Mail-order catalogue was Canadian icon

by Ruth Griffiths

Today is the anniversary of the death of a Canadian icon — the Eaton’s catalogue.

Back when Prince Albert Daily Herald had more than 50 employees, the staff social club put on a Christmas party for the employee’s children.

The kids sat on the floor in the lunch room, ate hamburgers and watched films from the public library. The program always included the 1980 NFB short film The Sweater. In this animated short, Roch Carrier tells how he and his friends worshipped Maurice “Rocket” Richard and wore his number 9 Canadiens hockey jersey. The boy was mistakenly sent a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey from Eaton’s. Unable to convince his mother to send it back, he had to face ridicule wearing the blue jersey.

Besides our national love of hockey, the film illustrates the ubiquitous nature of the mail-order catalogue. The film contains the dialogue: “My mother was proud. She never wanted to buy our clothes from the General Store. The only styles that were good enough for us were from Eaton’s Catalogue.”

The widely distributed department store catalogue leveled the playing field for rural Canadians. Someone living in rural Canada could purchase from the catalogue and receive the same products as those living in the city.

The Eaton’s catalogue, first published in 1884, was one of the first to be distributed by a Canadian retail store. The first version of the catalogue was a 32-page booklet handed out at the Industrial Exhibition (now the Canadian National Exhibition). On Jan. 14, 1976 the T. Eaton Company ended its catalogue sales operation after over 10 years of heavy losses and 9,000 employees lost their jobs.

The Sears catalogue was another staple of rural Canadian culture. I especially remember circling items in the Christmas Wish Book. It was more efficient than a letter to Santa!

Simpson-Sears released the first Canadian Wish Book in 1953. At its peak in 1997, five million copies of the Wish Book were delivered to doorsteps across Canada. The tradition continued for 63 years, until the final edition in 2016.

The collapse of Sears Canada put thousands out of work.

This year I was surprised to receive a Canadian Tire Christmas catalogue. Especially when other retail giants, such as Ikea, have ended their print catalogue and moved entirely on-line. At its peak, the Ikea catalogue was said to have a greater circulation than the Bible. In December the Swedish furniture company announced that after seven decades it will no longer publish a catalogue because demand has fallen.

By the way, you can watch The Sweater on YouTube. It’s only 10 minutes long but it will bring back a lifetime of memories about hockey and the mail-order catalogue.