Mail-order catalogues are a unique source of information on the writing instruments and stationery available between 1880 and 1940.

Since letter writing is above all an intellectual act and engages both the mind and the senses, writers must surround themselves with objects and instruments to express their thoughts, even if it is only with a bit of paper and a pen.

What writing instruments were available in Canada between 1880 and 1940? Where and how could they be obtained? Lovell's Montreal Directory for 1880-1881 (Montreal, John Lovell & Son) mentions shops in major urban centres that specialized in the sale of writing instruments. According to the directory, writing instruments could be purchased at "Booksellers and Stationers," who placed ads in various Canadian periodicals to promote their products. Such directories provided an overview of the market in a particular city. Outside the major centres, people relied on the mail-order catalogues they received by post.
Mail-order catalogues are a unique source of information on the writing instruments and stationery available between 1880 and 1940.

Since letter writing is above all an intellectual act and engages both the mind and the senses, writers must surround themselves with objects and instruments to express their thoughts, even if it is only with a bit of paper and a pen.

What writing instruments were available in Canada between 1880 and 1940? Where and how could they be obtained? Lovell's Montreal Directory for 1880-1881 (Montreal, John Lovell & Son) mentions shops in major urban centres that specialized in the sale of writing instruments. According to the directory, writing instruments could be purchased at "Booksellers and Stationers," who placed ads in various Canadian periodicals to promote their products. Such directories provided an overview of the market in a particular city. Outside the major centres, people relied on the mail-order catalogues they received by post.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Catalogue page of Writing Instruments

Writing instruments, one of seven pages of writing instruments in the Sears, Roebuck & Co. Catalogue, 1897.

Courtesy of Sears Roebuck and Co. Sears Archives U.S.A., Chantilly, Virginia

© Courtesy of Sears Roebuck and Co. Sears Archives U.S.A., Chantilly, Virginia


Colour photo of a travel writing case and contents

Travel writing case containing writing paper, sealing wax, seals, an inkwell, and fountain pens, late 19th century.

Photo : Claire Dufour

1994.154.1.
© Canadian Postal Museum


Starting in the late 19th century, a wide range of writing instruments could be ordered from three types of mail-order catalogues: specialized writing-instrument and stationery catalogues; catalogues published by jewellers, goldsmiths, or silversmiths; and mail-order catalogues that featured a variety of merchandise.

Catalogues of writing instruments were published by wholesalers for the retail market, but some were also made available to the general public. They were very elaborate (see J. C. Wilson & Co. Limited, 1908) and featured a large assortment of writing instruments - 21 models of pen nibs and 14 models of penholders. The United Typewriter Company Limited published a catalogue from 1913 to 1922 and it offered an even greater selection, including inkwells, bottles of ink, and a wide range of desk accessories. The first page of the catalogue had photographs of the company's salesrooms and customers were informed that the company's products were available in over fifteen stores in major Canadian cities, from Halifax to Victoria. The catalogues also had a whole assortment of writing paper. It should be noted that certain products made by particular companies, s Read More
Starting in the late 19th century, a wide range of writing instruments could be ordered from three types of mail-order catalogues: specialized writing-instrument and stationery catalogues; catalogues published by jewellers, goldsmiths, or silversmiths; and mail-order catalogues that featured a variety of merchandise.

Catalogues of writing instruments were published by wholesalers for the retail market, but some were also made available to the general public. They were very elaborate (see J. C. Wilson & Co. Limited, 1908) and featured a large assortment of writing instruments - 21 models of pen nibs and 14 models of penholders. The United Typewriter Company Limited published a catalogue from 1913 to 1922 and it offered an even greater selection, including inkwells, bottles of ink, and a wide range of desk accessories. The first page of the catalogue had photographs of the company's salesrooms and customers were informed that the company's products were available in over fifteen stores in major Canadian cities, from Halifax to Victoria. The catalogues also had a whole assortment of writing paper. It should be noted that certain products made by particular companies, such as Easterbrook and Gillott pen nibs, were found in both specialized and general catalogues. The only difference was the price per unit. Prices were generally higher in specialized catalogues.

Jewellers' catalogues offered luxury writing instruments. The catalogue published in 1923 by Ryrie Bros. Limited, a Toronto company, featured products that were distinctive not only because of their design and the materials used, but also because of the way they were made. It included silver and gold fountain pens and pencils, which not everyone could afford. There was, however, a Waterman fountain pen at a price similar to those in other mail-order catalogues. Jewellers' catalogues also offered stationery, but in gift sets. Such publications were meant for a limited clientele, but the companies that produced them tried to reach a wider market by promoting the COD service introduced by the Post Office department on October 1, 1922. A full-page ad at the beginning of the Ryrie catalogue - "C.O.D. postal delivery, an added convenience to shopping by mail" - highlights the advantages of shopping by mail.

Department store catalogues sold writing instruments and a wide selection of other products, including household goods, tools, clothing, sporting goods, and prefabricated homes. In addition to promoting fashion and new products, they allowed new "consumers" to buy quality goods at reasonable prices without fluctuations in availability. One of the first Eaton's catalogues contained only a list of articles and their prices. Soon, however, catalogues increased in volume and were illustrated with detailed drawings. The categories of items offered also became increasingly varied. In catalogues such as Eaton's, Woodward's, Simpson's, Dupuis Frères, and Sears, Roebuck & Co., writing instruments were in the stationery section. All catalogues published between 1888 and 1940 seem to have had a section that featured stationery and writing accessories.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

A collage including a catalogue page and colour photos of pen nibs

Box of pen nibs, made in England by Joseph Gillott & Sons and featured in the Sears, Roebuck & Co. Catalogue, 1897.

Photo : Harry Foster, Canadian Postal Museum
Courtesy of Sears Roebuck and Co. Sears Archives U.S.A., Chantilly, Virginia

2002.67.13.
© Canadian Postal Museum


As essential as the pen, writing paper reflects a style, an era, a milieu, and a trend. Catalogues sold different types of paper for various circumstances. In those published in the 1890s (Sears, Roebuck 1897; Eaton's, Fall/Winter 1888-1889), paper was sold by the quire, the unit of measure used to determine the weight of a package of paper. According to the catalogues, the sheets were always about 5 x 7 inches (13 x 18 cm). Only one side was to be written on and the sheet was to be folded in half lengthwise afterwards. However, despite the advice in letter-writing manuals that were meant to guide writers in their choice of words and in the presentation of letters, people cut sheets or wrote on both sides of the page so as not to waste paper.

According to the manuals, the colour of the writing paper was very important. Letters were to be written only on cream-coloured paper. Coloured paper supposedly lacked distinction, but it was widely used in personal correspondence and was found in numerous catalogues. In 1927, Eaton's introduced tangerine, a colour that displaced the more traditional pink, blue, and grey papers that were offered in the 1901-1902 catalogues.
Read More
As essential as the pen, writing paper reflects a style, an era, a milieu, and a trend. Catalogues sold different types of paper for various circumstances. In those published in the 1890s (Sears, Roebuck 1897; Eaton's, Fall/Winter 1888-1889), paper was sold by the quire, the unit of measure used to determine the weight of a package of paper. According to the catalogues, the sheets were always about 5 x 7 inches (13 x 18 cm). Only one side was to be written on and the sheet was to be folded in half lengthwise afterwards. However, despite the advice in letter-writing manuals that were meant to guide writers in their choice of words and in the presentation of letters, people cut sheets or wrote on both sides of the page so as not to waste paper.

According to the manuals, the colour of the writing paper was very important. Letters were to be written only on cream-coloured paper. Coloured paper supposedly lacked distinction, but it was widely used in personal correspondence and was found in numerous catalogues. In 1927, Eaton's introduced tangerine, a colour that displaced the more traditional pink, blue, and grey papers that were offered in the 1901-1902 catalogues.

The variety of writing instruments found in catalogues provides an indication of the range of objects needed to write a letter. Eaton's Winter 1925 and Spring/Summer 1927 catalogues featured all categories of instruments: penholders, fountain pens, pencils, paper cutters, bottles of ink, and inkwells. These two catalogues also offered several fountain pens and pencils made of luxury materials (gold, silver, or mother-of-pearl).

Starting in the 1920s, some catalogues, such as Eaton's 1923-1924, targeted women in their promotion of writing instruments. There were Waterman's Pens for Women, Waterman's Women's Chatelaine Style Pen (a fountain pen with a ring that could be attached to a chain), and Women's Eversharp Pencils. Eversharp was one of the many types of mechanical pencils available (men's models had a clip, women's had a ring). That was the first time the use of a ring was clearly associated with women. Before that, rings were promoted as a means of hanging the pencil from a watch chain.

The type of writing instruments sold in catalogues changed as technology and writing practices evolved. When the fountain pen was introduced, the ceremony of writing, which required patience and skill, was reduced to a common practice that was easy and risk-free. The tools needed for writing (inkwell, pen wiper, and penholder) disappeared. The First World War marked a turning point in the market as fountain pens improved in quality. The volume of mail exchanged between soldiers and their families increased. Eaton's 1918 catalogue featured The Soldier's Pen, a Waterman Ideal Safety Pen (fountain pen) that was specially designed for clean, leak-free writing.

A vast market opened up after 1918. The first pens made of coloured plastic appeared, but that did not rule out gold and silver plating. Fountain pens remained extremely popular until the 1940s, when the ballpoint pen was introduced.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Collage of a catalogue and a book

Letter writing required specific skills and knowledge of certain rules. Short manuals were available to help letter writers who lacked inspiration. The Universal Letter Writer by Reverend T. Cooke was published in 1853 and is similar to those sold in the Sears, Roebuck & Co. Catalogue, 1897.

Photo: Harry Foster, Canadian Postal Museum
Courtesy of Sears Roebuck and Co. Sears Archives U.S.A., Chantilly, Virginia

2002.147.1
© Canadian Postal Museum


Collage of a catalogue and a pen set

Waterman fountain pen-and-pencil set, 1934. Fountain pens made of coloured plastic were introduced after the First World War, but that did not exclude gold and silver plating. This set was featured in Dupuis Frères Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1934.

Photo : Harry Foster, Canadian Postal Museum

2000.14.34-35, 1997.31.7
©Dupuis Frères Limitée, used with permission of Josette Dupuis-Leman


Over time, stationery changed more than writing instruments. There were three types of changes. First, there was a change in the quality and thickness of the writing paper sold. It seems to have become uniform, so that only one quality was sold in catalogues. However, that quality seems to have been more in keeping with the real needs of letter writers. The social status that had long been associated with the choice of writing paper seems to have become less and less evident. According to letter-writing manuals, the paper used was a clear indication of status so it had to be chosen carefully. However, mail-order catalogues, which reached a very large percentage of the population in rural areas, made no distinction when it came to paper.

The second change that becomes apparent when looking at catalogues is the way writing paper was sold. In catalogues published in the late 19th century, paper was sold only by the quire, with a set number of sheets (25). Envelopes were sold separately. All that changed. Stationery sets with matching envelopes and paper appeared. The number of sheets included in such sets varied and that had an impact on the price of writing paper. Boxes f Read More
Over time, stationery changed more than writing instruments. There were three types of changes. First, there was a change in the quality and thickness of the writing paper sold. It seems to have become uniform, so that only one quality was sold in catalogues. However, that quality seems to have been more in keeping with the real needs of letter writers. The social status that had long been associated with the choice of writing paper seems to have become less and less evident. According to letter-writing manuals, the paper used was a clear indication of status so it had to be chosen carefully. However, mail-order catalogues, which reached a very large percentage of the population in rural areas, made no distinction when it came to paper.

The second change that becomes apparent when looking at catalogues is the way writing paper was sold. In catalogues published in the late 19th century, paper was sold only by the quire, with a set number of sheets (25). Envelopes were sold separately. All that changed. Stationery sets with matching envelopes and paper appeared. The number of sheets included in such sets varied and that had an impact on the price of writing paper. Boxes for storing writing paper were also sold through catalogues. They were similar to the wooden writing cases of the 19th century but were not used as a writing surface. Since they cost less than writing cases, more people could afford them.

The variety of paper available also became more limited. That was the third change. Calling cards and mourning paper gave way to greeting cards for various occasions that were pre-printed by the manufacturer. Companies that produced mail-order catalogues knew how to cater to the new tastes and needs of the population by offering a range of products that kept up with the trends.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Catalogue page of writing paper and supplies

Writing-paper boxes for all tastes, Simpson's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1926, p. 184.

Hudson's Bay Company

© Hudson's Bay Company, used with permission


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.

Teachers' Centre Home Page | Find Learning Resources & Lesson Plans