A Small Price to Pay: Consumer Culture on the Canadian Home Front, 1939-1945

  • A Small Price to Pay: Consumer Culture on the Canadian Home Front, 1939-1945
    by Graham Broad
  • Food Will Win the War: The Politics, Culture, and Science of Food on Canada’s Home Front
    by Ian Mosby

Reviewed by Stacey J. Barker

In September 1945, the Second World War had barely come to an end when over 9000 miners in British Columbia and Alberta walked off the job. This was not a strike for higher wages or better working conditions; the men were protesting the reintroduction of meat rationing. The three-week strike did not win the miners their main demand -- double meat rations -- but it did earn them an extra allotment, something that they, in their physically demanding jobs, deemed necessary and fair.

But the miners’ meat strike was not a typical occurrence on Canada’s Second World War home front. As the long arm of the state intruded into daily life, Canadians did not march in the streets protesting the edicts of the Wartime Prices and Trade Board, the government agency responsible for controlling virtually every aspect of the domestic economy during the war. Minor complaints aside -- and there were many -- most accepted the regulations as a patriotic sacrifice to be made as part of the war effort. But how much sacrifice did the average Canadian really make? To what extent were individuals "deprived" materially during the war? Did Canadians on the home front have, to use the now well-worn phrase, a “good war?”

In these two books, historians Graham Broad and Ian Mosby address these and related questions. Broad’s work, an examination of Canada’s wartime consumer economy through a largely cultural lens, offers the argument that Canadians did not experience much in the way material hardship. “Penurious patriotism,” as Broad terms it, was a myth. He presents ample evidence that while some big ticket items, such as automobiles, were scarce, retail sales actually rose throughout the war as part of a post-Depression boom in spending, one that continued after the war had ended. He also highlights -- to great effect -- the contradictory messages received by the public when it came to spending. While the government portrayed excess spending as unpatriotic as best and treasonous at worst, those being promulgated by the advertising industry differed markedly. In their view, Canadians could actually support the war effort by buying. Consumers could be forgiven if they were somewhat confused. Of course, durable goods were not the only thing Canadians were spending their wages on; leisure was another. Many of the grand “movie palaces” such as the Orpheum in Vancouver that had been built in prewar years were still in operation, and after the lean years of the Depression they were again crammed with patrons looking for diversion. In short, many Canadians had more money to spend during the war and, far from engaging in an austere “make it do” ethos, spent it.

Ian Mosby’s Food Will Win the War travels over similar ground, except that his focus is more specific -- food on the home front. While Canadians had dealt with wartime food protocols in wartime before, the moral suasion of the First World War gave way to stricter rules during the Second. As Mosby points out, as one of the world’s major food exporters, Canada had a crucial role to play in keeping Britain fed, a responsibility that devolved, in part, on the consumers of the home front. The food Canadians bought, cooked, and ate was transformed into a public concern. At the same time, busy wartime Canadians were eating more food, leading to even greater demands on supplies and necessitating greater state oversight. Concentrated attention began to be paid to the nutritional aspects of eating; and Canada’s first official “food rules” were unleashed. In a volume that ranges widely over various aspects of Canadian food and war, Mosby analyzes rationing, nutrition, and the many ways public concerns entered into what had hitherto been a highly private realm. Like Broad’s work, Mosby also hints at the importance of analyzing wartime consumer culture within a wider time frame; take, for example, the recipes for patriotic “war cakes” that were remarkably similar to those for ‘economy cakes’ of the Great Depression.

Both books are much needed additions to the historiography of Canada’s Second World War experience. Too often the daily lives of those on the home front have been overlooked in favour of the stories of the men and women who marched away in khaki. Those who remained behind -- 90 percent of Canadians -- also had their worlds fundamentally transformed by war, as these books demonstrate. Specialists will certainly appreciate these works, but both are accessible and appealing to a general audience as well. Both authors pay a gratifying amount of attention to gender, perhaps inescapably given the importance of women within the domestic economy. Both authors include well-chosen contemporary ads, propaganda posters, and photos. Both strip away the somewhat one-dimensional view of Canadians on the Second World War to reveal a more complex reality of human beings trying to balance patriotism with their own interests as individuals and consumers.

A Small Price to Pay: Consumer Culture on the Canadian Home Front, 1939-1945
Graham Broad
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013.  288 pp. $32.95 paper
Series: Studies in Canadian Military History

Food Will Win the War: The Politics, Culture, and Science of Food on Canada’s Home Front
Ian Mosby
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2014. 288 pp. $32.95 paper

BC Studies 188 (Winter 2016)