Popular since the late 19th century, oriental rugs were sold through department stores and mail-order catalogues. Simpson's sent its buyers to the Middle East to purchase better quality carpets directly at lower prices. Photographs from a 1930s buying trip were used by the company to promote sales.

When the popularity of oriental rugs began to grow at the end of the 19th century, department stores were among the first retailers in Canada to stock them. Hand-woven rugs were sold at Eaton's and Simpson's alongside machine-made floor coverings; later a specialized department was established. The rugs also appeared periodically in mail-order catalogues. Because each rug was more or less an individual work of art, the catalogues did not provide an exhaustive listing of the available stock. Customers interested in rugs were advised to write and ask for more details, such as in this notice from the Simpson's fall-and-winter catalogue in 1907.

It was also common for department stores and specialty dealers to mail oriental rugs to customers for approval. Customers chose the ones they wanted and returned the others. This allowed shoppers living outside of major Canadia Read More
Popular since the late 19th century, oriental rugs were sold through department stores and mail-order catalogues. Simpson's sent its buyers to the Middle East to purchase better quality carpets directly at lower prices. Photographs from a 1930s buying trip were used by the company to promote sales.

When the popularity of oriental rugs began to grow at the end of the 19th century, department stores were among the first retailers in Canada to stock them. Hand-woven rugs were sold at Eaton's and Simpson's alongside machine-made floor coverings; later a specialized department was established. The rugs also appeared periodically in mail-order catalogues. Because each rug was more or less an individual work of art, the catalogues did not provide an exhaustive listing of the available stock. Customers interested in rugs were advised to write and ask for more details, such as in this notice from the Simpson's fall-and-winter catalogue in 1907.

It was also common for department stores and specialty dealers to mail oriental rugs to customers for approval. Customers chose the ones they wanted and returned the others. This allowed shoppers living outside of major Canadian centres to choose from a selection.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Black and white photo of a man holding an oriental rug over a camel

This man appears to be either the merchant or agent involved in selling carpets to the buyers from Simpson's, ca 1930s.

Courtesy Eric Cecil Budd Estate
c. 1930
© City of Toronto, Culture Division


Catalogue page with black and white drawing of a family looking at a rug

Simpson's Fall/WInter Catalogue, no. 104, 1907–08, p. 143.

Hudson's Bay Company

© Hudson's Bay Company, used with permission


Buying Directly from the Middle East

Department stores purchased oriental rugs from wholesalers in Europe and North America or sent buyers to acquire them directly from the Middle East. In the early 1930s, Simpson's sent Eric Cecil Budd, manager of the oriental rug department at the Toronto store, on a buying trip to Turkey. Photographs taken during this journey were later displayed in the downtown showroom. They gave customers a glimpse of the exotic origin of the carpets and demonstrated the lengths to which Simpson's would go to stock quality items.

International buyers followed a specific protocol when acquiring carpets in the Middle East. Buyers were accompanied by rug brokers, who received a one per cent commission on sales. These brokers took the buyers to merchants at the "Khan," or warehouse, where rugs from surrounding villages were stockpiled. A low sofa, cushions, rugs, and a few low chairs were provided for the comfort of foreigners. Before business was conducted, the merchants inquired after the health of the buyers and served coffee, Russian tea, and cigarettes. The "narguleh," or wate Read More
Buying Directly from the Middle East

Department stores purchased oriental rugs from wholesalers in Europe and North America or sent buyers to acquire them directly from the Middle East. In the early 1930s, Simpson's sent Eric Cecil Budd, manager of the oriental rug department at the Toronto store, on a buying trip to Turkey. Photographs taken during this journey were later displayed in the downtown showroom. They gave customers a glimpse of the exotic origin of the carpets and demonstrated the lengths to which Simpson's would go to stock quality items.

International buyers followed a specific protocol when acquiring carpets in the Middle East. Buyers were accompanied by rug brokers, who received a one per cent commission on sales. These brokers took the buyers to merchants at the "Khan," or warehouse, where rugs from surrounding villages were stockpiled. A low sofa, cushions, rugs, and a few low chairs were provided for the comfort of foreigners. Before business was conducted, the merchants inquired after the health of the buyers and served coffee, Russian tea, and cigarettes. The "narguleh," or water pipe, was also available for their enjoyment. The merchants were considered shrewd dealmakers.

By sending buyers to Turkey to deal directly with the warehouses, rather than with English or North American wholesalers, the department stores were able to purchase better quality rugs at lower prices.

The Turkish town Demirdji was a large manufacturing centre for good quality oriental rugs. Young girls sat at a large vertical loom, typical of smaller workshops. The paper pattern for the rug was hung at the side of the loom. The Sparta carpet was characterized by its heavy weave, durability, and design inspired by Turkish or Persian motifs.

At the warehouse, rugs were graded and washed on the floor using water and brooms. After chemical dyes were introduced to the rug making industry in the 19th century, rugs were often bleached in the sun to soften the harsh colours. Bleaching was thought to make the rugs more appealing to North Americans.

Shipping the Carpets

Once carpets were selected, they were packed in bundles of 50 to 1000, tied with hair rope, covered in canvas, and secured with iron bands. Each bundle contained a mixture of higher and lesser quality items. The cost of the bundle was calculated using an average price per square foot.

The packed bundles were then taken by camel to a railhead, loaded onto a boxcar, and transported to the nearest customs house and shipyard. From there, they were loaded by hand onto ships bound for Europe and North America. It took about six months for a shipment to arrive in Canada.

Conclusion

Photographs of the trip were displayed in Simpson's carpet department and certainly added to the mystique of the oriental rug. Special effort and consideration were required to sell the carpets both in the showroom and through mail-order catalogues. Given that no two rugs were alike, these items differed from other goods listed in the catalogues and were not obtained following usual mail-order procedures. The Simpson's catalogue gave customers living outside of major Canadian cities the opportunity to buy fine, quality oriental rugs not otherwise available locally.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Black and white photo of a group of men with carpets

Simpson Buyers with vendors at the warehouse in Turkey, ca 1930s.

Courtesy Eric Cecil Budd Estate

© City of Toronto, Culture Division


Black and white photo of men working in warehouse

Carpets being washed and prepared for sale, ca 1930s.

Courtesy Eric Cecil Budd Estate
1930
© City of Toronto, Culture Division


Catalogue page with black and white drawing of a rug sweeper

Simpson's Spring/Summer Catalogue no. 77, 1903, p. 114.

Hudson's Bay Company
1903
© Hudson's Bay Company, used with permission


Black and white photo of carpets on the back of camels

Transporting the carpets by camel, ca 1930s.

Courtesy Eric Cecil Budd Estate

© City of Toronto, Culture Division


Blacka dn white photo of turk employees with carpets

Turks carrying heavy bales of rugs sometimes weighing 600 pounds [272 kg].

Courtesy Eric Cecil Budd Estate

© City of Toronto, Culture Division


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • observe and identify the characteristics of early 20th century lifestyle;
  • compare the evolution of the Canadian and Quebec society over several decades;
  • explain the similarities and differences between past and present society;
  • discuss the main events of the 20th century (economic crisis, World Wars, unionization, feminist movement) and the impact that they had on Canadian and Quebec societies.

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