The Eaton’s catalogue was the shopping mall for farm families in the early 1900s, the settlement period of the Canadian prairies. Coveralls for dad, a new dress for mom, and a special Christmas present for the kids, all came from Eaton’s in Winnipeg. The catalogue also supplied almost everything for the house, and, from 1910 to 1932, the house itself.

The house portion of Eaton’s merchandise was a Western Canadian phenomenon only. Houses were advertised only in the Winnipeg catalogue and in special plan books. The advertisements showed Douglas Fir trees, seven feet in diameter and 200 feet to the first limb. The lumber was without knots and came from trees that would not be cut today.

The mail-order house business worked like this: A few houses were listed in the catalogue as a teaser. The catalogue advertised free plan books that gave complete details about the houses: an artist’s sketch, floor plan, and information on lumber, doors, windows, flooring, and hardware. Few of the plan books exist today because they were distributed free of charge.

Once the customer selected a house, the blueprints were purchased from the plan book for $2.50, although when competition appeared, the cost dropped to $1.00. When a house was ordered, the cost of the blueprints was subtracted from the invoice.

And order they did. Hundreds of Eaton homes dot the landscape in Western Canada, many serving the fourth or fifth generation of the same family, on the same quarter section of land. The lumber came by boxcar from British Columbia and the millwork came from Winnipeg. Freight was paid to the nearest railway station and the lumber was hauled to the farm by team and wagon.

Eaton's sold at least 40 different house plans. While the large two-and-a-half-storey square house is most often referred to as an Eaton's house, all shapes and sizes were available. The most common type was the one-and-a-half storey, sometimes referred to as the semi-bungalow.

Very few single-storey houses remain, but the Art Dunlap house near Harris, Saskatchewan, shows how durable the houses were. The Dunlap house was built in 1916 and has been empty since 1956, but it still stands straight and proud.
by Les Henry

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

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