on flight attendants in the post-war period, and the steady commercial use of private feelings (82-194). The chapters explore management techniques. The readers realize that department stores were paternalist companies that treated non-whites, workers and females as inferior human beings dependent upon department stores’ generosity.

Department stores’ labor management strategies are also analyzed. Demonstrating that Eaton’s, Simpson’s, and the HBC viewed personnel as clients of company goods and advertisements of their organizations, the chapters highlight the alienating and exploitative proportions of consumer culture.

Drawing reader’s attention to the inner paternalism in relations between men managers and female salespersons and female clients (99-100), again drawing from the work of Benson, Donica Belisle depicts the gender hierarchies, which pervaded department stores during this time period. Contemporary suppositions concerning female intellectual inadequacy and the notion ladies belonged within the domestic sphere moved into a system where females rarely obtained management positions. Naturally, these pro-male environments were further supported by racial and also class hierarchies, which were reinforced similarly. The author accuses early department stores of utilizing promotional materials to depict – First Nations people as pre-modern, Africans and Asians as laborers, and whites as clients (64-67). Thus department stores suggested how mass merchandising assisted in establishing current European civilization. This political economy drew upon imperialist legacies in its creation of race hierarchies. It’s in these disputes that the author is at her strongest, relying on the broad investigation on the matter of paternalism, and revealing the harsh elements of early twentieth century retail in Canada.

The author also depicts female customers’ consumer subjectivities and shopping experiences (164). Demonstrating the gendered separation of labor played a huge role in the consumer decisions, this book shows that many women experienced consumer culture as satisfying and alienating at the same time. Readers also get the information concerning the question what it was like to work for the big stores. Contrasting working conditions in mass retail with working conditions in other workplaces, the book suggests department stores offered better conditions for females than many other companies. Yet it also demonstrates that, first, female department store workers suffered from gender and class mistreatment; and second, female workers all over the country sought to make department stores more unbiased and responsible.

The last chapter investigates criticisms many citizens of Canada leveled against the big stores (194-234). For various grounds, small merchants, co-operators, and feminists showed aggression to the large retailers. Yet they were never capable to basically alter the capitalist and patriarchal imperatives, which were beneath department stores’ existences. The last chapter analyzes the reply of those who were critical of department stores and the rise of mass retail. For many people in Canada, the pleasure-seeking consumerism associated with the monumental temples of shopping was treated as a hazard to the purity and respectability of white females. Troubles within their own movements, counting an incapability to suggest attractive substitutes to mass retailing, together with the Canadian state’s unwillingness to interfere with big business, prohibited a large-scale reorganization of mass retail. Lastly, the conclusion ties together this book’s main findings, reflects on their importance, and proposes directions for future research.

All other labor leaders and social reformers treated the mass retailers as a hazard to the evolvement and sustainable development of small, Canadian businesses. The writer asserts while these assessments were well known and widespread, they were never capable to considerably hold back the evolvement and growth of large stores. This was mainly because of the critics’ failure to address and find a competitive resolution to the handiness suggested by large retailers, and their failure to achieve government aid in their fight against Big Business.

Between 1890 and 1940, practically all department stores changed selling and shopping process (22-26). They were utilizing inexpensive raw materials, business-friendly administration policies, and an increasing demand for low-priced products in retail empires that promised to meet populace requirements and strengthen the country. Some local citizens found happiness and accomplishment in their walkways; others experienced only a cold shoulder and a closed door. The stores’ promotion and PR campaigns usually camouflaged a dark, complicated actuality that comprised customer complaints, various strikes, administration’s inquiries, and public criticism.

During the initial part of the 20th century, Belisle asserts, Canada’s major stores Eaton’s, Simpson’s and the Hudson’s Bay Company (45), for instance – stated they strengthened the country by bringing reasonable products goods to all clients and offering employment for many local citizens. However, this book disagrees with this premise, Belisle claims (3-13). The author stresses that department stores and the consumer capitalism, assisted in enforcing social and economic disparity in the nation. The main argument of the work is that department stores as well as the consumer culture these stores promoted, assisted in developing modern culture in Canada that was alienating and dependent on inequality. The book describes department stores as means of nationalism and modernization, but it also disputes that the consumerist, white, middle-class nation that department stores helped to identify was not an illustration of actuality. According to Belisle, Department stores tended to feature white, wealthy, male workers and clients over other workers and shoppers. This treatment evolved disempowering, separating work and shopping circumstances for human beings from African, Indigenous and Asian, as well as for females and low-income individuals (106-7).

The department stores’ racist (105-7), sexist and classist ways didn’t go recognized. For instance, over 500 workers of Eaton’s walked out during the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, and in 1934 over 700 unemployed human beings held a sit-down strike at the Hudson’s Bay in Vancouver and required food and shelter. The book describes these actions and many others. It demonstrates that, in spite of the supremacy of mass retail in modern country, Canadians have a rich history of conflict and protest against large retailers and the estrangements caused by capitalist consumer culture

While the study of commoditization assists readers in understanding service-worker experiences, it also provides broader insights into the consumer capitalist era. The necessity to earn money is a fundamental feature of many Canadians’ lives. As business becomes more and more reliant on consumerism and image making, its need to find consumerist personnel whose bodies and behaviors are sources of value becomes more vital. To find and keep employment, employees must show themselves to be in line with capitalism’s obligations. Not only must they be consumerists, so must they imbue bodies and activities with exchange-value. They must also recognize employers’ efforts to obtain, without salary, as much value from their appearances and activities as possible. Moreover, commoditization tries to reinforce social and economic hierarchies. The author asserts that, so that people could fully appreciate commoditization’s meanings, they must continue investigating its manifestations (194-234).

The experience of walking down a department store walkway complete with displays, advertisements and products is so customary that we usually forget that mass retail hardly existed in Canada merely a century ago. And while the department stores that spread across the country before the World War II offered employment and reasonably priced products, they also had negative impacts on Canadian populace even as they updated it, asserts author of the book Donica Belisle. The book by Donica Belisle offers readers abroad insight into the increase and evolvement of mass retail culture in early twentieth-century country. While self-admittedly the writer concentrates mainly on Anglophone cases, insight into the Francophone cases is still offered with samples from Dupuis-Frères, the largest French-Canadian department store of this time period. Donica Belisle’s analysis is also weighted towards the feminist perspective and the mistreatment of females as laborers (99) and clients within the area of department stores. Therefore, issues of masculinity and mass retail culture tend to fall to the roadside.

Moreover, Donica Belisle has successfully engaged with pre-existing works throughout the entire book, making this new work an excellent introductory book for any person or student interested in consumer history within a Canadian or a worldwide context. Advertising and consumption are the main aspects of the life in Canada. In places urban and rural it’s hard to get through the whole day without being exposed to an advertisement. It’s equally hard to go 24 hours without utilizing good or services sold on the capitalist market. Scholars are starting to investigate the particularities of the time period of mass consumption. Yet historians still have no fundamental understanding of how, why, and with what results Canada became a consumer state. Looking through the first years of mass merchandising in this nation, this new book addresses the increase and growth of Canadian consumer capitalism. Looking at Canadian department store owners, managers, clients, personnel, and also critics, it investigates mass consumption’s emergence, evolvement and meaning.

I read the book Retail Nation: Department Stores and the Making of Modern Canada written by Donica Belisle to be able to write this book review. Initially I thought this book would partially be a narrative history of how the department store helped create Canada (50). I was wrong. Undoubtedly well researched, and created with great interest in the matter, the book’s exciting historical facts sadly are over-involved in opinion and comments. I felt sometimes that I was actually reading one of very familiar and very long university papers and not a history book. This work should be placed on a shelf with other books and works about gender issues and social justice, but probably not history.

There is a lot of work to be done in this sphere in the recent future (234), counting further research into the ties between mass retail and early-twentieth century creations of masculinity. In terms of analysis, the book draws heavily from American historiography on consumption culture, and from the author’s own prior issued works. This makes the book a little redundant in terms of a donation to the worldwide historiography of consumerism during this time period and contributions already made by the author to the Canadian historiography on the subject.

Nevertheless, to those readers new with her work, the author has depicted a valuable contribution to the Canadian dispute. She offers a methodical clarification of existing historiography, within and outside the context of Canada. To those readers who know the author’s prior works, Retail Nation: Department Stores and the Making of Modern Canada offers comparable arguments but with more details and more in depth investigation. Although the author’s work is a little repetitive in the worldwide context, depicting from American consumer historiography, it serves as an applicable contribution to the Canadian dispute on historical consumerism, touching on questions that have not yet been discussed in the Canadian context.

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