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Canadian Mail Order Catalogues

Top 10 Uses

Each fall and spring the long-awaited catalogue would finally arrive. It was an event similar to that of a distant relative paying a long-overdue visit. There was something for everyone. In particular, the arrival of the latest catalogue was the moment that many children waited for because they would then be given the old catalogue to amuse themselves with.

Many winter days and nights were spent poring over the pages of the catalogue, dreaming of the possibilities it offered. But the catalogue was used for many other purposes besides ordering goods from afar. Some of them may be surprising from today's perspective, where entertainment is only as far away as the television, radio, bookshelf, cinema, theatre or local sports centre.

Besides ordering goods, here are the top ten uses (in random order) for mail order catalogues in times past:

  1. Little girls searched the pages for figures to cut to make paper dolls. They then tried to find outfits that would fit the cut-out figures. Sometimes they made entire paper families to play with. Some even cut out pictures of furniture and used the cut-outs to furnish homemade doll houses.

  2. Pictures cut from old catalogues would often be used for school projects or to decorate scrapbooks.

  3. Boys would strap a catalogue to each shin to make goalie pads when playing hockey.

  4. Teachers in many one-room schoolhouses used the catalogues to teach children to read. Sometimes it was the only book they had to read. Catalogues were also cut up to create alphabet books using the illustrations.

  5. Some adult immigrants who couldn't speak English used the catalogue to teach themselves words; by studying the picture and description they not only increased their vocabulary, but learned how to spell.

  6. Women eagerly awaited the catalogue to learn of the latest fashion styles. Many cut their own patterns from newspapers and sewed their family's clothes, based on illustrations from catalogues.

  7. Pictures were cut out of the catalogues and used to decorate homesteaders' walls.

  8. Pages could be torn out, crumpled up and used as insulation to fill in drafty cracks in cabin walls.

  9. For people living in isolated rural areas, catalogues provided a cultural link with the outside world. They allowed people to keep up with the trends in fashion and home furnishings, provided new avenues for conversation, eased loneliness and created needed stimulation in many homesteaders' lives.

  10. And then there was the catalogue's final destination: out to the outhouse, where it was used to decorate the walls, for reading material and finally, as toilet paper.

Today, old catalogues are valuable research tools. Their contents provide important information to museum curators, historians, sociologists, writers, antiquarians, as well as collectors and dealers in anything from the past. The details they hold allow costume and set designers to be authentic and true to a period in their work. But you don't have to fall into any of these categories to enjoy vintage catalogues. Thumbing through the pages and discovering each era's distinct mood can bring hours of enjoyment -- just as it did when the original owners looked through the same pages for the very first time.