Eaton's mail-order catalogues were important at Christmastime in fantasy and in reality. Children dreamed about Christmas morning when they looked at the pages of the catalogues, knowing that they would receive only a few gifts from their pages.

In addition to the Eaton's seasonal catalogues, a number of specialty catalogues, including one-time catalogues, such as the Klondike Catalogue (1898) and the Settlers' Catalogue (1903), and others that were published for many years, including catalogues of houses and barns, wallpaper and paint, light fixtures, sheet music and books, and seeds and groceries. Some of these were only 32-page booklets, others were quite thick. First published in 1897, the most anticipated catalogue of the year was the Christmas catalogue, which, by the 1950s, grew to be a wishing book of more than 200 pages.

Christmas catalogues were relatively small in the early 20th century so orders were also placed from the extensive fall-and-winter catalogue. Suggestions were offered for small, practical gifts such as handkerchiefs, slippers, accessories, jewellery, watches, binoculars, pencils and fountain pens, perfumes, makeup, toilet sets, shav Read More
Eaton's mail-order catalogues were important at Christmastime in fantasy and in reality. Children dreamed about Christmas morning when they looked at the pages of the catalogues, knowing that they would receive only a few gifts from their pages.

In addition to the Eaton's seasonal catalogues, a number of specialty catalogues, including one-time catalogues, such as the Klondike Catalogue (1898) and the Settlers' Catalogue (1903), and others that were published for many years, including catalogues of houses and barns, wallpaper and paint, light fixtures, sheet music and books, and seeds and groceries. Some of these were only 32-page booklets, others were quite thick. First published in 1897, the most anticipated catalogue of the year was the Christmas catalogue, which, by the 1950s, grew to be a wishing book of more than 200 pages.

Christmas catalogues were relatively small in the early 20th century so orders were also placed from the extensive fall-and-winter catalogue. Suggestions were offered for small, practical gifts such as handkerchiefs, slippers, accessories, jewellery, watches, binoculars, pencils and fountain pens, perfumes, makeup, toilet sets, shaving equipment, silverware, pocket knives, linens, down comforters, and sewing baskets. Beads and native goods, moccasins, sweet-grass baskets and "tourist art," books, toys, and skates ("Just what a boy wants for Christmas") were also recommended.

Christmas was a relatively low-key event at the time, focused on family, church, and community. It was a magical, not materialistic, time. Children looked forward to the arrival of the Eaton's catalogues and to dreaming about what they might receive. After the order was placed, they awaited its delivery with anticipation. Children were sometimes allowed to pick out one gift for themselves, but rarely gave presents to their parents unless they were homemade.

Accounts of the period note that people spent only what they could afford at Christmas. They lived within their means. Families were considerably larger than they are today and gift giving was less common and less effusive. For farmers, a good year allowed for a larger order. The fall order went in after harvest, when the family would know how successful their season had been.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Colour cover of Eaton's Christmas Catalogue 1956

Eaton's Christmas Catalogue, 1956, cover

Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc., Library and Archives Canada

© Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc., Library and Archives Canada


Colour photo of train set

This American Flyer train set with key-wound clockwork motor was saved in its original box. It cost $1.25 from the Eaton's (Winnipeg) Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1916-17, p. 469.

Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc., Saskatchewan Western Development Museum

© Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc., Saskatchewan Western Development Museum


Christmas Was a Time for Children

Children did not receive many gifts during this period, but they enjoyed looking at the catalogue and dreaming about the things that they would like to receive. Many Canadians who were children in the 1920s and '30s remember spending a lot of time thumbing through the catalogue. One family played a game: If you could pick one thing from every page, what would you pick? In reality, they were only allowed to pick out one thing from the entire catalogue, as there wasn't a lot of money around, but these times are remembered as happy Christmases. Another woman from Alberta remembers receiving dolls. "All the time dolls ... They were just small, baby dolls. They weren't the big, Eaton dolls." A similar memory from British Columbia was of three sisters each getting "a doll and each doll had a little cradle that was made so it would fold up, something like an accordion. They were ordered from Eaton's. They were really special."

For boys, trucks and farm sets were popular. One woman remembers that her son Gordon wanted a truck just like his father's. They sent to Eaton's for Read More
Christmas Was a Time for Children

Children did not receive many gifts during this period, but they enjoyed looking at the catalogue and dreaming about the things that they would like to receive. Many Canadians who were children in the 1920s and '30s remember spending a lot of time thumbing through the catalogue. One family played a game: If you could pick one thing from every page, what would you pick? In reality, they were only allowed to pick out one thing from the entire catalogue, as there wasn't a lot of money around, but these times are remembered as happy Christmases. Another woman from Alberta remembers receiving dolls. "All the time dolls ... They were just small, baby dolls. They weren't the big, Eaton dolls." A similar memory from British Columbia was of three sisters each getting "a doll and each doll had a little cradle that was made so it would fold up, something like an accordion. They were ordered from Eaton's. They were really special."

For boys, trucks and farm sets were popular. One woman remembers that her son Gordon wanted a truck just like his father's. They sent to Eaton's for the truck with money earned by selling railroad ties. The boy was so excited he could hardly get to sleep on Christmas Eve. Another man described the farm set made in England that he received from the catalogue as a boy in the 1920s, how he played with it, and added to his collection of animals each year.

Community Christmas Trees

Rural communities celebrated Christmas through church and large community parties, or Christmas Trees, so-called because originally gifts for the children were placed on the tree. In the 1930s, Eaton's introduced a Christmas Tree Shopping Service that selected gifts based on budget, gender, and age information provided. Some children only received gifts at school or community celebrations, not at home. In certain cases, teachers purchased gifts through the Eaton's catalogues and placed them on the tree to be given out during the Christmas concert for children whose families could not afford to buy for their children.

Celebrations also included entertainment such as the school concert, a special movie, or theatrical performance (with angels' costumes made from gauze ordered by the roll from Eaton's), and refreshments. Community organizations raffled items like Eaton Beauty Dolls, for which members had made clothing and blankets. Eaton's sold prepackaged stockings and Christmas candy.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Colour cover of Eaton's News Weekly

Cover announcing the arrival of Santa Claus in Eaton's News Weekly, 1926.

Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc.

© City of Toronto, Culture Division, Morris Norman Collection


Cover of Bringing up Father by Geo McManus

Bringing Up Father's comic characters Maggie and Jiggs were household names for decades. Artist George McManus published several books of comics in the late teens and early 1920s. Eaton's (Winnipeg) sold this 46-page book for 25 cents in the Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1919-20, p. 448.

Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc., Saskatchewan Western Development Museum

© Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc., Saskatchewan Western Development Museum


Marketing Christmas

Even though modest by today's standards, Eaton's appreciated the value of the Christmas market from the beginning. The stores and the catalogues complemented each other. Store ads promoted the mail-order service. In 1905, Eaton's marketing department sponsored the first Santa Claus parade in Toronto as a means of encouraging people to spend their Christmas dollars at Eaton's. As department stores opened across the country they each had their own Toyland at Christmastime. Children were invited to attend the opening:

It's ready at last! A fairy land to make boys and girls happy, bright and wonderful with the loveliest toys you've ever imagined. You'll see trains whizzing by like greased lightning, signal lights flashing, switches clicking into place. And then there are darling dollies with pretty faces and curly hair, their arms outstretched to little mothers. And so many more jolly toys and games, we can't begin to tell about them all. Toyland welcomes one and all Saturday and every day until Christmas. Come as early as you like and stay as long as you like.

Read More
Marketing Christmas

Even though modest by today's standards, Eaton's appreciated the value of the Christmas market from the beginning. The stores and the catalogues complemented each other. Store ads promoted the mail-order service. In 1905, Eaton's marketing department sponsored the first Santa Claus parade in Toronto as a means of encouraging people to spend their Christmas dollars at Eaton's. As department stores opened across the country they each had their own Toyland at Christmastime. Children were invited to attend the opening:

It's ready at last! A fairy land to make boys and girls happy, bright and wonderful with the loveliest toys you've ever imagined. You'll see trains whizzing by like greased lightning, signal lights flashing, switches clicking into place. And then there are darling dollies with pretty faces and curly hair, their arms outstretched to little mothers. And so many more jolly toys and games, we can't begin to tell about them all. Toyland welcomes one and all Saturday and every day until Christmas. Come as early as you like and stay as long as you like.

Christmas in the Post-war Period

After the Second World War, the move to the cities accelerated. The role of women in society evolved. Children had fewer responsibilities in the home and enjoyed more freedom and attention. The economy diversified. More money and goods were available. More goods were purchased rather than made in the home. The availability of electricity brought new appliances and forms of entertainment.

Christmas became more complex. More decorations, more gift giving, more material goods, more cards, more baking, more party clothes, more ceremony, more work for mother. The season stretched longer into November and people felt it in their pocketbooks. The question of giving and pressure to choose the right gift for the right person became much more of an issue. The concern that Christmas had become too commercial was voiced with increasing frequency in local newspapers.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Colour catalogue page of Electrical appliances with black and white photos

Selection of electrical appliances available through the Eaton's Christmas Catalogue, 1956, p. 184.

Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc., Library and Archives Canada

© Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc., Library and Archives Canada


It's Never Too Soon to Start Getting Ready

Advertisements began to appear early in November, saying "It's not too early to think about Christmas shopping." Some objected to the early start to the season, feeling that the beginning of November was too soon to start thinking about Christmas. By mid-November the tone changed from congratulating shoppers on being early to warning them about how quickly the time would pass.

People used to call to ask the postmaster to open up on Christmas Day so that they could pick up a particular parcel or card, but in 1959, the postmaster was no longer required to open for a couple of hours on Christmas day. The post office itself took out advertisements, saying, "Let's all give Santa a break — Mail early for delivery by Christmas."

What to Buy?

Most people in the 1950s still tended to buy practical gifts. For individuals, there were slippers, homemade food, and hand-knit sweaters. Gifts for the home included bedspreads, furniture, and appliances. Electrical gifts were considered novelties. Sewing ma Read More
It's Never Too Soon to Start Getting Ready

Advertisements began to appear early in November, saying "It's not too early to think about Christmas shopping." Some objected to the early start to the season, feeling that the beginning of November was too soon to start thinking about Christmas. By mid-November the tone changed from congratulating shoppers on being early to warning them about how quickly the time would pass.

People used to call to ask the postmaster to open up on Christmas Day so that they could pick up a particular parcel or card, but in 1959, the postmaster was no longer required to open for a couple of hours on Christmas day. The post office itself took out advertisements, saying, "Let's all give Santa a break — Mail early for delivery by Christmas."

What to Buy?

Most people in the 1950s still tended to buy practical gifts. For individuals, there were slippers, homemade food, and hand-knit sweaters. Gifts for the home included bedspreads, furniture, and appliances. Electrical gifts were considered novelties. Sewing machines were appropriate. Television sets were promoted as a family gift. Ties were considered the traditional gift for men. Flowers were an option for women. However, the true focus of gift giving was the children, with stores promising a broad selection of toys.

By the 1950s, there were more options for shopping locally; however, the Eaton's catalogues remained an important part of Christmas, particularly for those living in rural areas. A man who grew up in Drumheller, Alberta, in the 1950s, remembers the excitement of the Christmas catalogue. He considered the catalogue "a window to the outside world." As a boy from a relatively poor family, he spent a lot of time wishing for things from the catalogue that he would never receive.

A woman raising eight young children in the late 1950s remembers, "We used the catalogue a lot, especially at Christmas time … it was almost worn out at Christmas, because they all looked through it and picked out things. They didn't always get what they picked out but they dreamed about it …" She also remembered using the Eaton's overseas parcel service to send goods that were unavailable in Britain to relatives there after the war.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Colour page of toys from Eaton's Christmas Catalogue 1956

Selection of toys from the Eaton's Christmas Catalogue, 1956, p. 12.

Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc., Library and Archives Canada

© Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc., Library and Archives Canada


The Wishing Book

By the 1950s, the fall-and-winter catalogue had grown to over 600 pages, with about 200 of them in colour. The Christmas catalogue consisted of roughly 200 pages, with nearly half of them in colour. The first 50 pages were dedicated to children's goods. Children were more clearly identified as a distinct group in the late 1950s, especially in terms of clothing for older children and youth. There was more clothing dedicated to specific functions like sports and hunting. There were fewer toys available in the "big" fall-and-winter catalogue because they were concentrated in the Christmas catalogue, along with sports equipment, art and craft supplies, and books.

Popular toys included dolls, trains, toys that mimicked adult activities, chemistry sets, Meccano, building blocks, Robin Hood, Zorro and cowboys and Indians, space toys, guns, armies, arcade-type shooting games, hockey, pool, bowling, and board games. National Hockey League sweaters for the Montréal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs were available and longed for by many boys as later described in Roch Carri Read More
The Wishing Book

By the 1950s, the fall-and-winter catalogue had grown to over 600 pages, with about 200 of them in colour. The Christmas catalogue consisted of roughly 200 pages, with nearly half of them in colour. The first 50 pages were dedicated to children's goods. Children were more clearly identified as a distinct group in the late 1950s, especially in terms of clothing for older children and youth. There was more clothing dedicated to specific functions like sports and hunting. There were fewer toys available in the "big" fall-and-winter catalogue because they were concentrated in the Christmas catalogue, along with sports equipment, art and craft supplies, and books.

Popular toys included dolls, trains, toys that mimicked adult activities, chemistry sets, Meccano, building blocks, Robin Hood, Zorro and cowboys and Indians, space toys, guns, armies, arcade-type shooting games, hockey, pool, bowling, and board games. National Hockey League sweaters for the Montréal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs were available and longed for by many boys as later described in Roch Carrier's popular story, The Hockey Sweater, in which Eaton's sends the wrong sweater. The number of musical instruments in the catalogues declined as the number of pages dedicated to electrical goods, radios, and televisions increased.

The image of Santa Claus became a significant feature in advertising and community celebrations. Letters to Santa were sent through the mail, dropped off at local stores, or published in newspapers. Most children only asked for one or two things and often wrote requesting presents for their younger siblings. Favourite requests included trucks, dolls, electric trains, dishes, colouring books, puzzles, nurses' and doctors' kits, skates, hockey equipment, brooms and mops, baking sets, books, telephones, televisions, musical instruments, guns, and watches. Some requested pets such as dogs and even a monkey.

Conclusion

The Eaton's catalogue was a key part of Christmases past. In the early 20th century, the catalogue was an important source for a variety of goods (and just as often dreams) that were unavailable locally in rural Canada. By the 1950s, there were more local stores and a broader assortment of goods, but Eaton's remained important in people's minds and shopping habits — particularly those who lived in remote areas.

© Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation

Colour photo of Eaton's Christmas ribbons and buttons

Ribbons and buttons promoting Eaton's as Canada's Christmas Store.

Used with permission of Sears Canada Inc.

1988.56.1251 a,b
© City of Toronto, Culture Division, T. Eaton Company Collection


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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