For much of the 20th century mail order or catalogue shopping was vital to Canadians living in small prairie communities. Its popularity was connected to the limited selection of goods available from general merchants and other vendors in small towns, and the expense and difficulty bad roads presented to reaching retail outlets in the region’s major cities.
The two best known Canadian mail order agencies were those operated by the T. Eaton Company (founded 1869) and Simpson’s (founded 1872). Both firms started as department stores in Toronto and each established mail order departments to expand their sales. Eaton’s produced its first catalogues in 1884. Simpson’s mailed catalogues to potential customers from 1894 to 1953 when its mail order business was acquired by American retail giant Sears Roebuck.
The 'wish books' of both companies were profusely illustrated with drawings and photographs of available goods. Each image was accompanied with a short laudatory description including the price and the availability of sizes and colours. Mail order forms and envelopes accompanied the catalogues. Later telephone order numbers were provided for those who wished to expedite their purchases.
The much noted efficiency of these stores’ mail order departments, and the provision of satisfaction or money back guarantees, were key to the success of mail order merchandising. The major downside of such widespread purchasing from but one or two sources was a certain conformity of style or taste in rural communities.
Successful mail order divisions were also operated by a number of smaller Canadian dry goods, clothing and hardware vendors, as well as agricultural businesses specializing in nursery products, seeds, and poultry supplies.
Early to bed, / Early to rise;
Never get tight, / And advertise.
- Timothy Eaton (1834-1907).
Founder of the Eaton’s department store empire,
on his commercial success.