The Emergence of Consumer Consciousness in English Canada
The idea of Canada as a consumer society was largely absent before 1890 but familiar by the mid-1960s. This change required more than rising incomes and greater impulses to buy; it involved the creation of new concepts. Buying Happiness explores the ways that key public thinkers represented, conceptualized, and institutionalized new ideas about consumption and consumer behaviours.
Breaking new ground, Bettina Liverant connects changes in consciousness to changes in the economy and in behaviour. The emphasis is on concepts and categories rather than on the buying and selling of goods. The rise of consumer society, she shows, was not simply the result of economic changes in productivity and affluence; it involved and required changes to how people think. Topics include the creation of Canada’s first cost-of-living index in 1914–15, the development of consumer consciousness during the Great Depression, and the ways in which popular magazines encouraged an ethic of cautious consumerism in the postwar period.
As the figure of “the consumer” moved from the margins to the centre of social, cultural, and political analysis, the values and concepts associated with consumerism were woven into the Canadian social imagination. Consumer society developed as a contested, yet increasingly pervasive, way of thinking about ourselves, our relationships with others, and our relationships with things.
This book will serve scholars of consumer society, history, sociology, political economy, and economics. It will appeal to a wide array of readers interested in modern Canadian history, debates about the rise of consumer society, Canadian thought and culture, and intellectual history.
Liverant makes a complex and insightful argument for a deep but largely unmarked change of perspective. Her synthesis of recent work on consumerism in Canada is illuminating. In highlighting the role of intellectuals and historic publications in constructing and reconstructing the social narratives that Canadians rely on to think about and develop personal and national identities, she gently invites present-day writers to reconsider their impact, and a more general readership to question how and why certain stories are told.
Buying Happiness should be required reading for students of twentieth-century Canada.
The nearest dictionary to hand unhelpfully defines consumer as ‘one or that which consumes’. Bettina Liverant takes us beyond linguistic tautologies to give us a first-rate intellectual history of consumer society in Canada from late Victorian times to the post-war baby boom era.
In that it looks at the idea of consumer society, Buying Happiness offers a welcome addition to the study of consumption. As such, Buying Happiness helps scholars recognize their own possible prejudices that they bring to the study of consumption.
The literature on consumer culture for the United States is rich and extensive, but I cannot think of anything that approaches the subject with the distinctive freshness that Bettina Liverant musters in Buying Happiness. This well‐researched, fluidly written, and suggestive study of how leading Canadian thinkers came to understand the emergence of a consumer society is full of surprises and insights.
1 The Meaning Is in the Spending
2 The Promise of a More Abundant Life
3 Culturing Canadian Patriotism
4 Moralizing the Economy
5 Charting the Contours of Modern Society
6 Regulating the Consumer
7 Buying Happiness
8 Academic Encounters
Gendered Behaviour and Consumerism before the Baby Boom
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