Cynthia Comacchio. The Dominion of Youth: Adolescence and the Making of Modern Canada, 1920-1950. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2006. 298 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-88920-488-1.
Reviewed by Carrie Dickenson (Department of History, McMaster University)
Published on H-Canada (March, 2007)
The Emergence of the Dominion's Youth
Cynthia Comacchio's The Dominion of Youth: Adolescence and the Making of Modern Canada, 1920-1950 offers a fascinating account of young Canadians during the first half of the twentieth century. In a thoroughly detailed and densely researched work, Comacchio synthesizes several important themes related to adolescent historiography including theoretical concepts of youth, familial relations, dating, school, work, and leisure. The author contends that the "making of a certain type of modern young Canadian" paralleled "the context of a young nation caught up in its own self-formation and transformation during the years from 1920-1950" (pp. viii-2). Against claims propagated by earlier works, Comacchio convincingly places the 1920s at the center of her analysis: "by the 1920s young people were on their way to becoming integral to the consumer base ... many of these activities took place outside the home and away from family, in public ... venues ... specifically geared to adolescents" (p. 166). For Comacchio, the 1920s and 1950s share a number of structural and cultural similarities, which explain the prevalence of a modern adolescent concept in both decades. First, both decades were ones of recovery and reconstruction after global wars and both witnessed renewed economic prosperity and important advances in technology. In addition, both decades saw a renewed celebration of domesticity interrupted by war and the participation of young women and people as enfranchised citizens in paid labor.
The first two chapters of the work investigate the theoretical concepts of adolescence and how these notions were manifested in relations within the home. According to the author, the "hallmark of modern adolescence," was distinguished by G. Stanley Hall and his focus on the period of biological puberty and its accompanying moral, sexual, and psychological upheavals (p. 20). Hall's theories gave rise to other works which also paid specific attention to the problem of adolescence such as Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa (1961). According to Comacchio, the attention paid to young people in the literature mirrored calls for a prolonged period of youth dependency in the 1920s. "Modern parents were advised to hold on to their young until the 'dangerous' years of adolescence were over," notes the author (p. 55). Several socioeconomic factors contributed to this dependency, including the high costs of living coupled with low wages offered to young people, the decline of apprenticeships, an expansion in the casual labor market, and the change in age of school-leaving to fifteen or sixteen. These competing developments worked to strain relations within the home and, unlike earlier generations, "youth appeared intent to dismiss the greater wisdom and experience of parents, grandparents and other kin and community members of the older generation in favor of their own" (p. 46).
Chapter 3 examines the emerging concepts of dating and sexuality. A significant preoccupation with adolescent sexuality took hold in the 1920s and its intensity largely depended on external factors such as the depression and World War II. For instance, Comacchio contends that the Second World War "intensified attention to teenage sexuality ... and the usual anxieties about immortality associated sexual control with patriotism and victory" (p. 93). The sexual regulation of young people was the preoccupation of "youth watchers" throughout the decade and advice literature took up the cause of so-called proper relations between young people.
The high school experience and its primary function of "sort" and "develop" is the main concept of chapter 4. Commenting on the widespread belief that young Canadians would "attain their maximum usefulness in building up and enriching our national structure" (p. 99), the 1920s marked the end of high school as the domain of the privileged. Increasing numbers of Canadian youth from different class and ethnic backgrounds attended school in larger numbers; thus, effectively by World War II, high school became a common experience for young people in Canada.
Chapter 5 examines young people who engaged in paid labor between 1920 and 1950. Comacchio maintains that "work and not high school was the main activity of older adolescents in the 1920s" (p. 131). Consistent with this, 1937 witnessed the appointment of the National Employment Commission of Canada. Created by the Dominion-Provincial Youth Training Programme, the Commission sought to "keep young Canadians occupied and off public relief and to place them in a position to secure available jobs by developing their resourcefulness, skill and independence" (p. 153).
A "youth problem" effectively took hold in the 1920s and became furthered ingrained in perceptions through what were believed to be inappropriate forms of popular culture and leisure activities. Heightened paranoia surrounding the youth problem took place at times of national insecurity such as the depression, and during both world wars. In the 1920s it was believed that leisure could regulate young people and reinforce the work ethic. Viewed as the "most potent of the new cultural forces affecting youth," the movies constantly came under criticism in government reports, journals, and popular magazines, which "resounded with moral indignation about the screen images that planted 'wrongful notions' in young minds" (p. 167). Other pastimes such as dancing received undue attention from reformers, largely because of their supposed sexual references. According to Comacchio, the first half of the twentieth century witnessed "planned, structured, and supervised recreation for youth," in the form of the YMCA, Boy Scouts, and Girl Guides, and was largely in keeping with ideas about regulating leisure propagated by religious organizations. The creation by the Mackenzie King government of the Canadian Youth Commission symbolized an important awareness by 1940 that age was a marker of a distinct group and particular class of Canadian citizen (p. 203). Terms such as teenager and teenage culture were commonplace and by the 1940s regulated leisure activities had been replaced with the teen club or canteen.
Compiling vast amounts of data from "sociological and psychological literature, both historical and current" (p. 3), Comacchio has effectively brought together disparate studies of Canadian youth from 1920 to 1950. However, what makes the analysis truly innovative is the attention paid to the 1920s as the focus for the emergence of a modern adolescent concept: "modern adolescents were well on the scene by the close of the 1920s" and "the 1950s brought about a consolidation of developing theories about what constituted modern youth, not the invention of that category" (p. 3). This does not mean that the work is free of criticism, as any attempt to examine an all-encompassing youth experience cannot but fall short. While Comacchio's analysis is inclusive of young women and those from immigrant families, it is difficult to discern what life was like for a young female high school student or a teen from a Ukrainian family. These criticisms aside, the author should be congratulated for her research techniques and dedication to a focus on Canadian youth. Perhaps historians should extend this framework to perceptions of youth in the 1960s and 1970s, as Canada's population of visible minority youth began to rise.
. Dating, sexuality, and concepts of "normal" are dealt with in the following works: Beth Bailey, From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988); Mona Gleason, Normalizing the Ideal: Psychology, Schooling, and the Family in Postwar Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999); and Mary Louise Adams, The Trouble with Normal: Postwar Youth and the Making of Heterosexuality (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997).
. See also Carolyn Strange, Toronto's Girl Problem: The Perils and Pleasures of the City, 1880-1930 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995).
. Shirley Tillotson notes that public recreation was to mold a certain personality that included self-discipline, religious faith, patriotism, commitment to the heterosexual family and concern about juvenile delinquency. Tillotson, The Public at Play: Gender and the Politics of Recreation in Post-War Ontario (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 15.
. Linda Ambrose's "Collecting Youth Opinion: The Research of the Canadian Youth Commission, 1943-1945," in Dimensions of Childhood: Essays on the History of Children and Youth in Canada, ed. Russell Smandych, Gordon Dodds, and Alvin Esau (Winnipeg: Legal Research Institute of the University of Manitoba, 1991) also studies the Canadian Youth Commission.
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Carrie Dickenson. Review of Comacchio, Cynthia, The Dominion of Youth: Adolescence and the Making of Modern Canada, 1920-1950.
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