Retail Nation: Department Stores and the Making of Modern Canada by Donica BelisleRetail Nation: Department Stores and the Making of Modern Canada by Donica Belisle

Retail Nation: Department Stores and the Making of Modern Canada

byDonica Belisle

Paperback | July 1, 2011

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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.

Donica Belisle has a PhD in Canadian studies and is an assistant professor of women’s and gender studies at Athabasca University.Donica Belisle has a PhD in Canadian studies and is an assistant professor of women's and gender studies at Athabasca University. Her website can be found at
Title:Retail Nation: Department Stores and the Making of Modern CanadaFormat:PaperbackDimensions:320 pages, 9 × 6 × 0.75 inPublished:July 1, 2011Publisher:Ubc PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0774819480

ISBN - 13:9780774819480

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Rated 1 out of 5 by from Not for me ... I purchased this book believing I was selecting a narrative history of how the department store helped build Canada. How wrong I was. No doubt well researched, and written with great interest in the subject, Retail Nation’s interesting historical facts unfortunately are mired in opinion and commentary. I felt at times that I was reading a very long university paper and not a history book. This book should have been on a shelf with others about social justice and gender issues, not history. Choice quotes include: A critique of an employee newsletter cartoon: “The cartoon hence turns bargain-hunting, assertive women into objects of derision. Rather than taking female shoppers’ quest for low-priced goods seriously, it encourages employees to view independent female shoppers as debased. In the department stores’ gendered hierarchy, assertive women were anomalies.” And the writer’s main argument: “It is true that many Canadians have fond memories of these giant retailers, but this should not prevent us from seeing department stores as institutions that perpetuated Anglo-Celtic, male, and class privilege in Canada, that exploited wage earners and consumers, that helped to destroy co-operative alternatives to mass merchandising, and that conflated consumerism with Canada’s national identity.” Unless you like your history with a heaping dose of haranguing and lecturing, look elsewhere.
Date published: 2011-12-10

Table of Contents

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?




Editorial Reviews

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 - 20120530