A Consuming Passion
Joanne Burgess, Université du Québec à Montréal



Contemporary society is characterized by mass consumption and the pervasive presence of advertising. In Canada, the origins of these phenomena go back to the mid-19th century. During this period, industrialization, improved communication and increased trade lead to major changes in big cities. Urban society becomes a highly stratified mosaic in which the bourgeoisie, the middle class and working people develop new lifestyles.

In Victorian Canada, a new consumer culture emerges first in bourgeois society. The wealth of this clientele leads to a commercial revolution marked by the appearance of 'warehouse stores' with their elegant façades and display windows, their spacious and lavishly decorated interiors and their attentive staff. These establishments are the precursors of the department stores that will be built in the late 19th century. The principal shopping streets quickly become the busiest thoroughfares in Canadian cities.

In middle-class circles, the growth of consumption reflects the importance attributed to respectability and family life. The bourgeois householder has to furnish and decorate his home, lend a measure of refinement to daily rituals, dress tastefully and provide for his children's needs.

People of means soon display an interest in travel and exotic destinations. A new consumer product, photography, quickly becomes an essential part of the tourist experience.

Consumer trends among the working class are also transformed. While essential needs account for the bulk of spending, a broad range of cheap industrial products, such as canned goods, footwear and ribbons, make their way into working class homes. New stores cater to housewives looking for bargains, and even they devote careful attention to the display of their merchandise.

Manufacturers and store owners adopt a variety of promotional strategies to win their clients' favour. These include travelling salesmen armed with samples, stalls in industrial fairs and advertising in magazines and newspapers. Graphic artists captivate the public with their humour and images of feminine enticements. They are quite adept in using patriotism and national heroes to boost sales. Advertisers soon begin targeting housewives.

All these innovations have a considerable impact on culture. Even religious holidays, key life cycle events and public ceremonies become new occasions for consuming.

By the end of the late 19th century, despite a very unequal distribution of wealth, a new consumer culture has become well-established and its influence on the popular imagination is profound.