The Hudson's Bay Company had a network of "saleshops" throughout Western Canada when it published its first mail-order catalogue in 1896. In 1913, the catalogue was discontinued because it could not compete with Eaton's and Simpson's. However, the Hudson's Bay Company continued to provide a "personal shopper" service, published individual store catalogues in the 1920s, and introduced the northern stores catalogue office in the 1930s.

From Fur Trade to Retail Stores

The Hudson's Bay Company is the oldest retailer in Canada, having received its charter in 1670. Much has been written about the colourful history of the company's fur trade, but considerably less attention has been paid to its retail operations.

Early fur trade posts evolved into retail stores in developing urban centres. The Hudson's Bay Company had 26 saleshops throughout the Northwest when it introduced its first mail-order catalogue in 1896. Most of these were fur trade posts that now sold goods to settlers, but they were the beginnings of retail stores nonetheless. The six largest original stores were in Winnipeg (1881), Read More
The Hudson's Bay Company had a network of "saleshops" throughout Western Canada when it published its first mail-order catalogue in 1896. In 1913, the catalogue was discontinued because it could not compete with Eaton's and Simpson's. However, the Hudson's Bay Company continued to provide a "personal shopper" service, published individual store catalogues in the 1920s, and introduced the northern stores catalogue office in the 1930s.

From Fur Trade to Retail Stores

The Hudson's Bay Company is the oldest retailer in Canada, having received its charter in 1670. Much has been written about the colourful history of the company's fur trade, but considerably less attention has been paid to its retail operations.

Early fur trade posts evolved into retail stores in developing urban centres. The Hudson's Bay Company had 26 saleshops throughout the Northwest when it introduced its first mail-order catalogue in 1896. Most of these were fur trade posts that now sold goods to settlers, but they were the beginnings of retail stores nonetheless. The six largest original stores were in Winnipeg (1881), Calgary (1884), Vancouver (1887), Edmonton (1892), Victoria (1921), and Saskatoon (1922).

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Black and white price list cover for The Hudson's Bay Company

The Winnipeg store. Hudson's Bay Company Price List No. 39, Fall 1901, cover.

Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Provincial Archives of Manitoba

© Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Provincial Archives of Manitoba


Drawing of eleven Hudson's Bay Company Stores

HBC's eleven stores. Hudson's Bay Company (Calgary) Mail Service Bulletin, November 1922, cover.

Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Provincial Archives of Manitoba

© Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Provincial Archives of Manitoba


The First Catalogue

The first 72-page catalogue was a price list for goods available either by mail or through company stores, including fabric, ready-made clothing, household textiles, millinery, floor coverings, footwear, hardware, groceries, drugs, tobacco, and alcohol. The few illustrations were line drawings. By 1901, the catalogue had grown to 201 pages and included many more illustrations.

The mail-order operation was handled through the Winnipeg store, with goods coming from the shelves of the store. The saleshop accounts were organized by department (e.g., ladies' wear, footwear, hardware). The Hudson's Bay Company catalogue noted that it was "five days quicker than any other mail-order house of equal standing" and promoted its stores as well as catalogue shopping.

The Winnipeg Store

When Eaton's opened its grand store in Winnipeg in 1905, Commissioner C. C. Chipman tried to convince the Governor to expand the Hudson's Bay Company store to compete with Eaton's. However, the retail opera Read More
The First Catalogue

The first 72-page catalogue was a price list for goods available either by mail or through company stores, including fabric, ready-made clothing, household textiles, millinery, floor coverings, footwear, hardware, groceries, drugs, tobacco, and alcohol. The few illustrations were line drawings. By 1901, the catalogue had grown to 201 pages and included many more illustrations.

The mail-order operation was handled through the Winnipeg store, with goods coming from the shelves of the store. The saleshop accounts were organized by department (e.g., ladies' wear, footwear, hardware). The Hudson's Bay Company catalogue noted that it was "five days quicker than any other mail-order house of equal standing" and promoted its stores as well as catalogue shopping.

The Winnipeg Store

When Eaton's opened its grand store in Winnipeg in 1905, Commissioner C. C. Chipman tried to convince the Governor to expand the Hudson's Bay Company store to compete with Eaton's. However, the retail operation was considered a sideline within the fur trade division. In 1911, H. E. Burbidge, son of the owner of the great Harrods department store in London, visited the saleshops and made recommendations. Burbidge served as Stores Commissioner in Winnipeg for a number of years, during which time the Hudson's Bay Company separated the fur trade, retail stores, and land sales division.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Catalogue page of Royal Worcester and Bon Ton corsets for women

Hudson's Bay Company, Price List No. 39, Fall 1901, p. 17.

Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Provincial Archives of Manitoba

© 2012, RCIP-CHIN. All Rights Reserved.


Cover of Hudson's Bay Company Spring/Summer Catalogue

Hudson's Bay Company Spring/Summer Catalogue, No. 45, 1904, cover.

Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Provincial Archives of Manitoba

© Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Provincial Archives of Manitoba


The Last Catalogue

In 1913, the Hudson's Bay Company catalogue lost over $61 000 in six months. It ceased publication that July. Burbidge felt that it wasn't worthwhile unless the company was prepared to invest significantly to compete head-to-head with Eaton's and Simpson's. He was also concerned that the catalogue was competing with their own stores. Hudson's Bay Company stores were already competing with the Eaton's and Simpson's catalogues; Burbidge didn't want them to compete with their own catalogues. In 1916, there was strong competition with twelve mail-order houses in Winnipeg alone.

Shopping by Mail

The HBC provided a personal shopping service, through which rural customers made requests directly to the head of what was called the mail-order department. Burbidge also tried to appeal to the "country trade," within an 80- to 120-kilometre [50- to 75-mile] radius of each store. He tried various strategies, including paying transportation costs through credit on purchases. Individual stores provided seasonal leaflets and price lists of groceries, liquor, Read More
The Last Catalogue

In 1913, the Hudson's Bay Company catalogue lost over $61 000 in six months. It ceased publication that July. Burbidge felt that it wasn't worthwhile unless the company was prepared to invest significantly to compete head-to-head with Eaton's and Simpson's. He was also concerned that the catalogue was competing with their own stores. Hudson's Bay Company stores were already competing with the Eaton's and Simpson's catalogues; Burbidge didn't want them to compete with their own catalogues. In 1916, there was strong competition with twelve mail-order houses in Winnipeg alone.

Shopping by Mail

The HBC provided a personal shopping service, through which rural customers made requests directly to the head of what was called the mail-order department. Burbidge also tried to appeal to the "country trade," within an 80- to 120-kilometre [50- to 75-mile] radius of each store. He tried various strategies, including paying transportation costs through credit on purchases. Individual stores provided seasonal leaflets and price lists of groceries, liquor, and tobacco. Some stores issued monthly bulletins that included price lists for staples such as groceries, seeds, and cleansers, and a very limited selection of clothing, furnishings, and household textiles, just enough to let customers know the range of goods that could be purchased through the personal shopper.

Calgary was considered to have the most potential as the centre for Western retailing in the late 1910s and 1920s. However, London shareholders naively thought that the retail business would always be a sideline to the fur trade and were reluctant to invest heavily in the development of the retail stores until the 1920s. When management of the company shifted to Canada, the potential for growth in the retail business began to be understood.

Beginning in 1931, the Fur Trade Depot periodically published a 200-page catalogue for use by its posts, listing typical merchandise carried by the depot. The order desk catalogue provided customers with access to a much broader range of goods than could be displayed within a small post. You could even buy a Peterborough canoe through the depot. Stores continued to provide shopping by mail, and later by telephone, for customers who found it inconvenient to get to the stores.

Conclusion

Although never a major force in the mail-order business, the Hudson's Bay Company's retail empire expanded throughout the 20th century. In later years, acquisitions and mergers intertwined its history with those of other former mail-order companies such as Morgan's (1960), Simpson's (1978), and Woodward's (1993).

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Black and white photo of Hudson's Bay Company store

Hudson's Bay Company store, ca 1914.

Foote & James, Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Provincial Archives of Manitoba

© Foote & James, Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Provincial Archives of Manitoba


Black and white Mail Service Bulletin

Hudson's Bay Company (Calgary) Mail Service Bulletin, November 1922, p. 40.

Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Provincial Archives of Manitoba

© Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Provincial Archives of Manitoba


Black and white catalogue page of waterproof men's clothing

Hudson's Bay Company, Fur Trade Depot Catalogue, ca 1934, p. 23.

Hudson's Bay Company Heritage Services, Toronto

© 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.

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