Canadian mail order catalogues - history

Christie Grant Limited.
Midsummer Sale, 1918
© Public Domain

Mail order catalogues have been available in Canada since the 1880s. For years, they were eagerly awaited and much needed by the people living in our country's isolated regions. So beloved was the Eaton's catalogue, for example, that it became affectionately known by many nicknames: the Bible, the Prairie Bible, the Homesteaders' Bible, the Farmers' Bible, the Wishing Book, the Wish Book, the Want book and simply, the Book. Many other stores also produced catalogues that found their way into people's lives and hearts.

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The beginning of catalogue history

Couverture du catalogue P.T. Legaré, 1920
Catalogue no. 44
P.T. Legaré, 1920
© Public Domain

In 1884 Timothy Eaton produced a small, pink, 32-page catalogue listing items and prices and distributed it to visitors at the Industrial Exhibition (now known as the Canadian National Exhibition) in Toronto. The next spring, a 6-page flyer announced Timothy Eaton's new mail order department. While the Eaton's catalogue was not the first mail order catalogue in North America, it was one of the first to be distributed by a Canadian retail store.

It was ten years before Simpson's produced their first mail order catalogue. By then, Eaton's had cornered a large segment of the market. By 1896, Eaton's mail order department was sending out 135,000 parcels by post and almost 74,000 by express.

From the beginning, building a mailing list was paramount to success. Eaton's expanded its list by offering existing customers gifts in exchange for names and addresses of friends and neighbours. One example is a missionary farmer's wife from northern British Columbia, who received a winter coat in return for sending in a list of her neighbours.

Eaton's tried to get their catalogues into the hands of as many rural customers as possible. City dwellers were also on the mailing list and all Eaton's customers were encouraged to visit the store. Eaton's catered to the rural customers who made periodic visits to town by offering features such as a "Farmer's Waiting Room", which was a place for rural customers to take a break and relax before continuing their shopping. This tactic seems to have been effective, for in-store sales continued to be greater than mail order sales.

P.T. Legaré, a French-Canadian retailer based in Montréal, distributed their first catalogue in 1910. Goodwin's, also in Montréal, followed in 1911. Dupuis Frères, another French-Canadian retailer, created its mail order service in 1922. Army and Navy, serving the west, began mail order in 1924 and Canadian Tire sent out its first catalogue in 1928. By the 1920s, Hudson's Bay, Morgan's and Woodward's all had a mail order service.

With the exception of Dupuis Frères and P.T. Legaré, French-language shoppers had to be content with catalogues written in English. Eaton's produced one all-French catalogue in 1910, but this was not repeated until 1927. So French customers were asked to look at the pictures and prices and make do. It was preferred that customers write their order in English, but if they couldn't, then they could write in French and expect a response in the same language.

When the Eaton's catalogue was finally available in both English and French, it is interesting to note that the French was not a translation of the English. An example of this is the description for a pair of girls' panties. The English description states that they will "not slide or ride up," while the French description for the same item says "elastique, ferme et durable."

Many of the big retailers produced separate catalogues or parts of catalogues for specific target shoppers. Dupuis Frères, for example, printed catalogues for the general public as well as for more specific customers. Created to serve French Canadians and in particular, Catholics, there appeared for some time on the flip side of the order form, instructions for how to take measurements for a cassock. Dupuis Frères also published a separate catalogue for Catholic clergy.

Advertisement with information about ordering the price list for carload lots of lumber, Eaton's Fall and Winter 1918-19 catalogue 
Eaton's Fall and Winter 1918-19

Eaton's targeted specific markets such as settlers, miners and prospectors in the Klondike, creating unique catalogues for their customers in the west and in the Maritimes. In order to shorten the time it took to receive orders, a store with its own catalogue operations was opened in Winnipeg in 1905. In Moncton, a mail order building was built in 1918.

The earliest mail order catalogues had no illustrations or colour. Illustrations began to make an appearance by 1887 and colour was introduced on selected pages, such as those advertising clothing, fabrics and toys, in 1915. The 1919 catalogues used a combination of photographs and line drawings, such as photographs of heads placed on illustrated bodies. This often created very awkward effects.

In the early days, the products advertised were mainly women's and children clothes, with just a small section for men. Other categories were gradually included such as mattresses, books, stationary and then later, glass, china, silver, lamps and medicines. By the early 1890s, furniture was being sold and in the mid 1890s, farm equipment and agricultural implements appeared. In the 1910s and 1920s, a person could place a mail order for the materials needed to build houses and barns!

One can trace the coming of many technological innovations through the pages of mail order catalogues. Electricity, modern indoor plumbing, labour-saving devices such as the washing machine -- mail order catalogues bear witness to all of these life-altering changes.

While mail order continues to flourish among retailers today and has a contemporary form in e-commerce, the players are no longer the same. Eaton's published its last catalogue in 1976, the Dupuis Frères catalogues closed in 1963 and Simpson's, which had merged with the American Sears to become Simpson's-Sears, sold its mail order business to Sears in the 1980s.


Top 10 uses

Each fall and spring, the long-awaited catalogue would finally arrive. It was an event similar to that of a distant relative paying a long-overdue visit. There was something for everyone. In particular, the arrival of the latest catalogue was the moment that many children waited for because they would then be given the old catalogue to amuse themselves with.

Many winter days and nights were spent poring over the pages of the catalogue, dreaming of the possibilities it offered. But the catalogue was used for many other purposes besides ordering goods from afar. Some of them may be surprising from today's perspective, where entertainment is only as far away as the television, radio, bookshelf, cinema, theatre or local sports centre.

Besides ordering goods, here are the top ten uses (in random order) for mail order catalogues in times past:

  1. Little girls searched the pages for figures to cut to make paper dolls. They then tried to find outfits that would fit the cut-out figures. Sometimes they made entire paper families to play with. Some even cut out pictures of furniture and used the cut-outs to furnish homemade doll houses.
  2. Pictures cut from old catalogues would often be used for school projects or to decorate scrapbooks.
  3. Boys would strap a catalogue to each shin to make goalie pads when playing hockey.
  4. Teachers in many one-room schoolhouses used the catalogues to teach children to read. Sometimes it was the only book they had to read. Catalogues were also cut up to create alphabet books using the illustrations.
  5. Some adult immigrants who couldn't speak English used the catalogue to teach themselves words; by studying the picture and description they not only increased their vocabulary, but learned how to spell.
  6. Women eagerly awaited the catalogue to learn of the latest fashion styles. Many cut their own patterns from newspapers and sewed their family's clothes, based on illustrations from catalogues.
  7. Pictures were cut out of the catalogues and used to decorate homesteaders' walls.
  8. Pages could be torn out, crumpled up and used as insulation to fill in drafty cracks in cabin walls.
  9. For people living in isolated rural areas, catalogues provided a cultural link with the outside world. They allowed people to keep up with the trends in fashion and home furnishings, provided new avenues for conversation, eased loneliness and created needed stimulation in many homesteaders' lives.
  10. And then there was the catalogue's final destination: out to the outhouse, where it was used to decorate the walls, for reading material and finally, as toilet paper.

Today, old catalogues are valuable research tools. Their contents provide important information to museum curators, historians, sociologists, writers, antiquarians, as well as collectors and dealers in anything from the past. The details they hold allow costume and set designers to be authentic and true to a period in their work. But you don't have to fall into any of these categories to enjoy vintage catalogues. Thumbing through the pages and discovering each era's distinct mood can bring hours of enjoyment -- just as it did when the original owners looked through the same pages for the very first time.


Personal shoppers

Illustration of a department store with the words SECTION OF DRESS GOODS DEPT. 
A busy department store of the 1890s

Customers would often write to Eaton's to request an item that did not appear in the catalogue. To meet this need, Eaton's employed young women to work as "personal shoppers." It was their job to search the store for such requested items, going from counter to counter with letter in hand. The Fall/Winter 1886-87 Eaton's catalogue introduced these women as a "staff of young ladies", who were "carefully selected for their painstaking dispositions and excellent judgement in matters of dress... [to] give distant purchasers the benefit of a thorough knowledge of the most advanced fashions."

Filling orders was sometimes quite a challenge, depending on how well a customer described what they wanted. Often the women had to make decisions based on scant information. For example, determining whether a requested shoe was meant for a child or adult, based on the size of the foot that had been traced at home and included with the letter. Despite the many challenges, the personal shoppers did a good job. Many customers were so pleased with the articles bought on their behalf that they sent letters of thanks and even gifts, such a basket of fruit or eggs for "Mrs. Eaton and her family."

By the 1887-88 catalogue, Eaton's was able to boast of their mail order department. Their personal shoppers, they reported, "must have besides a keen, clear, personal inspiration - something more than exact machinery - insight, power to look behind ink and paper and catch the living person to be served; ability to make a mental photograph of the writer, and read between the lines the thought that created the words. Given these elements combined in true proportion, and the result is the ideal mail-order department."

The Shopping Service, as it became known, was able to offer personal shoppers to not only buy for, but to advise Eaton's mail order customers. The personal shoppers were there to select anything from a single lace collar, to an entire wardrobe.

The Shopping Service grew quickly and allowed customers ease of mind; they placed requests for items not pictured in the catalogue knowing that their order would be filled with good judgement. In the rare instance when the choice made on their behalf proved to be unsatisfactory, the customer needed only to return the unwanted item for exchange or full refund.

Sometimes items were ordered that were out of stock. In this case, if the customer so indicated, another item of better quality would be selected for substitution. There was usually a great variety to choose from. Ladies gloves were, at times, available in a number of different styles and in 15 colours, and lace curtains came in 300 unique patterns.

Eventually, The Shopping Service started to interfere with the regular store operations. There were more than 100 clerks filling mail orders in 1890. By 1900, there were sometimes so many personal shoppers filling orders for distant customers that they crowded the floor and elevators, making it difficult for in-store shoppers to do their shopping.

The mail order operation had grown so large by 1903 that it was moved to a separate building in Toronto, where it continued to provide the excellent service it prided itself on for many years. People could and did still write asking for specific things not illustrated in the catalogues. In the 1920 and 1930s for example, personal shoppers were frequently asked to select gifts for community organizations holding Christmas parties.

However, times changed and in 1976 Eaton's shut down its mail order service after 92 years of operation.



Toys come and toys go, but some toys are forever. As might be expected, stuffed bears and dolls have appeared on the pages of mail order catalogues since the early days. There were dolls that walked, dolls that talked, dolls with beautiful outfits and many with real human hair. In the 1920s, "Flossie Flirt" arrived, with eyes that not only moved up and down but also moved from side to side! But the doll that many little girls longed for was the annual Eaton's Beauty doll, produced from 1900 to 1984.

Many of the girls' toys listed in mail order catalogues prepared girls for domestic duties by providing them with toy tea sets, dishes, kitchen utensils, pots and pans, irons, brooms and dust pans.

The boys enjoyed cowboy suits and Mountie outfits, pedal cars, trucks and trains. In the early 1940s, educational toys showed up with the claim that they would "help develop young minds." While the language was unisex, only boys appeared in the illustrations.

Traditional games such as checkers, chess, dominoes and playing cards were around a hundred years ago, but what may come as a surprise is the Ouija board advertised in the Eaton's catalogue of 1915-16.

Bicycles of course, have always been popular, but the cycles that children proudly owned at the turn of the 20th century were quite different from the ones that children ride today. Girls aged 2 to 15 rode tricycles, while boys climbed aboard velocipedes (an early bicycle with pedals that turned the front wheel).

Adults browsing the toy pages of old catalogues will enjoy the nostalgia they experience as long-forgotten toys are brought to light. Children will find it fascinating and informative to learn about children from the past and how they spent their time at play, as the pages reveal their interests and pastimes.

Illustration of a play refrigerator and a play stove, Nerlich Fall and Holiday 1939-1940 catalogue 
Play refrigerator and stove,
Nerlich Fall and Holiday 1939-1940
Photograph of boys in cowboy suits, Eaton's Christmas Book 1956 catalogue 
 Cowboy suits,
Eaton's Christmas Book 1956
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