In 1884 Timothy Eaton produced a small, pink, 32-page catalogue listing items and prices and distributed it to visitors at the Industrial Exhibition (now known as the Canadian National Exhibition) in Toronto. The next spring, a 6-page flyer announced Timothy Eaton's new mail order department. While the Eaton's catalogue was not the first mail order catalogue in North America, it was one of the first to be distributed by a Canadian retail store.
It was ten years before Simpson's produced their first mail order catalogue. By then, Eaton's had cornered a large segment of the market. By 1896, Eaton's mail order department was sending out 135 000 parcels by post and almost 74 000 by express.
From the beginning, building a mailing list was paramount to success. Eaton's expanded its list by offering existing customers gifts in exchange for names and addresses of friends and neighbours. One example is a missionary farmer's wife from northern British Columbia, who received a winter coat in return for sending in a list of her neighbours.
Eaton's tried to get their catalogues into the hands of as many rural customers as possible. City dwellers were also on the mailing list and all Eaton's customers were encouraged to visit the store. Eaton's catered to the rural customers who made periodic visits to town by offering features such as a "Farmer's Waiting Room", which was a place for rural customers to take a break and relax before continuing their shopping. This tactic seems to have been effective, for in-store sales continued to be greater than mail order sales.
P.T. Legaré, a French-Canadian retailer based in Montréal, distributed their first catalogue in 1910. Goodwin's, also in Montréal, followed in 1911. Dupuis Frères, another French-Canadian retailer, created its mail order service in 1922. Army and Navy, serving the west, began mail order in 1924 and Canadian Tire sent out its first catalogue in 1928. By the 1920s, Hudson's Bay, Morgan's and Woodward's all had a mail order service.
With the exception of Dupuis Frères and P.T. Legaré, French-language shoppers had to be content with catalogues written in English. Eaton's produced one all-French catalogue in 1910, but this was not repeated until 1927. So French customers were asked to look at the pictures and prices and make do. It was preferred that customers write their order in English, but if they couldn't, then they could write in French and expect a response in the same language.
When the Eaton's catalogue was finally available in both English and French, it is interesting to note that the French was not a translation of the English. An example of this is the description for a pair of girls' panties. The English description states that they will "not slide or ride up," while the French description for the same item says "elastique, ferme et durable."
Many of the big retailers produced separate catalogues or parts of catalogues for specific target shoppers. Dupuis Frères, for example, printed catalogues for the general public as well as for more specific customers. Created to serve French Canadians and in particular, Catholics, there appeared for some time on the flip side of the order form, instructions for how to take measurements for a cassock. Dupuis Frères also published a separate catalogue for Catholic clergy.
Eaton's targeted specific markets such as settlers, miners and prospectors in the Klondike, creating unique catalogues for their customers in the west and in the Maritimes. In order to shorten the time it took to receive orders, a store with its own catalogue operations was opened in Winnipeg in 1905. In Moncton, a mail order building was built in 1918.
The earliest mail order catalogues had no illustrations or colour. Illustrations began to make an appearance by 1887 and colour was introduced on selected pages, such as those advertising clothing, fabrics and toys, in 1915. The 1919 catalogues used a combination of photographs and line drawings, such as photographs of heads placed on illustrated bodies. This often created very awkward effects.
In the early days, the products advertised were mainly women's and children clothes, with just a small section for men. Other categories were gradually included such as mattresses, books, stationary and then later, glass, china, silver, lamps and medicines. By the early 1890s, furniture was being sold and in the mid 1890s, farm equipment and agricultural implements appeared. In the 1910s and 1920s, a person could place a mail order for the materials needed to build houses and barns!
One can trace the coming of many technological innovations through the pages of mail order catalogues. Electricity, modern indoor plumbing, labour-saving devices such as the washing machine -- mail order catalogues bear witness to all of these life-altering changes.
While mail order continues to flourish among retailers today and has a contemporary form in e-commerce, the players are no longer the same. Eaton's published its last catalogue in 1976, the Dupuis Frères catalogues closed in 1963 and Simpson's, which had merged with the American Sears to become Simpson's-Sears, sold its mail order business to Sears in the 1980s.