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  • Buying Happiness: The Emergence of Consumer Consciousness in English Canada by Bettina Liverant
  • Aprajita Sarcar
Liverant, Bettina – Buying Happiness: The Emergence of Consumer Consciousness in English Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2018. Pp. 291.

Buying Happiness traces transformations in Canadian consumers from the late nineteenth century to the 1960s. It is a long-range study that historicizes the moral economies of spending in this period. Bettina Liverant argues that Canadian consumer society evolved in historically specific ways. She identifies key moments when the lines between being a citizen and a consumer begin to blur. The author has meticulously drawn from varied sources and collates them in inventive ways. The overall argument and its supporting claims are convincing and substantive. My sole frustration is with the book's organization. The book is designed to flow chronologically, and it does not serve her arguments well. Using chronology as an organizing principle obfuscates the themes. I could see a graduate student quickly skipping to the sixth chapter, which, in sharing its title with the book, would seem to hold its main matter. Therein lies a risk of the reader missing nuance, and of the book appearing to be yet another study of the role of women in postwar North Atlantic reconstruction. Unlike the book, this review is organized thematically in its discussion of Buying Happiness's key claims. [End Page 248]

One major thread running through the book describes how the state, using social surveys, mapped consumption across different social classes. Such data aggregation helped the state intervene in home economics. Surveys helped the government—through advertising, signs, and pamphlets—encourage shoppers to track spending, eliminate impulsive buying, monitor prices, and report infractions. By the end of the First World War, this transformation was complete, and an individual's spending choices took on nationalist hues. Statistics provided a seemingly objective approach to anxieties about rising prices, inflation, and debt. Standard of living, as a concept and currency for data, determined the political significance of consumption in interwar Canada. Depression-era food riots fuelled the first official use of this index, in the form of a state report. The report collated working class poverty and demands for minimum wages, transforming citizens to consumers. By the time of the national elections in 1935, the term "consumer" emerges as a generic term, "less politically charged than 'labour' with the potential to reach across party loyalties already shaken by the economic crisis" (p. 102). Statistical research in the consumer patterns of industrial families helped abate labour disputes and strikes.

Another theme throughout relates to the persons behind the numbers: the selffashioned Canadian intellectual and his (I'll discuss Liverant's gender analysis below) analysis of consumer behaviour. The author draws similarities between differing groups of social commentators, all of them of Anglo-Saxon origin and working as nonindustrial professionals: writers, clergymen, authorities on social reform, academics in growing universities, civil servants, and consultants to expanding governments and industry (p. 16). They described the effects that rising earnings had on families. Such commentaries manifested elite anxieties about class differences and growing urbanization.

Conservative commentators talked of an idealized agrarian past. Malthusian fears of scarcity held fast as new non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants entered the country (p. 18). Ironically, after the Depression-era scarcity and resultant rioting, the Conservative leader and Prime Minister Richard Bennett attacked industrial price fixing in the 1935 elections. He lost to the Liberal candidate William Lyon Mackenzie King, who blamed state mismanagement rather than capitalism for the economic crisis. The election marked the importance of citizens' consumer rights. It helped frame peoples' buying capacities as fundamental to Canadian welfare economics.

A sharp increase in popular magazines, films, and cheaply produced novels was the result of a larger literate population. The intellectual elite distanced itself from this mass-produced culture and saw themselves as critics of mass production (p. 64). They abhorred profit, wrote in journals with limited circulation, penned poetry—which was even more inaccessible than prose—and bought art that had an "anti-modern" aesthetic (p. 75). Liverant locates the Group of Seven in this move towards venerating natural landscapes over city living. Quite like the Hipsters today, in defining itself...


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