- A Small Price to Pay: Consumer Culture on the Canadian Home Front, 1939–45 by Graham Broad
During World War II, while a steady progression of soldiers shipped overseas and conscription was held at bay for years by the wily Prime Minister Mackenzie King, those on the home front made their own contributions to the war effort: women went to work in new munitions factories and air training camps, took over for absent husbands on the farm and in the management of family finances, and cooked meatless, flourless, and sugarless meals in an all-out effort to keep the boys at the front well fed. It was six long years of deprivation that, following on the heels of the decade of Depression before, unleashed an unprecedented post-war hunger for consumer goods. But, according to Graham Broad in this fascinating reinterpretation of Canada’s home front, that’s not quite what happened. Indeed, a quick flip through the magazines and newspapers of the era should have alerted historians earlier to the continuation of purchasing throughout the war, except that the original story seemed so plausible in the face of rationing, restrictions, and resource shortages. A generation of historians has described the period as one of “elaborate controls” in which “few” goods were available and civilian purchasing power was “limited.” Broad offers here an important corrective to that interpretation.
Initially, in the period known as the phony war before the collapse of western Europe in the face of a German onslaught in the spring of 1940, shoppers carried on as usual. There were few, if any, calls for material sacrifice on the home front, and consumers were urged to keep shopping in an effort to keep the economy functioning normally. Women, as this study shows, played a unique role in this new “patriotic consumerism,” both as shoppers and within regulatory bodies like the Wartime Prices and Trade Board that emerged during the war. “Mrs. Consumer,” as she was called, had important war work to do: a price ceiling was introduced at the end of 1941, and rationing was introduced on some imported goods (coffee, tea, and sugar) in order to secure sufficient quantities for overseas troops, and on other goods (like meat and butter) in order to eliminate regional variation in supply. In theory, purchasing was to be restricted to essential items, and the remainder of a household’s income was to be socked away in Victory Bonds. In practice, Mrs. Consumer found that a wide range of items could be considered essential.
The advertising industry faced its first real challenge during World War II. After the initial year of business as usual, when advertisers tempted buyers with the cars and refrigerators they could not afford in the previous decade, by 1941 wartime sacrifice had become expected. How could consumers be lured into making purchases in the face of [End Page 504] such public pressure? As Broad shows here with the help of a plethora of wartime advertisements, it was by bringing the war directly into the ads. Parker sold pens to give to soldiers to get them “to write often”; “Sanforized” clothing would last longer and not need to be replaced; and women war workers were better at their jobs if they used Campana’s hand cream, drank Pepsi, and wore Tangee makeup. By 1943, when an Allied victory seemed inevitable, advertisers were promising the coming of a world of plenty, and when attention began to turn to reconstruction and the emerging social welfare net, advertisers underlined the need for the protection of the “fifth freedom”—that of consumer choice—in the new world order.
Canadian consumers bought things that they were convinced would help the war effort (like Sanforized clothes), would help the soldiers (like Parker pens), would stave off a recession (virtually any form of buying), would last forever (like a dining-room suite from Eaton’s), or would provide security for workers (like Dominion oilcloth). Indeed, so helpful was buying stuff to the overall war effort that...