Ideal Surroundings: Domestic Life in a Working-Class Suburb in the 1920s

TitleIdeal Surroundings: Domestic Life in a Working-Class Suburb in the 1920s
Publication TypeMiscellaneous
Year of Publication1997
AuthorsMcDonald, RAJ
ISBN Number0700-3862
KeywordsBook reviews, History, Social classes

Ideal Surroundings, 's study of domestic life in a Halifax suburb in the 1920s, fits comfortably into the framework outlined by and : it explores working-class history from the perspective of gender, and it focuses on the home, the family, and the community rather than the workplace. The community that Morton selected is Richmond Heights, a 325-acre section of north Halifax devastated by the Halifax Harbour explosion of 1917 but reconstructed under the direction of the Halifax Relief Commission. The reconstruction offered a unique opportunity to see inside a predominantly working-class suburb through the records generated in the 1920s by the Relief Commission, including documents relating to rental property and pensions. Lacking census manuscript records, Morton also examined the economic and social character of the neighbourhood through an impressive array of other textual sources, ranging from city directories and newspapers to wills and the records of voluntary associations. When community-level analysis was beyond the scope of her sources, she included data for the city as a whole. At its core Ideal Surroundings exhibits a tension between two different approaches to the study of gender, one social, the other cultural. The book is structured around Morton's economic and social analysis of life in Richmond Heights. After identifying the "values" of respectable working people at the beginning of the book, Morton explores the relationship between ideals and reality through chapters organized according to the life cycle. This approach adds age to the mix of class and gender as categories of analysis, though the focus remains very much on the latter. The chapter on "Elderly Men and Women" offers useful insights into the different meaning of gender identity in youth and old age, and suggests that the dependency and vulnerability shared by older men and women made gender less relevant to the way that they – as opposed to younger people – lived. The chapter on "Husbands and Wives, Fathers and Mothers" explores the domestic lives of married men and women in a decade of uncertainty and change. In "Single Mothers and Female Household Heads," Morton shows how the ideal of a male family wage assigned to widows and abandoned women an existence of poverty and unemployment. In "Men" she effectively draws upon a growing literature about masculinity to find that "age-old characteristics of strength and skill" were being replaced in the 1920s by "a new kind of manhood based on the ability to support a family." (130)