The Retail Merchants of Canada versus the Mail-order
cash register, in the collection of the Canadian Postal Museum, was used
at the post office and general store of Val Morin Station, Quebec.
The mail-order catalogue brought an increasingly varied
modern selection of goods to the homes of Canadians. It was so successful
it threatened the livelihood of a more vulnerable brand of retailers, the
country merchants. Their livelihood became a big issue, nationally and
Introduction | Organized
Opposition to Mail Order | Harry Stevens, Champion of
Business | The Royal Commission on Price Spreads |
Bigness of Business | The Competition: Unfair? | Did
They Pay Their Fair Share of Taxes? | Small-town
Enemies | East versus West | Clergy
of Independent Retailers | Conclusion | Further
The mail-order catalogue brought an increasingly varied and modern
of goods to the homes of Canadians from coast to coast. Everyone, it
could jump on the mail-order bandwagon. This was especially true of rural
and small towns where there were no large department stores.
The catalogue afforded farmers, miners, and loggers and their families
opportunity to buy a vast array of goods, but, at the same time, it
the livelihood of small-town merchants who had difficulty competing with
houses and were put out of business as a result.
In 1934, matters came to a head. Retail merchants mounted an offensive
mail-order corporations and big-city department stores that resulted in a
enquiry. It eventually led to a full Royal Commission. The issue of small
big business was on everyone's lips during the 1935 federal
Reconstruction Party was created to defend small businesses that were
hard times during the economic downturn of the 1930s.
Organized Opposition to Mail Order
In the late 19th century, agitation against big retailers was rampant
U.S. and Canada. The movement started in the U.S. and subsequently spilled
into Canada, where the Retail Merchants Association (RMA) was founded in
1896. The RMA demonstrated a long-standing opposition to the mail-order
which it viewed as unfair competition in the local economy.
Inside the Dazé
Arnprior, Ontario, 1910. This merchant stood to lose quite a lot due
to the competition from big-city mail-order companies, which could send
groceries and canned goods to its customers through the mail.
In a 1911 petition, the RMA called on the Post Office to protect retail
from the mail-order houses:
Mail Order Houses, who make their living out of mail order business,
a large portion of the cost of the delivery of their goods paid out of the
Treasury for their benefit, and at the expense of those retail merchants
establish businesses in cities, towns and villages for the benefit of the
as well as themselves, and who are subject to legitimate expenses which
Order Houses are not subject to. In other words, the Government is
Mail Order Houses, and assisting in destroying those Retail Merchants who
endeavouring to build up Canada, and who are helping to create modern
In 1926, the RMA proposed that the federal government introduce a
tax on mail-order companies and distribute the proceeds to the provinces
to the volume of mail-order business.
The Post Office department was aware of the controversial nature of
In 1923, an internal proposal to lease advertising space in post offices
Canada would have prevented the department from accepting advertising for
businesses, as well as tobacco, beer, and liquor.
Simpson's casts a long
on the landscape. In the 1930s, Simpson's introduced the suburban
office in three Ontario locations: Brampton, New Toronto, and Oshawa.
Around 1933, sales were $286 000. The offices were operated by commission
agents, who had a vested interest in drumming up business. Simpson's
Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1930-31, cover.
Harry Stevens, Champion of Small Business
H. Stevens began his political career in British Columbia as a strong
opponent of oriental immigration.
During the 1930s, with the economy in a depression, Canadians
looked for culprits and solutions. Various left-wing and right-wing
were proposed. Harry Stevens, member for Kootney East and Minister of
Commerce in the Bennett cabinet, emerged as the champion of small
In January 1934, Stevens spoke in Toronto to a convention of shoe
and manufacturers. He criticized big commercial businesses, particularly,
practise of mass buying of huge department and other chain store
and the use of this power in the destruction of the small retailer ... and
crushing of the manufacturer who will not accept price dictation of the
He alluded to sweat-shop practices in the clothing industry as a means of
costs down and the requirements of mass buyers for the cheapest prices
The presidents of Eaton's and Simpson's lashed out at
in the press the next day. Events unfolded swiftly. Prime Minister Bennett
a select committee of the House of Commons to do something about the
before the next federal election.
The select committee's mandate was to enquire into the large
between the amounts received by producers and those paid by consumers, the
being that some force was artificially raising the prices at the expense
consumers. Its proceedings were front-page news across Canada for about
The business practices of large corporations, including food-processing
such as Canada Packers, as well as Eaton's and Simpson's, were
Witnesses made sweeping statements in favour of independent retailers. One
them "the most important factors in our system of
The National Fair Trade Council generally regarded "the growth of
department store organizations, mail order houses and chain stores as
to the general interests of the country."
The Royal Commission on Price Spreads
That July, the select committee became a full-blown Royal Commission.
again presided over proceedings. The Retail Merchants Association played
behind-the-scene role, providing witnesses and advice. Its monthly
enlisted to supply additional information to the Commission. The
so successful that top executives from Eaton's and Simpson's
about Stevens to the Prime Minister. By January 1935, Bennett and Stevens
a falling out. Bennett probably worried that Stevens's crusading
position was alienating corporate backers of the Tory party. But, he was
worried about Stevens as a potential challenger for the leadership of the
Early in 1935, Stevens was forced out of the cabinet. In the ensuing
election, he retained his seat and ran as leader of the newly formed
Party. The party held large rallies: 10 000 in Toronto, 5300 in Winnipeg
2000 to 3000 each in Calgary, Saskatoon, and Regina. Militants of the RMA
other small-business lobby groups were active in his campaign. However,
was only able to garner 389 000 votes (less than nine per cent of the
vote), roughly the same as the CCF. The Liberals received two million
the Conservatives garnered 1.3 million votes.
Stevens lost his bid to reinvent the politics of the country in 1935.
the testimony he heard and included in the Commission's report
an interesting perspective from which to view the antagonism between big
small business underlying the whole debate for and against mail order.
The Bigness of Business
notice addressed to Army and Navy customers in the 1930s was, from a
country merchant's point of view, provocative to say the least. Army
and Navy Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1933-134.
In 1929, three companies were responsible for 80 per cent of all
store sales in Canada: T. Eaton Co., Robert Simpson Company, and
Bay Company. Eaton's and Simpson's were very active in mail
HBC stopped publishing its seasonal mail-order catalogues in 1913 and
a limited mail-order business. Department stores accounted for 10 per cent
the Canadian retail market in 1929, 12.6 per cent two years later.
the early years of the Depression worked to the advantage of department
possibly at the expense of smaller general stores and retail shops.
discretion the better part of receiving your Eaton's order? Perhaps,
given the opposition to the catalogue in certain quarters, it was. Eaton's
Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1911-12, p. 2.
Eaton's alone accounted for 7 per cent of all retail sales
in 1930. It was the personification of big business in Canadian retailing
its 13 large department stores, 5 mail-order distribution centres, 32
department stores, 7 factories, 9 buying offices (some overseas), and 112
offices. Simpson's was the second largest firm with its flagship
in Toronto, 3 major mail-order facilities, and several manufacturing
among them a pharmaceutical company. It too had buying offices overseas.
The Competition: Unfair?
Eaton's and Simpson's operated at a scale so large that
were able to obtain goods from manufacturers at cut-rate prices. They
sell via catalogue or over the counter at the lowest prices. Eaton's
Simpson's sometimes sold items at a loss in order to attract
This technique of selling, known as the "loss leader," is
the ultimate bone of contention, was the business of rural customers
and was what the small merchants and mail-order houses were fighting
Small-time retailers were unable to compete with these low prices. A
in Nova Scotia was frustrated by the competition: "Mass buying by
retail department stores has placed me in a position where I cannot
mail order prices. Although I pay cash for my wants by borrowing at times
the bank, we independent merchants can sell the goods if we only can
with mail order prices. I have been trying for years to buy to compete and
An Alberta merchant wrote the premier in 1936: "Yes sir,
simply hell for the little man, nowadays." Times were tough, but even
they were not so bad, the competition from the big corporations did not
fair. Eaton's, for example, could accumulate huge stocks, which, by
of economies of scale and price leverage, allowed the company to compete
every corner of the rural economy. As if this was not enough, the business
of the large mail-order operations were at times unorthodox.
The Saskatchewan RMA accused Army and Navy, a department store and
operation based in Regina, of practising false advertising in its radio
and billboard publicity campaigns. Eaton's of Winnipeg was accused
contracts to area correctional facilities, where female inmates made
and mattress covers free of charge. Conditions in Eaton's company
were considered appalling.
Army and Navy advertisement
from the Regina Leader Post, February 23, 1934. The document was one
of many exhibits presented before the Royal Commission on Price
Did They Pay Their Fair Share of Taxes?
Whether in Summerside, PEI, Quebec, or Saskatchewan, the refrain among
merchants was the same. Mail-order companies were not paying their fair
of taxes. As a result, the burden of public responsibility fell
upon the shoulders of local businessmen.
from the Stettler Independent, November 1, 1928. Many stores
offer better prices than the catalogue houses!
The Manitoba chapter of the RMA believed that business and realty tax
on the Eaton's complex in Winnipeg were based on estimates that were
near their true value. The Summerside Board of Trade recommended that the
North America Act be amended to empower the provincial government to tax
companies. The Independent Retail Association, on the other hand, proposed
the federal government collect taxes on mail order. The RMA's Quebec
proposed a five-dollar tax on all catalogues.
The charge that mail-order companies were not conducting themselves as
corporate citizens did not flow only from a preoccupation with the need to
the municipal tax base. Much more was at stake, including a commitment to
rural way of life that small town businessmen and their allies in the
Party were trying to preserve.
Small-town Friends and Enemies
page of the Stettler Independent, November 22, 1928, encouraging
loyalty to community business.
Small-town merchants viewed themselves as the backbone of rural
Their economic health reflected the economic and social health of the
community. The community was part urban - townspeople and villagers
and part rural - residents of surrounding farms and bush. Merchants
how blacksmiths bought at the local grocery, the grocer traded with the
the farmer had his horses shoed at the blacksmith, and so on. The economic
was overturned when some of the rural community purchased goods and
outside the village economy.
The result could spell disaster, at least as far as the Canadian
was concerned in 1913:
The towns and villages where business is stagnant and where the
away for the cream of their requirements is dead. Dead socially,
intellectually. The citizens lack confidence and interest in each other.
do not co-operate. They do not reciprocate. They cease to be enterprising,
the rights of their neighbours, and neglect to look properly after their
in short become slovenly and careless and degenerate.
The view of a community closed in upon itself increased a
distrust of outsiders and newcomers, who might be of a different religious
or background, or who hailed from a different part of the country. They
East versus West
Advertisement from the Red Deer Advocate, November 27, 1929.
In the Canadian West, Eaton's and Simpson's were perfect
for irate independent retailers. The companies were big, competitive, and,
all, from Ontario. Their profits invariably drifted back to the East at
of local (western) interests. How satisfying it must have been for a
Alberta, newspaper to point out that during the First World War,
did not donate to the local chapter of the Red Cross, but to the Red Cross
Winnipeg, where the company had its regional headquarters.
The local newspaper was a natural ally of the country merchant, like
Stanley, the fictitious small-town newspaperman in W. O. Mitchell's
are Difficult. Here, editors had no difficulty understanding where
of their newspaper lay, namely on the main streets of their communities.
businesses bought much of the advertising space in the local paper.
and advertisers rubbed shoulders in their day-to-day living, at church, at
at school, and at the nearby watering hole.
Clergy Support of Independent Retailers
Catholic clergy objected to the graphic depiction of the human body,
especially the female body, in some catalogues. In some instances, mothers
were encouraged to keep such pages from the sight of their children,
especially the boys. Dupuis Frères Catalogue, 1944, p. 16.
Another natural ally of the independent retail movement was the
and Catholic clergy. Protestant clergymen appeared on the podium with
of the Reconstruction Party throughout the federal election campaign of
Stevens's championing of the "little guy" in his
Methodist tone no doubt appealed to them.
In Quebec, the Catholic clergy condemned the catalogue as an example of
and excessive self-indulgence. Catalogues contained pages where the human
was shown too explicitly. Spending on catalogue goods interfered with the
and morally good task of saving at the local credit union. Housewives were
to throw their catalogues in the garbage.
Catholic priests were not alone in expressing their moral opposition to
companies. The minister of the Knox Presbyterian church in Portage La
Manitoba, wrote an irate letter to the Hudson's Bay Company in 1916
the company published a price list of mail-order liquors on the very day
a ban on liquor sales in the province of Manitoba came into effect.
In this and other instances, there was a moral unease with the
This sense of unease was part of a general feeling of angst, as the
establishment of rural and small-town Canada saw its leadership coming
at the seams.
Surprising indeed was the depth of feeling on the catalogue issue, as
how much the story of the opposition to the catalogue has to tell us about
history of our country, both from the turn of the 20th century onward and
the troubled decade of the 1930s.
The movement against Eaton's and Simpson's demonstrated the
of social malaise throughout rural society at a time when all of Canada
dominated by big-city interests and preoccupations. The issue was, from
point of view, economic. However, it also had strong moral (clerical) and
overtones. The career of one politician, Harry Stevens, literally rose and
on the issue. With him, seemingly the fortunes and aspirations of
and rural Canada also rose and fell.
Historians regularly point to the rural angst experienced by French
during the early and middle part of the 20th century as they adapted their
tradition to a new urban-industrial way of life. The experience was
by much frustration and hardship. The history of the opposition to the
catalogue reminds us that English Canadians inhabiting rural communities
experienced their own version of hard times as the bright lights of the
began to shine upon them.
D'arcy, Hande. "Saskatchewan Merchants in the Great Depression:
and the Crusade against Big Business." Saskatchewan History
(Winter 1991): 21-33.
Marchand, Suzanne. Rouge à lèvre et pantalon: Des
esthétiques féminines controversées au Québec
1920-1939. Les cahiers du Québec. Montréal:
Morod, David. Store Wars: Shopkeepers and the Culture of
Marketing, 1890-1939. Toronto: University of Toronto, 1996.
Report of the Royal Commission on Price Spreads. Ottawa:
to the King's Most Excellent Majesty, 1935.
Rudin, Ronald. "Alphonse Dejardins et le marketing des caisses
1900-1920." In La culture inventée: Les
culturelles aux 19e et 20e siècles,
by Pierre Lanthier et Guildo Rousseau, pp. 173-186. Québec:
Wetherell, D. G. Main Street and the Evolution of Small Town
1880-1947, Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1995.