By Brian Roulston

Many of us will be turning to the internet to do some or all of our Christmas shopping this year, partly due to the pandemic and a trend that has emerged worldwide over the past decade or more.

It might be fun to travel back to a time when there were no computers, cell phones or in the case of Eaton’s even before there were department stores. How many of you remember sifting through the Eaton’s  Catalogue (produced from 1896 to 1976) or the Sear’s Wish Book (1952 to 1998) wishing for that perfect toy or gift from Santa. Many of us would eagerly wait every year for the Canadian Tire Christmas Catalogue to come out as well.  It was first introduced in 1928.

At one time, one or all three of these catalogues could be found in every home across Canada. A time when three-quarters of the population lived outside of the major cities like Toronto, Montreal or Winnipeg; in towns and villages with populations of less than a thousand people or in more, rural areas such as farms, logging and mining camps.

These catalogues became very useful aside from ordering products. People would often use them to insulate their homes by ripping the pages out of them then crumpling and stuffing the pages in the cracks. Some crafty people used the pages as wallpaper; try that with an Amazon webpage! Little girls would cut out figures to make paper dolls or dresses for their Barbie dolls.  School children all across Canada would spend hours and hours cutting the pictures out for school projects or glue these images in scrapbooks. Moms would sew new clothes for the family based on what was in the catalogue keeping up with the latest fashion trends on the cheap. Boys would often strap these thick and heavy catalogues to their knees and use them as goalie pads.

Catalogues often provided topics for conversations. Many new immigrants learned to speak English (or French if you lived in Quebec.) by associating words with the pictures. Some of those poor, once shiny and untouched Catalogues ended up dog eared with pages ripped out of them, written on or coloured over; some of them even resembled stencils after the children got done with them. Many of them ended up going out in a very ‘ahem’ unflattering way by doing double duty as reading material and doing natures dirty business in the outhouse. Toilet paper was a luxury very few people had at the time.

More recently historians and the movie industry often sift through many of these old catalogues for information to gain a proper perspective on the styles, furniture and other items for a given period of time in order to be as authentic as possible on movie or stage sets.

The Hudson Bay Company was one of the first to offer a catalogue service with doorstep delivery in 1881; even before Eaton’s. It was a little bit ahead of its time and never really achieved success; HBC produced its last catalogue in 1913.

Things changed when the railroad went through or nearby many communities and as shipping ports were better able to handle more, bigger and better merchandise. No longer were people content with just survival, they wanted better things for their homes and themselves. Timothy Eaton saw this opportunity and launched his first Catalogues in 1884 at the Toronto International Construction show, the predecessor to the Canadian National Exhibition. He gave away copies of his Catalogues to attendees who came from all over.  Before long Timothy Eaton was shipping stuff across the country. However, Timothy had bigger dreams. He wanted a mail order Catalogue, and he sent his head of the mail-order department to the U.S to study Montgomery Ward’s system, it wasn’t long before Eaton’s dream came true using Ward’s system. His first Christmas    Catalogue coincided with the first Eaton’s Santa Clause Parade in 1905 in both Toronto and Winnipeg.

In the 1899-1900 edition of the Eaton’s Catalogues one could order dresses, suits, silverware, fabrics, children’s sleds, wools & yarn; bridal wear, furs, watches and jewelry, drugs, groceries and the list goes on and on. Some of the more unusual things that could be ordered through the Eaton’s Catalogues were organs and pianos, clothing for the clergy, bibles, harness and saddlery for horses. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the Toronto Eaton’s Centre store alone with its 11,000 employees processed up to 30,000 mail order transactions a day.

Robert Simpson opened his first store in 1853 and was successful enough that Eaton’s viewed him as serious competition. When Simpson died in 1897, three young entrepreneurs took over and expanded the company nationwide. However, in 1952 Simpson’s was struggling. The American store Sears-Roebuck bought out Simpson’s then re-named it Simpson-Sears Roebuck. Roebuck was dropped from the name soon after. Simpson-Sears opened its first brick and mortar store in Stratford, Ontario (1953); at the same time, they published its first Canadian catalogue.

That first Canadian Christmas Wish Book offered fresh fish from the best fisheries in Northern Canada shipped directly to you in air-insulated cartons, high end candies and chocolates, bibles, clothing, jewelry, TV’s, washer and dryers, furniture, typewriters and of course toys, toys and more toys for the youngsters. Sears aggressively expanded across Canada eating away at Eaton’s profits.

In the early to mid-70’s Eaton’s, Sears and Hudson Bay Corporation accounted for 14% of all sales in Canada. Eaton’s just prior to their closing was receiving 60% of all department store sales in Canada.

This was the beginning of the downfall for both companies. Eaton’s published its final catalogue in 1976 while the Sear’s catalogues remained popular and continued until 1997 ringing in $15 million in sales that final year.

Sears in the U.S were actually one the first retailers in e-commerce selling general merchandise online months before Amazon. However, only 250 items were offered. At that time Jeff Bezos was selling books all across America through Amazon. It wasn’t long before he started into the general merchandise business selling an endless number of items. Sears couldn’t compete on this level, Amazon, then soon, Walmart ate away at its profits. The last Sear’s Wish book came out in 2017 a year before the last Sears stores in Canada were closed. Long gone are the days of lugging a heavy catalogue to the kitchen table and eying all the great new toys for your “wish list”.