Retail Nation
320 pages, 6 x 9
33 b&w photographs
Release Date:01 Jul 2011
Release Date:15 Feb 2011
Release Date:15 Feb 2011

Retail Nation

Department Stores and the Making of Modern Canada

UBC Press

The experience of walking down a store aisle – replete with displays, advertisements, salespeople, consumer goods, and infinite choice – is now so common that we often forget retail stores barely existed a century ago.

Retail Nation traces Canada’s transformation into a modern consumer nation back to an era when Eaton’s, Simpson’s, and the Hudson’s Bay Company fostered and came to rule the country’s shopping scene. Between 1890 and 1940, department stores revolutionized selling and shopping by parlaying cheap raw materials, business-friendly government policies, and growing demand for low-priced goods into retail empires that promised to meet citizens’ needs and strengthen the nation. Some Canadians found happiness and fulfillment in their aisles; others experienced nothing more than a cold shoulder and a closed door. The stores’ advertising and public relations campaigns often disguised a darker, more complicated reality that included strikes, union drives, customer complaints, government inquiries, and public criticism.

This vivid account of Canadian department stores in their heyday showcases department stores as powerful agents of nationalism and modernization. But the nation that their catalogues and shopping experience helped to define – white, consumerist, middle-class – was more limited than nostalgic portraits of the early department store suggest.

This book will interest historians of Canadian and international retail and consumer culture, along with anyone who wants to know why, how, and with what consequences mass consumer capitalism came to North America.


  • 2012, Shortlisted - John W. Dafoe Book Prize, J. W. Dafoe Foundation
  • 2012, Shortlisted - Sir John A MacDonald Prize, Canadian Historical Association
  • 2012, Winner - PIerre Savard Award, International Council for Canadian Studies
Retail Nation constitutes an important contribution to the history of the development of mass consumption in Canada in the late nineteenth and twentieth century...Belisle explores fully and intelligently the unequal relations of class, race and gender [department stores] embodied, and an important part of the analysis deals with the gendered relations between the stores, their employees and their customers. The book is written with verve, a secure knowledge of the relevant literature and much careful research, and sets a historiographic benchmark for the study of Canadian consumer society. Sir John A. MacDonald Prize Committee, 2012, Canadian Historical Association
A thought-provoking study...Belisle draws fruitfully from a vast historiography on department stores...The book's undeniable strength lies above all in Belisle's critique ofthe stores through an engaging recounting of the experience of shopping or working in department stores...Retail Nation makes a timely and important contribution to Canadian scholarship, one that is likely to attract a broad readership. Nicolas Kenny, Simon Fraser University, BC Studies, No.176, Winter 2012-13
Donica Belisle has a PhD in Canadian studies and is an assistant professor of women’s and gender studies at Athabasca University.

Introduction: Canadian Consumer Society

1 Rise of Mass Retail

2 Creating Modern Canada

3 Fathers of Mass Merchandising

4 Crafting the Consumer Workforce

5 Shopping, Pleasure, and Power

6 Working at the Heart of Consumption

7 Criticizing the Big Stores

Epilogue: Canadian Institutions?




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