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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, pmbrush@ucalgary.ca,

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 practice 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 behavior. 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).

Footnotes

[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).