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Mail Box Before E-commerce: A History of Canadian 
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Fashion to Furnishings
Capturing Customers
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Catalogues (1880-1975)
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  Eaton's Fall Winter 1928-29, cover.  

Enlarge image.The catalogue, a new way of consuming, had become a part of daily life. Eaton's (Winnipeg) Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1928-29, cover.


Catalogues and Consumer Loyalty
by Emmanuel Béland

Catalogue designers employ various promotional advertising strategies that allow consumers to identify with accessible models. Their objective is quite simple, that is, to achieve customer loyalty; reaching the customer is not enough. Through the use of commercial imagery that follows specific patterns and procedures, catalogues stimulate interaction between consumers and companies.


Truly a social phenomenon, catalogue shopping was a new method of consuming that focused entirely on the customer. In a capitalist context characterized by competition, the major players — Eaton's, Simpson's, Woodward's, Dupuis Frères, etc. — fought fiercely to corner the market. Whether or not they admitted it, their goal was to attract new buyers and, more importantly, to keep them as customers. As a result, they had to do everything possible to secure customer loyalty, which is why catalogues were necessary. In addition to promoting the company and its products, catalogues were a more direct link between the issuer (the company) and the receiver (the customer).

   A Great City Store in Your Home, 
Simpson's Fall Winter 1934-35, cover.   

This Simpson's slogan says it all; this was the philosophy and purpose of every catalogue. Simpson's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1934-1935, cover.

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This interaction between the consumer and the company was achieved through representation and imagery. The large firms hired catalogue designers whose mandate was to reach the target market and secure its loyalty through promotional advertising. In other words, they had to get buyers to identify with accessible models, that is, models that reflected their reality and daily lives.

   Women as customers and models, 
Simpson's Fall Winter 1923, cover.   

The women in this image are portrayed as customers (they are flipping through a catalogue) and models (their photograph is in the catalogue). The strategy is clear: The model was both accessible and credible because she was also a consumer. Simpson's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1923, cover.

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From Commercial Imagery to Propaganda

The principle is quite simple: Images play a determining role in every advertisement. They transmit ideas, concerns, and messages, and can influence an opinion, become elements of persuasion or impression, or simply imprint a memory on the collective imagination. The main role of catalogues is to act as intermediaries between companies and potential customers, and images are the driving force. In addition, consumers are more likely to remember images than text because images attract attention without effort, since no language is needed to translate what they express. In short, an image is worth a thousand words.

   V for Victory, W. H. Perron 1943-44.   

The "V" for "victory" was very symbolic in wartime and allowed the company to communicate the desired message effectively without including a long text. W. H. Perron (Montreal) Catalogue, 1943-44.

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Commercial imagery, therefore, fulfilled various functions. First and foremost, it allowed consumers to identify with the models in the catalogues and adapt to the proposed style. As styles changed and it was important for buyers to see what they ordered, more and more, major department stores illustrated their catalogues. With time, therefore, the modest thin booklets that described an impressive list of products and had few illustrations, if any, became thick, full-colour volumes. Photography contributed to the evolution of commercial imagery. More real than drawings, it inevitably strengthened the relationship between the products offered and potential customers.

   Fur-trimmed clothing, Eaton's Fall 
Winter 1925-26, cover.   

Clothing trimmed with fur was obviously very popular with women at the time. Eaton's (Toronto) Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1925-26, cover.

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   Fur-trimmed elegance, Simpson's 1945, 
p. 4.   

The elegance of fur-trimmed clothing. Photography made an undeniable contribution to promotional advertising. The models appeared more real and, therefore, more accessible. Simpson's Catalogue, 1945, p. 4.

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Nevertheless, images were double-edged swords. As catalogue designers endeavoured to illustrate consumers' ideals, they shaped those ideals. They inevitably transposed their own values into images, as well as those of the companies that hired them. As a result, the models illustrated conformed to various standards that were considered acceptable by the target group, even though the catalogue sometimes presented contradictory social standards. This occurred as morality evolved and various taboos progressively disappeared, so that the values conveyed by society were soon reflected in the catalogues.

   Dupuis  Frères ad for bathing 
suits in 
La Bonne Parole, June 1939, p. 4.   

A Dupuis Frères display ad for bathing suits, 1939. Bathing suits were so popular that even Dupuis Frères, a company whose values were close to the values of the Catholic clergy, promoted them. However, the company deemed it appropriate to have its merchandise approved by the Catholic Women's League. La Bonne Parole, June 1939.

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The fact that firms adapted to their clientele provides a good indication of the promotional advertising strategies employed to secure consumer loyalty. Having said that, the association of imagery and values transmitted brings to mind the expression "promotional propaganda." Since the objective was to convince potential customers to consume and continue to buy from the companies, the work of publicists and image specialists implied a highly developed art of persuasion. As the virtues of the companies were praised, buyers did more than just obtain a consumer good; they often sided with a particular company. The one that reached them, that spoke to them, quite simply became their frame of reference when it came to shopping.

   The Future is for Us!, (transl.) Eaton 
Printemps été 1946, cover.   

Eaton's regularly used concepts related to the future and progress to distinguish itself from its competition and instill promising ideals in its clientele. Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue (French edition), 1946, cover.

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Who Was Targeted?

  The fashionable family, Dupuis 
Automne hiver 1929-30, cover.  

Enlarge image.Dupuis Frères clearly targeted the French Canadian market by focusing on various family scenes. Dupuis Frères Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1929-30, cover.


Whether they targeted the well-to-do (Simpson's catalogue, for example, featured a lot of clothing and luxury articles) or people with more limited means (such as Army and Navy, which offered more modest clothing), each store had its own clientele, philosophy, and vision. Yet, the designers hired by large companies had similar mandates, since the images and subjects used were often the same (women, workers, new consumer goods, etc.).

  Chic and good taste, Simpson's Fall 
Winter 1917-18, cover.  

Enlarge image.Whether or not it was accessible, the depiction of "chic and good taste" captured the imagination of the consumer. Simpson's (Toronto) Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1917-18, cover.


Basically, to reach targeted consumers, they had to make them feel involved so that they would identify with the models illustrated in the catalogues.

Furthermore, it was not enough to depict the customers as such; designers had to illustrate the vision consumers had of themselves, or else the one they idealized. Therefore, the greater the similarity between the two images — the one conveyed by the catalogue and the one idealized by consumers — the greater the chance people would buy to move closer to their objective. However, consumers maintained their free will, since they obviously had the last word.

  Fashionable woman, Eaton's Spring 
Summer 1910, p. 17.  

Enlarge image.As a general rule, the main advertising images in catalogues featured women. The example of the fashionable woman is clearly visible in this image. Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1910, p. 17.


Women at the Heart of the Purchasing Process

  Woman completing order, Simpson's 
Spring Summer 1901, cover.  

Enlarge image.This type of image, which suggested that women were at the heart of the purchasing process, was used frequently in catalogues. Simpson's (Toronto) Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1901, cover.


It is obvious that the layout of the catalogue, the front cover, and the main images (the larger ones) focused mainly on women. Truly a target clientele, women were a source of inspiration for all catalogue designers, and especially for those who worked on the Toronto version of the Eaton's catalogue. When they focused on female characters, companies often depicted them making a purchase, flipping through a catalogue or filling out a mail-order form. Furthermore, the image of the woman was right at the heart of the advertising.

This privileged or strategic position can be explained by the fact that women were at the centre of the purchasing process; the catalogues were meant first and foremost for them. In addition, women were almost always depicted in two principal roles: participants in fashion and mothers. As fashionable women, they became models for the consumers who wished to follow trends. Such images generally emphasized a youthful attitude, beauty, grace, recreation, gardens, or urban streets. In its depiction of mothers, advertising was more focused on women's role as buyers for the whole family.

  Targetting the female clientele, 
Simpson's Fall Winter 1945-46, cover.  

Enlarge image.Make no mistake, the catalogue was designed first and foremost for a female clientele, as this image shows. Simpson's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1945-46, cover.

  Youthful good taste, Eaton's Spring 
Summer 1940, p. 3.  

Enlarge image.This example illustrates perfectly a youthful attitude that combines recreation and good taste. Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1940, p. 3.



Enlarge image.The ideal proposed in this image from the catalogue published for the western provinces is clearly visible, whether or not it was easy to attain. Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1931, cover.


Images were thus ideal vehicles for imposing style and "good taste" on female consumers. There was an incentive to buy desirable items. Women were invited to criticize their appearance, so they compared themselves to the images of beautiful women and the ideal they represented. This type of advertising implied that, by purchasing the products featured in the catalogue, women would become attractive, desirable, and fashionable. This marketing tool, in which the consumer is in turn "consumed," appeared in the early 1900s and still exists today.

Since women also made purchases as mothers, the practical and useful aspect of various household articles had to be strongly depicted in every good catalogue. However, this type of advertising sometimes required models of women with fuller figures and heavier statures. Clearly, there had to be a good balance between fashion and the practical, more down-to-earth, aspects of consumer goods.

  Tranquil family image, Eaton's Fall 
Winter 1930-31, cover.  

Enlarge image.This tranquil image of the family inspires both confidence and happiness, family values that were very important to Canadians at the time. Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1930-31.


The Model Canadian Family

Several catalogue covers highlighted family values. The images may seem trivial, but they contain an assortment of values associated with Canadian society at the time. The colours, places, people and action, and especially the role of the models, all provide clues to the way the "model" Canadian family was depicted. Consumers identified with the people in the photographs and they did not want to compare themselves with people who were unpleasant. Thus, family members were portrayed as charming and cheerful individuals. That is why the publications contain images of housewives who are smartly dressed, strong, and in charge of their households; of strong, proud, hardworking men with muscular features; and of children who are happy and well-behaved.

   Family scene, Dupuis  Frères 
hiver 1925-26, cover.   

In this family scene, only the image of the woman extends beyond the frame of the photograph. She was obviously the person publicists were most interested in since the catalogue was meant, first and foremost, for her. Dupuis Frères Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1925-26, cover.

Enlarge image.
   The family catalogue, Dupuis 
Automne hiver 1952-53, cover.   

The family was extremely important in Quebec and often inspired Dupuis Frères designers, who portrayed cheerful and likeable people. The store also marketed its catalogue as the "family catalogue." Dupuis Frères Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1952-53, cover.

Enlarge image.
  Family scene, Eaton's Fall Winter 
1936-37, cover.  

Enlarge image.Directly or indirectly, the husband participated in the catalogue shopping process, so he could not be excluded from every ad. Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1936-37, cover.


The roles assigned to each individual are clearly identifiable. The mother was the radiant "queen of the castle" who looked after the household. Dressed almost exclusively in black or sombre colours, the husband was a strapping man who protected the members of his family and provided for them. Yet, he smiled approvingly. The retailers thus endorsed one of the widespread myths of the time, that women should not make purchases without the consent of their husbands.

As for the children, they were generally between the ages of four and twelve, old enough to help select articles from the catalogue. The strategy is obvious: Children under the age of four were too young to understand how catalogue shopping works. As for those over the age of twelve, they were considered closer to adults than children. This does not mean that babies and toddlers were absent from the catalogues. On the contrary, every publication had a colourful section devoted especially to them. However, the images were intended more for the mothers than the children.

  Overcoats for men, Eaton's Fall Winter 
1912-13, p. 152.  

Enlarge image.Overcoats for men. Class and good taste were essential for politicians and professionals. Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1912-13, p. 152.


Family members' daily activities also inspired catalogue designers. Not surprisingly, some subjects, such as the religious reality of Quebec's Catholic families and the assignment of duties to each member of the household, were frequently exploited. Males were generally portrayed as virile workers with a rather imposing stature (delivery men, farmers, miners, merchants, settlers, etc.), or as professionals and politicians.

   Family roles of the time, Simpson's 
Spring Summer 1929, cover.  

Enlarge image.The young boy gets ready to do manual work, while the girl stays at home with her mother. This clearly illustrated distribution of roles reflects what was acceptable at the time. Simpson's (Regina) Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1929, cover.


Once again, the message was clear: Men worked outside the home, while women were confined to it. This idea was depicted in several catalogue covers; one shows a mother and her daughter in the house, dressed accordingly, while the father and the son get ready to work outdoors. Finally, it should be noted that, when they were not portrayed as workers, the men and women were shown practising a Canadian sport such as skating, cycling, or swimming.


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