Published by EH.NET (February, 2000)

Joy Parr. Domestic Goods: The Material, the Moral, and the Economic in the Postwar Years. Toronto/Buffalo/London: University of Toronto Press, 1999. x + 368 pp. Appendices, notes, illustration credits, and index. ISBN 0-8020-7947-4 (paper), $21.95; ISBN 0802040977 (cloth), $60.00

Reviewed for H-Business and EH.NET by Pippa Brush,,
Calgary Institute for the Humanities, University of Calgary

"Getting and Spending..."

Joy Parr, in the introduction, describes her book Domestic Goods as "an archeology of the material, moral, and economic choices and constraints which formed Canadian commodity culture in the two decades after the Second World War" (p.17). The title proclaims Parr's focus: she constructs her study around the choices Canadian consumers made with regard to the furniture and household appliances they bought - or chose not to buy, as in the case of automatic washing machines [1] - in the decades of increased prosperity and stability that followed the austerity made necessary by the events of the war years. Her description of the book's project points to its methodological framework: Parr carefully and painstakingly brings to light often-overlooked interrelationships between female homemakers and male designers and manufacturers, and places those complex and often contestatory relationships within the context of governmental economic policies and the postwar process of rebuilding the nation and securing its future stability. In doing so, she offers a detailed and nuanced critique of Canadian material culture from the end of the Second World War to the early 1960's, and makes an interesting and readable contribution to scholarship across a range of disciplines and interests.

Parr's project necessitates the integration of a wide range of material and ideas but she ties her discussion together through a series of questions which she presents early in the introduction. While the list is rather too long to quote here, but includes questions such as those that follow:
How much does contemporary technology constrain how goods are made?
How much can citizens talk back to manufacturers and the state about domestic goods? What can and do citizens do when, by gender, class, or nationality, they have little influence over the shape of the material world in which they must live?
If householders are moved to practise what might be described as a briskly accommodating resistance in their daily lives among goods, what makes this resistance plausible and necessary? (pp.3-4)

The questions themselves are not simple and do not allow for any easy answers - and Parr does not offer any. Rather, she leaves the questions with the reader and asks him or her to reflect on them while reading. Even in the conclusion, Parr does not attempt to answer the questions directly but points, instead, to the complexity of the history she has presented and the implications it can have, when carefully considered, for choices and practices today. Questions of the material and moral, of consumption and resistance, of pleasure and prudence, are brought together in the essays that follow Parr's excellent and engaging introduction, and they remain at the heart of the book - as well as being questions that deserve further critical attention in other contexts.

Parr's attempt to outline a specifically Canadian history of consumption for the two decades following the Second World War presents an account that differs from the two existing and contradictory accounts that have, she points out, dominated and influenced understandings and readings of the patterns of consumption in Canada. First, there has been a tendency to assume that Canada was part of a North American picture that has "read postwar standards and practices off the Marshall Plan intentions for the entire North Atlantic, and naturalize[d] these hortatory American norms as the intrinsic qualities of 'consumer society'" (p. 11).
Second, there is the account that positions Canada within a colonial context, conceiving of Canadian consumption as "'characteristically more subdued,'" to quote, as Parr does, British geographers Peter Jackson and Nigel Thrift, and casting Canadians as "the most earnest and cautious among the ex-colonials" (p. 267). Parr charts a middle path between the two, pointing out the specificities both of the Canadian experience within the larger context of North America and of the colonial legacy of Britain. Parr retains her focus on the Canadian experience while still understanding and incorporating the influences of Britain - for example, during the foreign exchange crisis of the late 1940s - and of the United States with its dominant mass production and very different government policies on consumption and the acquisition of household appliances. But she moves beyond these competing narratives of international influence to address representations of Canadian society and behaviour. At the same time she acknowledges a tendency towards "prudence and responsibility" in the Canadian buying public, she insists that her book is also "about sensual delights, the pleasures of using tools well suited to the task, and about building and defining in a time when options might have seemed few and foreclosed" (p. 267). This is a tricky balance and Parr, for the most part, manages to maintain it both skillfully and convincingly.

The two decades following the Second World War were characterized, Parr suggests, by political and economic concerns with shoring up heavy industry and building strong export markets in order to rebuild the Canadian economy after the changes wrought by the war. Deliberate decisions to focus on building a strong national community, with investment in the welfare state and a commitment to income redistribution, as well as to delay the gratification of already deferred individual wants through limits on the production of household goods and appliances, meant that the experience of Canadians in the postwar years was very different to the experience of Americans whose government actively encouraged consumerism. As Parr makes clear in her chapter on the wartime economy, "[American] government propaganda" promised that "postwar homes would be stocked with 'all things material in a brave new world of worldly goods'" (p.31); Canadian government policy, on the other hand, "focused on private but social welfare spending as the means of averting postwar calamity" (p.31). It was concern for future stability that guided the Canadian political economy, and Parr does a good job both of placing that in relation to the more optimistic stance adopted south of the border and of suggesting how the contrasting policies worked in relation to each other.

In Canada, debates in design and manufacturing circles over questions of modernism and international aesthetics stood in uneasy relation to consumer demand for stability and political concerns with reinforcing a distinct Canadian nationalism. The National Industrial Design Committee (NIDC) took a very different approach to questions of design, function, and manufacture from either the Canadian Association of Consumers (CAC) or the Housewives' Consumer Association (HCA), and Parr uses these differences of opinion and priority between the NIDC and the CAC at several points in the book to illustrate the frequent conflicts that arose between designers and consumers, between style and function. Parr usefully makes explicit the gendered nature of the histories of design, manufacturing, and consumption as she locates the history of consumption as a history primarily of women as consumers, in contrast to the male-dominated fields of design and manufacturing.

Parr's book is divided into three sections, each taking as its primary focus a different aspect of the production, consumption, and representation of material culture: "the first focus[es] most upon economic policy, the second upon industrial design, and the third on household technology" (p.10). She describes the book's organization within those sections as "a series of relatively distinct, chronologically ordered essays," and goes on to point out that each of the chapters "builds in sequence, one on another" (p.3).

Chapters One through Five are devoted to the Canadian government's political and economic policies, beginning during the war and continuing into the postwar years of the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. Parr reflects on consumer organizations, on the role of government, on the failure of liberal economic policymakers to acknowledge the "irrational" nature of the Canadian economy in those years, and on other related issues including attitudes to consumer credit and saving. In Chapter Two, which is for me perhaps the strongest chapter of the book, she explores the differences between two exhibitions of modern style and design that took place at the Toronto Art Gallery and the Royal Ontario Museum in 1945 and 1946. Parr uses those two exhibitions to open up her discussion of what "modern" was taken to mean in relation to the design, manufacture, and consumption of household appliances and furniture in postwar Canada.

Chapters Six, Seven, and Eight address questions of design and consumption, with the focus again on modernism and the accommodations necessary to introduce a modern or a so-called international style to Canadian women more concerned with comfort and durability than with design principles. In Chapter Eight, she moves on to discuss how Canadian women effectively remade the objects they bought for their homes, and how their choices were often made without reference to the criteria assumed to be appropriate or desirable by designers and manufacturers.

Chapters Nine, Ten, and Eleven present a series of tightly focused case studies of women's purchase decisions: Parr looks at buying a stove, a washing machine, and a refrigerator in the early 1950s, late 1950s, and early 1960s respectively. Each one presents an interesting and useful case study but Parr could, I think, have spent a little less time reiterating some of the broader ideas already well established in the earlier chapters and focused more fully on issues specific to the decisions and appliances in question: for example, the idea that designers and consumers rarely agreed on what constituted a desirable product is one with which the reader is already very familiar and of which s/he needs, by the final section, only a passing reminder.

The strength of Parr's study undoubtedly lies in her ability to locate the decisions of daily life (for example, the decision to purchase a specific kind of washing machine) within a larger political and economic context without losing the specificity of the experience itself. She deals with an enormous range of material, from government policies and economic theory to sales literature to interviews with individual women, and always maintains a coherent and instructive narrative. In doing so, she constructs a detailed and thoughtful history of everyday choices and practices, as well as of larger questions of political economy, large-scale industrial production, the aesthetics of design, and the role of gender in the acts of manufacture and consumption. That it is located in the specificity of a Canadian context, while taking careful account of different international influences and comparisons, only adds to its usefulness, as the careful study of the local helps illuminate our understanding of the global.

Parr succeeds in locating Domestic Goods within the context of existing scholarship on the related histories of design, manufacturing, and consumerism. In the introduction, she sets up her study in relation to other work and draws from a variety of fields to construct her own reading of the complex intersections between political economy, modernist aesthetics, manufacturing, governmental organizations, and perhaps most importantly the lived experiences of individuals and families. In her own words, Parr "puts studies of material culture into unaccustomed company, and therefore challenges certain disciplinary conventions" (p.3). In doing so, she has produced an important text that has implications across a variety of disciplines and sub-disciplines. Parr has also produced a work that challenges us all to reconsider our own patterns of consumption and engagement with the market economy in light of the questions she poses in her introduction, and to work on grounds of "reasoned and resisting hope" to challenge the unquestioned supremacy of the market in the construction of the world in which we now live (p.270).

[1] In Chapter Ten, Parr explores the fact that Canadian consumers were noticeably slower than American consumers to accept automatic washing machines. They preferred, instead, the wringer machines that were considered outdated in the United States. Parr explains this through "the traits of the Canadian manufacturing system, the intricacies of Canadian plumbing, and the ethics of Canadian consumer culture" (p.16).

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