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Canadian Mail Order Catalogues


Toys come and toys go, but some toys are forever. As might be expected, stuffed bears and dolls have appeared on the pages of mail order catalogues since the early days. There were dolls that walked, dolls that talked, dolls with beautiful outfits and many with real human hair. In the 1920s, "Flossie Flirt" arrived, with eyes that not only moved up and down but also moved from side to side! But the doll that many little girls longed for was the annual Eaton's Beauty doll, produced from 1900 to 1984.

Many of the girls' toys listed in mail order catalogues prepared girls for domestic duties by providing them with toy tea sets, dishes, kitchen utensils, pots and pans, irons, brooms and dust pans.

Illustration of a play refrigerator and a play stove, Nerlich Fall and Holiday 1939-1940 catalogue
Play refrigerator and stove, Nerlich Fall and Holiday 1939-1940

The boys enjoyed cowboy suits and Mountie outfits, pedal cars, trucks and trains. In the early 1940s, educational toys showed up with the claim that they would "help develop young minds." While the language was unisex, only boys appeared in the illustrations.

Photograph of boys in cowboy suits, Eaton's Christmas Book 1956 catalogue
Cowboy suits, Eaton's Christmas Book 1956

Traditional games such as checkers, chess, dominoes and playing cards were around a hundred years ago, but what may come as a surprise is the Ouija board advertised in the Eaton's catalogue of 1915-16.

Bicycles of course, have always been popular, but the cycles that children proudly owned at the turn of the 20th century were quite different from the ones that children ride today. Girls aged 2 to 15 rode tricycles, while boys climbed aboard velocipedes (an early bicycle with pedals that turned the front wheel).

Illustrations of various whirling tops, Eaton's Fall and Winter 1948-49 catalogue
Whirling tops, Eaton's Fall and Winter 1948-49

Children caught up in the recent "Battling Tops" phenomenon may be interested to know that this craze has its roots in tops that date back centuries. Today's fighting tops are just a twist on the age-old spinning top. Spinning tops were available for sale in mail order catalogues throughout the 20th century.

Adults browsing the toy pages of old catalogues will enjoy the nostalgia they experience as long-forgotten toys are brought to light. Children will find it fascinating and informative to learn about children from the past and how they spent their time at play, as the pages reveal their interests and pastimes.