For over a century, Eaton's department store's only real rival was Simpson's. Through the pages of the first Simpson's catalogue in 1893, to the last Simpsons-Sears catalogue in 1978, to Sears Canada's 50th-anniversary edition, the company offered its wares to Canadians all across the country.

Canada's Modern Departmental Store talks to you again through the present Spring issue of the Canadian Shopper's Hand-Book. We are now comfortably located in our beautiful new store, possession of which was taken a few months since. No one can, under all conditions, dispute our supreme position as great Retailers. The familiar corner of Queen and Yonge Streets is beyond question the Leading Retail Headquarters of the Dominion.

So Robert Simpson engaged his catalogue readers in 1896, months after the opening of his great new store in downtown Toronto. The six-storey, steel-girded structure rose from the ashes of another six-storey building built in 1894 that had been completely destroyed by fire on March 3, 1895.

By the 1870s, the Industrial Revolution had reached Canada. Families moved from farms to big cities and took factory jobs. Downtown areas grew, and Read More
For over a century, Eaton's department store's only real rival was Simpson's. Through the pages of the first Simpson's catalogue in 1893, to the last Simpsons-Sears catalogue in 1978, to Sears Canada's 50th-anniversary edition, the company offered its wares to Canadians all across the country.

Canada's Modern Departmental Store talks to you again through the present Spring issue of the Canadian Shopper's Hand-Book. We are now comfortably located in our beautiful new store, possession of which was taken a few months since. No one can, under all conditions, dispute our supreme position as great Retailers. The familiar corner of Queen and Yonge Streets is beyond question the Leading Retail Headquarters of the Dominion.

So Robert Simpson engaged his catalogue readers in 1896, months after the opening of his great new store in downtown Toronto. The six-storey, steel-girded structure rose from the ashes of another six-storey building built in 1894 that had been completely destroyed by fire on March 3, 1895.

By the 1870s, the Industrial Revolution had reached Canada. Families moved from farms to big cities and took factory jobs. Downtown areas grew, and so did the stores in which the workers shopped. Simpson's - and Eaton's - of Toronto were part of this new trend. And, their catalogues helped bring big-city goods to rural and small-town residents.

Robert Simpson was a Scottish immigrant who set up his first retail venture in Newmarket, Ontario. In 1871, he moved to Toronto and founded Simpson's department store. By 1872, Simpson was hand delivering "dodgers" - handbills, or flyers - to houses in the city. Simpson's published its first catalogue in 1893. Its 82 pages were filled with fabrics and notions; women's drawers, hosiery, mantles, and jackets; men's ties and suspenders; valises; and, perfumes and other fancy goods.

Simpson's major competitor was Timothy Eaton. Eaton promised "goods satisfactory or money refunded." Robert Simpson declared that "You'll enjoy shopping at Simpson's." The two retail giants stared down each other across Queen Street at Yonge. Their prices and selection stayed competitive, thanks to employees who criss-crossed the street and pored over the stores' wares.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Covers of two catalogues, one black and white Simpson cover from 1893 and one colour Sears cover from 2003

The Simpson's catalogue spanned three centuries and offered a wide range of goods to Canadians.

Used with permission, Hudson's Bay Company Heritage Services, Toronto,
Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc.

© Hudson's Bay Company; © Sears Canada Inc.


Black and white portrait of Robert Simpson

Show in The Canadian Magazine, after the death of Simpson in 1897.

Hudson's Bay Company Heritage Services, Toronto, RG/17/1E/51.

© Hudson's Bay Company, used with permission


In 1897, Robert Simpson died and his store was taken over by three investors: H. H. Fudger, J. W. Flavelle, and A. E. Ames. Over the next half-century, they began to expand Simpson's reach. Stores opened in Montreal, Halifax, Regina, and London. The mail-order business moved to an eleven-storey building in Toronto in 1914.

By the 1930s, the catalogue's printing plant took up an entire floor of the building and soon became one of Canada's largest publishing enterprises. In 1916, an eight-storey mail-order warehouse was built in Regina. A five-storey building opened in Halifax in 1919.

By 1943, 1000 people worked in the Simpson's mail-order division. The Toronto store employed 5500 workers - undoubtedly one of the city's largest employers. Simpson's now had 149 order offices across the country, 298 delivery trucks, and 66 horses. (During the Second World War, many goods were delivered by horse and carriage because gas and rubber were rationed.) Its switchboard handled two million telephone orders a year, in a nation of 12 million people.
In 1897, Robert Simpson died and his store was taken over by three investors: H. H. Fudger, J. W. Flavelle, and A. E. Ames. Over the next half-century, they began to expand Simpson's reach. Stores opened in Montreal, Halifax, Regina, and London. The mail-order business moved to an eleven-storey building in Toronto in 1914.

By the 1930s, the catalogue's printing plant took up an entire floor of the building and soon became one of Canada's largest publishing enterprises. In 1916, an eight-storey mail-order warehouse was built in Regina. A five-storey building opened in Halifax in 1919.

By 1943, 1000 people worked in the Simpson's mail-order division. The Toronto store employed 5500 workers - undoubtedly one of the city's largest employers. Simpson's now had 149 order offices across the country, 298 delivery trucks, and 66 horses. (During the Second World War, many goods were delivered by horse and carriage because gas and rubber were rationed.) Its switchboard handled two million telephone orders a year, in a nation of 12 million people.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Black and white photo of Customers on Queen Street in 1924

For decades, Simpson's and Eaton's shoppers criss-crossed Queen Street to compare prices and quality, 1924.

Toronto Star Archives

© Toronto Star Archives


Black and white photo of sales building in Halifax

By the 1940s, Simpson's mail-order department had opened distribution centres across the country.

Hudson's Bay Company Heritage Services, Toronto

© Hudson's Bay Company, used with permission


Colour photo of shipping labels for parcels sent to Canadian prisoners of war

These receipts were probably for parcels sent from Canadians to Canadian prisoners of war in Germany.

Canadian War Museum Archives, Scythes Collection

1986-0290-170
© Canadian War Museum Archives


Mail-order revenues reached $100 million in 1951. The company’s success attracted the attention of an American retail giant: Sears, Roebuck. Sears began to open new stores in Canada under the Simpson’s-Sears name, and took over the mail-order division. (The five original Simpson’s stores were not sold, however. They remained open under the Simpson’s name.) Finally, with the backing of Sears, Simpson’s could challenge Eaton’s retail dominance.

Canadians received the first Simpsons-Sears catalogue in February 1953. The spring-and-summer edition had 556 pages. It featured Allstate car insurance, live baby chicks, saddles, and even radiation detectors (Geiger counters).

By 1954, nine new Simpson’s-Sears store had opened. A large, new catalogue-order centre was built in Burnaby, BC, and the Halifax and Regina catalogue centres were enlarged. In the 1960s, Simpson’s-Sears stores moved to suburban malls, following Canadians as they bought homes on the outskirts of cities. The Toronto Yorkdale store opened in 1964, sharing mall space with Eaton’s. Montreal’s Fairview store opened the next year.
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Mail-order revenues reached $100 million in 1951. The company’s success attracted the attention of an American retail giant: Sears, Roebuck. Sears began to open new stores in Canada under the Simpson’s-Sears name, and took over the mail-order division. (The five original Simpson’s stores were not sold, however. They remained open under the Simpson’s name.) Finally, with the backing of Sears, Simpson’s could challenge Eaton’s retail dominance.

Canadians received the first Simpsons-Sears catalogue in February 1953. The spring-and-summer edition had 556 pages. It featured Allstate car insurance, live baby chicks, saddles, and even radiation detectors (Geiger counters).

By 1954, nine new Simpson’s-Sears store had opened. A large, new catalogue-order centre was built in Burnaby, BC, and the Halifax and Regina catalogue centres were enlarged. In the 1960s, Simpson’s-Sears stores moved to suburban malls, following Canadians as they bought homes on the outskirts of cities. The Toronto Yorkdale store opened in 1964, sharing mall space with Eaton’s. Montreal’s Fairview store opened the next year.

The 1971 fall-and-winter catalogue was 736 pages long: 50 000 items could be ordered from it, from children’s wear to televisions. Two million copies were distributed in French and English. Simpson’s-Sears had 41 stores, four catalogue centres, and 553 catalogue-order offices.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Photo of Simpsons-Sears Store

The company expanded rapidly during the 1950s and 1960s. From Simpson's-Sears: The First Twenty-Five Years, 1979.

Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc., University of Toronto Libraries

© Sears Canada Inc.


Black and white photos of Simpson-Sears Catalogue

By the early 1970s, the company was a real rival to Eaton's. Simpsons-Sears Catalogue, 1971, cover as published in Simpson's Sears: The First Twenty-five Years, 1979.

Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc.

© Sears Canada Inc.


Eaton’s published its last catalogue in 1976. In 1978, Sears Canada took over the mail-order division from Simpsons-Sears and began publishing the catalogue under the Sears name. In 1978, the Hudson’s Bay Company bought the remaining Simpson’s stores and one-third of the Simpsons-Sears stores. By the late 1980s, the Simpson’s stores were either sold to Sears or converted into Bay stores, including Robert Simpson’s original store at Queen and Yonge Streets in Toronto.

Today, Sears is the only traditional department store catalogue published in Canada. Sears bought Eaton’s in 1999. In the year of its 50th anniversary, it published 24 different catalogues and handled 22 million orders. Since the 1950s, it has been Canada’s most successful department store catalogue.
Eaton’s published its last catalogue in 1976. In 1978, Sears Canada took over the mail-order division from Simpsons-Sears and began publishing the catalogue under the Sears name. In 1978, the Hudson’s Bay Company bought the remaining Simpson’s stores and one-third of the Simpsons-Sears stores. By the late 1980s, the Simpson’s stores were either sold to Sears or converted into Bay stores, including Robert Simpson’s original store at Queen and Yonge Streets in Toronto.

Today, Sears is the only traditional department store catalogue published in Canada. Sears bought Eaton’s in 1999. In the year of its 50th anniversary, it published 24 different catalogues and handled 22 million orders. Since the 1950s, it has been Canada’s most successful department store catalogue.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Colour photo of the Bay department store in Toronto

The Bay department store, Queen and Yonge Streets, Toronto. The Hudson's Bay Company renovated and expanded Robert Simpson's 1896 building.

Photo: Richard Fürhoff

© Richard Fürhoff


Colour cover of Sears 2003 Catalogue

The Sears catalogue is still very popular with Canadians. Sears Canada Catalogue, 2003, p. 710.

Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc.

© Sears Canada Inc.


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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