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


201 pages
Contains Photos, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-7575-4
DDC 971.6'225




Reviewed by Margaret Conrad

Margaret Conrad is the Nancy Rowell Jackman Chair of Women’s Studies
at Mount Saint Vincent University, and the editor of Intimate Relations:
Family and Community in Planter Nova Scotia, 1759–1800.


Richmond Heights, the subject of this ambiguously titled study, was a
planned suburb that rose out of the ashes of the 1917 Halifax Explosion.
Drawing on a rich array of sources, both quantitative and qualitative,
Suzanne Morton provides a detailed analysis of the complex forces
influencing the lives of the working-class families who lived in this
“ideal” neighborhood in the 1920s. The result makes fascinating
reading, and Morton’s conclusions break new ground in our
understanding of class, gender, and generational tensions in interwar

By focusing on the domestic sphere, Morton achieves insights that
greatly extend our understanding of working-class history in the age of
the mass-consumer society. Young working-class women, she argues, became
aligned with consumer culture in the 1920s, making it increasingly
difficult for men to live up to the masculine ideal of becoming
household breadwinners. This crisis of masculinity was particularly
evident in Richmond Heights, which also experienced the general economic
difficulties that swept the Maritimes in the wake of World War I. Other
regions and classes in North America would face a similar crisis during
the Depression of the 1930s.

The strength of this book lies in the gendered and generational
approach. Chapters are devoted to elderly women and men; families;
single mothers and female-headed households; young women; and men. The
latter are bound together across occupation and age by work and leisure
experiences, Morton argues, in a way that women are not. As the young
women in Richmond Heights took up jobs in the service and clerical
sectors, they began rejecting the men, who had “clean hair but dirty
shirts,” and increasingly came in conflict with their mothers, who
represented a domestic ideal that was by then no longer in vogue.

In 1928, Robert and Helen Lynd made names for themselves with the
publication of Middletown: A Study of Contemporary American Culture.
Ideal Surroundings, which addresses issues never imagined by the Lynds,
deserves an equally wide readership.


Morton, Suzanne., “Ideal Surroundings: Domestic Life in a Working-Class Suburb in the 1920s,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed February 25, 2024,