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Mail Box Before E-commerce: A History of Canadian 
Mail-order Catalogues image
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Fashion to Furnishings
Capturing Customers
Company Histories
Order to Delivery
Catalogues (1880-1975)
Games and Activities

by Catherine C. Cole

  Eaton's Fall Winter 1887-88, Eaton's 
Fall Winter 1918-19, Eaton's Spring Summer  1926, Eaton's (French) Fall 
Winter 1939-40.  
  Eaton's Fall Winter 1887-88, Eaton's 
Fall Winter 1918-19, Eaton's Spring Summer  1926, Eaton's (French) Fall 
Winter 1939-40.  
  Eaton's Fall Winter 1887-88, Eaton's 
Fall Winter 1918-19, Eaton's Spring Summer  1926, Eaton's (French) Fall 
Winter 1939-40.  
  Eaton's Fall Winter 1887-88, Eaton's 
Fall Winter 1918-19, Eaton's Spring Summer  1926, Eaton's (French) Fall 
Winter 1939-40.  

The Eaton's catalogue grew from the first 32-page booklet published in Toronto in 1884 to the "big book" of the 1920s, a 500-page institution in Canadian history, with regional catalogues and distribution centres in Western and Eastern Canada. In addition, a French-language edition was published. By 1976, when the catalogue closed, Simpson's Sears had long surpassed Eaton's in sales, but not in nostalgia.


Early Growth | Eaton's Brands | Expansion in the West and East | Competition with Simpson's

  Eaton's Fall Winter 1884, cover 

Enlarge image.Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1884, cover (reproduction).


Timothy Eaton's first catalogue, published in 1884, was a 32-page booklet distributed to out-of-town visitors at the exhibition in Toronto. Eaton expressed his vision for the catalogue in 1887: "This catalogue is destined to go wherever the maple leaf grows, throughout the vast Dominion. We have the facilities for filling mail orders satisfactorily, no matter how far the letter has to come and the goods have to go."

   Letter to mail-order patrons, Eaton's 
Fall Winter 1884, inside front cover (reproduction).   

This letter to patrons explains the nature of the mail-order business. Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1884, inside front cover (reproduction).

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   Important mail-order information, 
Eaton's Fall Winter 1884, inside back cover (reproduction).   

Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1884, inside back cover (reproduction).

Enlarge image.
   Sample descriptions, Eaton's Fall 
Winter 1884 pp. 4-5, (reproduction).   

Sample pages from Eaton's first catalogue. Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1884, pp. 4-5 (reproduction).

Enlarge image.

Early Growth

From the 1890s, Eaton's factories in Central Canada and Winnipeg manufactured a range of goods: men's and women's clothing, jewellery, furniture, upholstered goods, window shades, harness, horse collars, suitcases and leather trunks.

  Eaton's Fall Winter 1898, cover.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1898, cover.

  Eaton shopping bag showing factories.  

Enlarge image.Shopping bag featuring Eaton's factories.

  Eaton's Spring Summer 1903, cover.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Catalogue, 1903, cover.


Eaton's mail-order business grew quickly. Mail-order stock was separated from that of the store in its own building in 1903. Eaton's produced a number of giveaways, such as fans, fly swatters, shoehorns, celluloid bookmarks, and match safes, which promoted the image of the company.

Enlarge image.Fans, bookmark, and match safe used as promotional giveaways by Eaton's.

  Eaton's promotional giveaways.  
  Eaton's promotional giveaways.  
  Eaton's promotional giveaways.  

Eaton's published a number of specialized catalogues for the Western market such as the Klondike Catalogue (1898) and the Settlers' Catalogue (1903). The Winnipeg edition was introduced in 1905. The growth rate in Winnipeg at the time was faster than in Toronto, and Winnipeg became the distribution centre for Western mail-order business.

  Samples of Eaton's specialized 
  Samples of Eaton's specialized 

Enlarge image.Examples of Eaton's specialized catalogues, including: Christmas, 1905, Groceries, 1927, Seeds 1928, and Wallpapers, 1941.

  Samples of Eaton's specialized 
  Samples of Eaton's specialized 

After the death of founder Timothy Eaton in 1907, John C. Eaton became president. His wife was also a key figure in establishing the image of the Eaton's business and family. Eaton introduced the guarantee that goods must be satisfactory or money would be refunded, and the policy that postage be paid both ways. Sales were conducted on a cash-only basis. In 1909, the mail-order department was organized into separate departments and began to purchase its own stock.

  Timothy Eaton, ca 1905-07.  

Enlarge image.Timothy Eaton, Souvenir Booklet, ca 1905-07.

  Lady Eaton in her court presentation 

Enlarge image.Lady Eaton in her court presentation gown with train and fan. Taken from the book The Store that Timothy Built by William Stephenson, p. 133.

  John C. Eaton, ca 1905-07.  

Enlarge image.John C. Eaton, Souvenir Booklet, ca 1905-07.


   Wallpaper purchased in the 1920s and 
returned in the 1950s.   

The satisfaction guaranteed policy was taken very seriously, as this roll of wallpaper, purchased in the 1920s and returned in the 1950s, demonstrates.

Enlarge image.
   Eaton's Spring Summer 1909, cover.   

Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1909, cover.

Enlarge image.


Eaton's Brands

  Map of CNE grounds with Eaton's brand 
name ads.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's brand name ads on the reverse side of a map of the CNE.


The practice of using trademarks and brand names grew after 1910 and the number of Eaton's trademarks that were introduced increased rapidly. Eaton brands included Eaton, Eatonia, Acme, Cravinette, Edgerite, Imperial, Foundation, Multiplex, Braemore, Lady Fair Birkdale, Renown, etc. Some of these products were produced by Eaton's or by subsidiary firms; others were produced under license.

  Eaton's buildings on letterhead, 

Enlarge image.Eaton's buildings on its letterhead, 1916.


Eaton's Winnipeg sold $11 million worth of goods in 1911, including houses and barns. Eaton's introduced the Product Research Bureau to study goods being offered through the catalogues and to compare them with those sold by other companies. Also in 1916, a new eight-storey building behind the Winnipeg store provided 2 hectares [five acres] of floor space for the mail-order department.

Expansion in the West and East

  Two-page ad from the Christmas Globe, 

Enlarge image.Two-page ad from the Christmas Globe, 1908.


In Saskatchewan, Eaton's went head-to-head with Simpson's. Simpson's built an eight-storey warehouse in Regina in 1916. Eaton's established distribution centres in Saskatoon and Regina to provide faster delivery of heavy goods to customers in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. There was a strong relationship between the stores and the mail-order catalogues. New stores, with mail-order salesrooms, opened throughout the region. Eaton's was slow to open stores in British Columbia because of the strength of the competition, Woodward's.

   Ad for Eaton's Farm Buildings and 
Equipment catalogue, Eaton's Fall Winter 1919-20, p. 420.   

An advertisement for Eaton's Farm Buildings and Equipment Catalogue that complied with the Soldiers' Land Settlement Scheme. Eaton's (Winnipeg) Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1919-20, p. 420.

Enlarge image.

In response to the Canadian government's Soldiers' Land Settlement Scheme after the First World War, Eaton's produced a booklet for soldiers planning to farm in the West, containing "the full requirements of a soldier." The economy on the Prairies boomed and a second nine-storey building was built in Winnipeg in 1921.

  Bird's-eye view of Eaton's various 
operations, 1921.  

Enlarge image.Facts of interest about Eaton's, 1921.

  Cake to celebrate first birthday of 
Eaton's Moncton mail order.  

Enlarge image.A piece of fruitcake to celebrate the first birthday of Eaton's Moncton mail order.


Eaton's Atlantic headquarters was built in Moncton in 1920, the same year that Eaton's mail-order business peaked at $60 million. The catalogues remained important in the West throughout the settlement period, although the value of individual orders dropped during the Depression. In the 1930s, Eaton's introduced a monthly payment plan for large ticket items. With growing urbanization in the post-war period, the catalogues decreased in importance.

Competition with Simpson's

  Eaton's Spring Summer 1976, cover.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1976, cover.


Eaton's was forced to re-evaluate its practices after Simpson's, its largest competitor, merged with Sears of the United States in 1953. Each district had done its own buying until, as part of a structural reorganization of the company, buying for both the stores and the catalogue was centralized in a Company Merchandise Office. Eaton's began to abandon manufacturing in the mid-1960s. In the 1960s, the catalogue was profitable only in the West and in Atlantic Canada, and by the early 1970s, the Eaton's catalogue was losing $17 million a year. In 1976, it ceased operations.

In 1900, three-quarters of Canadians lived on farms; by the 1970s, the population had shifted and three-quarters of Canadians lived in cities. Changing demographics is only one explanation for the closure of the mail-order department; Sears's mail order thrived after the Eaton's closure, tripling its sales. Management problems within Eaton's eventually led to the bankruptcy of the stores as well as the end of the catalogues.



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Created: December 10, 2004
© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation 2004
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