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Eaton's Christmas Catalogues (Page 2)

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Christmas was a Time for Children | Community Christmas Trees | Marketing Christmas | Christmas in the Post-war Period | It's Never Too Soon to Start Getting Ready | What to Buy? | The Wishing Book | Conclusion | Acknowledgements | Further Reading

Community Christmas Trees

Rural communities celebrated Christmas through church and large community parties, or Christmas Trees, so-called because originally gifts for the children were placed on the tree. In the 1930s, Eaton's introduced a Christmas Tree Shopping Service that selected gifts based on budget, gender, and age information provided. Some children only received gifts at school or community celebrations, not at home. In certain cases, teachers purchased gifts through the Eaton's catalogues and placed them on the tree to be given out during the Christmas concert for children whose families could not afford to buy for their children.

   Cover of Charlie Chaplin book, Eaton's 
Fall Winter 1919-20, p. 449.   

Eaton's sold a number of Charlie Chaplin books. Chaplin was described in the catalogue as "the moving picture comedian." This book containing 16 pages of "funny capers" was published in 1917. It sold for 15 cents in the Eaton's (Winnipeg) Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1919-20, p. 449.

Enlarge image.
   Bringing up Father, Eaton's Fall 
Winter 1919-20, p. 448.   

Bringing Up Father's comic characters Maggie and Jiggs were household names for decades. Artist George McManus published several books of comics in the late teens and early 1920s. Eaton's (Winnipeg) sold this 46-page book for 25 cents in the Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1919-20, p. 448.

Enlarge image.

Celebrations also included entertainment such as the school concert, a special movie, or theatrical performance (with angels' costumes made from gauze ordered by the roll from Eaton's), and refreshments. Community organizations raffled items like Eaton Beauty Dolls, for which members had made clothing and blankets. Eaton's sold prepackaged stockings and Christmas candy.

   Eaton Beauty doll   

This Eaton Beauty doll, given to Shirley McLouglin of Comox, BC, in 1938, is the only remaining doll of two pairs given to her mother and aunt at Christmas in the 1910s. One of the original pair was destroyed by fire so they were given a second pair the following year. The second fell off the bed in 1936 shattering its head and the third was sold in the l980s.

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Marketing Christmas

Even though modest by today's standards, Eaton's appreciated the value of the Christmas market from the beginning. The stores and the catalogues complemented each other. Store ads promoted the mail-order service. In 1905, Eaton's marketing department sponsored the first Santa Claus parade in Toronto as a means of encouraging people to spend their Christmas dollars at Eaton's. As department stores opened across the country they each had their own Toyland at Christmastime. Children were invited to attend the opening:

It's ready at last! A fairy land to make boys and girls happy, bright and wonderful with the loveliest toys you've ever imagined. You'll see trains whizzing by like greased lightning, signal lights flashing, switches clicking into place. And then there are darling dollies with pretty faces and curly hair, their arms outstretched to little mothers. And so many more jolly toys and games, we can't begin to tell about them all. Toyland welcomes one and all Saturday and every day until Christmas. Come as early as you like and stay as long as you like.

  Mechanical Christmas Card promoting 
Eaton's Santa Clause parade and Toyland, Toronto.  

Enlarge image.Mechanical Christmas card promoting Eaton's Santa Clause parade and Toyland in Toronto.

  Letter from Santa Claus.  

Enlarge image.Letter from Santa Claus that was sent to Marchetta Brown of Toronto, inviting her to visit Eaton's Toyland.


Christmas in the Post-war Period

  Electrical appliances, Eaton's 
Christmas 1956, p. 184.  

Enlarge image.Selection of electrical appliances available through the Eaton's Christmas Catalogue, 1956, p. 184.


After the Second World War, the move to the cities accelerated. The role of women in society evolved. Children had fewer responsibilities in the home and enjoyed more freedom and attention. The economy diversified. More money and goods were available. More goods were purchased rather than made in the home. The availability of electricity brought new appliances and forms of entertainment.

  Caley's Christmas Crackers in Eaton's 
Jolly Crackers box.  

Enlarge image.Caley's Christmas Crackers in an Eaton's box.


Christmas became more complex. More decorations, more gift giving, more material goods, more cards, more baking, more party clothes, more ceremony, more work for mother. The season stretched longer into November and people felt it in their pocketbooks. The question of giving and pressure to choose the right gift for the right person became much more of an issue. The concern that Christmas had become too commercial was voiced with increasing frequency in local newspapers.

It's Never Too Soon to Start Getting Ready

Advertisements began to appear early in November, saying "It's not too early to think about Christmas shopping." Some objected to the early start to the season, feeling that the beginning of November was too soon to start thinking about Christmas. By mid-November the tone changed from congratulating shoppers on being early to warning them about how quickly the time would pass.

People used to call to ask the postmaster to open up on Christmas Day so that they could pick up a particular parcel or card, but in 1959, the postmaster was no longer required to open for a couple of hours on Christmas day. The post office itself took out advertisements, saying, "Let's all give Santa a break — Mail early for delivery by Christmas."

What to Buy?

  Toy selection, Eaton's Christmas 1956, 
p. 12.  

Enlarge image.Selection of toys from the Eaton's Christmas Catalogue, 1956, p. 12.


Most people in the 1950s still tended to buy practical gifts. For individuals, there were slippers, homemade food, and hand-knit sweaters. Gifts for the home included bedspreads, furniture, and appliances. Electrical gifts were considered novelties. Sewing machines were appropriate. Television sets were promoted as a family gift. Ties were considered the traditional gift for men. Flowers were an option for women. However, the true focus of gift giving was the children, with stores promising a broad selection of toys.

  Toy selection, Eaton's Christmas 1956, 
p. 20.  

Enlarge image.Selection of toys from the Eaton's Christmas Catalogue, 1956, p. 20.


By the 1950s, there were more options for shopping locally; however, the Eaton's catalogues remained an important part of Christmas, particularly for those living in rural areas. A man who grew up in Drumheller, Alberta, in the 1950s, remembers the excitement of the Christmas catalogue. He considered the catalogue "a window to the outside world." As a boy from a relatively poor family, he spent a lot of time wishing for things from the catalogue that he would never receive.

A woman raising eight young children in the late 1950s remembers, "We used the catalogue a lot, especially at Christmas time … it was almost worn out at Christmas, because they all looked through it and picked out things. They didn't always get what they picked out but they dreamed about it …" She also remembered using the Eaton's overseas parcel service to send goods that were unavailable in Britain to relatives there after the war.

The Wishing Book

  Sports equipment, Eaton's Christmas 

Enlarge image.Selection of sports equipment available through the Eaton's Christmas Catalogue, 1956, p. 43.


By the 1950s, the fall-and-winter catalogue had grown to over 600 pages, with about 200 of them in colour. The Christmas catalogue consisted of roughly 200 pages, with nearly half of them in colour. The first 50 pages were dedicated to children's goods. Children were more clearly identified as a distinct group in the late 1950s, especially in terms of clothing for older children and youth. There was more clothing dedicated to specific functions like sports and hunting. There were fewer toys available in the "big" fall-and-winter catalogue because they were concentrated in the Christmas catalogue, along with sports equipment, art and craft supplies, and books.

  Cover, The Hockey Sweater by Roch 
Carrier. Illustrations by Sheldon Cohen.  

Enlarge image.Cover from The Hockey Sweater by Roch Carrier, illustrations by Sheldon Cohen, Montréal: Tundra Books, 1984.


Popular toys included dolls, trains, toys that mimicked adult activities, chemistry sets, Meccano, building blocks, Robin Hood, Zorro and cowboys and Indians, space toys, guns, armies, arcade-type shooting games, hockey, pool, bowling, and board games. National Hockey League sweaters for the Montréal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs were available and longed for by many boys as later described in Roch Carrier's popular story, The Hockey Sweater, in which Eaton's sends the wrong sweater. The number of musical instruments in the catalogues declined as the number of pages dedicated to electrical goods, radios, and televisions increased.

  Radios, record players, and TVs, 
Eaton's Christmas 1956, p. 183.  

Enlarge image.Selection of radios, record players, and televisions available through the Eaton's Christmas Catalogue, 1956, p. 183.


The image of Santa Claus became a significant feature in advertising and community celebrations. Letters to Santa were sent through the mail, dropped off at local stores, or published in newspapers. Most children only asked for one or two things and often wrote requesting presents for their younger siblings. Favourite requests included trucks, dolls, electric trains, dishes, colouring books, puzzles, nurses' and doctors' kits, skates, hockey equipment, brooms and mops, baking sets, books, telephones, televisions, musical instruments, guns, and watches. Some requested pets such as dogs and even a monkey.


  Eaton's Promotional ribbons and 

Enlarge image.Ribbons and buttons promoting Eaton's as Canada's Christmas Store.


The Eaton's catalogue was a key part of Christmases past. In the early 20th century, the catalogue was an important source for a variety of goods (and just as often dreams) that were unavailable locally in rural Canada. By the 1950s, there were more local stores and a broader assortment of goods, but Eaton's remained important in people's minds and shopping habits — particularly those who lived in remote areas.


This segment is primarily based upon research reports conducted for the Red Deer and District Museum in Alberta and for the Fraser-Fort George Museum in Prince George.


Further Reading

Cole, Catherine C. "Childhood in Prince George, 1910-1960." Unpublished research report prepared for the Fraser-Fort George Museum, Prince George, BC, March 2002.

Cole, Catherine C. "The Wishing Book: Dreaming of Christmas in Central Alberta through the Eaton's Catalogues 1925-1929, 1955-1959." Unpublished research report including oral histories conducted by Judy Larmour for the Red Deer and District Museum, October 2000.



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