See more of the Virtual Museum of Canada
image image
Mail Box Before E-commerce: A History of Canadian 
Mail-order Catalogues image
Mail box
Mail box
image Main Menu Sources Contributors Travelling Exhibition Feedback image Table of Contents
image For Students For Collectors - For Teachers - For Students
image For 
Fashion to Furnishings
Capturing Customers
Company Histories
Order to Delivery
Catalogues (1880-1975)
Games and Activities

Let's Go Shopping 1948! Secondary Webquest

Introduction | Task | Process | Evaluation | Conclusion



Descriptions of families
[ 1 ] [ 2 ] [ 3 ] [ 4 ] [ 5 ]
Map of Canada

1. Worksheets #1 and #2
    (one per group)

2. Worksheets #3, #4 and #5
    (one per student)

3. Order forms
    (1936, 1948, 1956)

If you don't have access to a printer ask your teacher for help.

Eaton's Spring and Summer
1936 Catalogue

Eaton's Christmas Book 1956

Eaton's Fall and Winter
1948-49 catalogue


For over one hundred years, mail-order catalogues have been used to sell goods to Canadians. In the past, when many people lived in rural areas with few stores nearby, families depended on mail-order catalogues to shop for clothing, toys, kitchen appliances, furniture, and other items. Catalogues such as Eaton's, Simpson's, and Dupuis Frères brought the images of items only available in big cities to people in even the smallest and most remote communities. Your grandparents or great-grandparents may well be able to tell you about the fun they had dreaming about the things they would buy from the Eaton's catalogue, if only they had magic powers and all the money in the world! Of course, with these dreams came the desire for items that people did not really need and could not afford.

In this Webquest, you will have the chance to go shopping! You will learn about a family that lived in the last century, and you and your classmates will decide what you will buy from the latest Eaton's catalogue: the Fall and Winter 1948-49 catalogue. You will then go back to 1936 and forward to 1956 and determine what a family might purchase from catalogues in those years. When you have finished, you will compare your shopping experience with those of the other groups in your class, try to determine the reasons for the differences in what you ordered, and discuss the role of mail-order catalogues in creating our modern consumer society.

When you are finished each day's tasks, or when you have completed the entire Webquest, try out other fun things to do.

Happy shopping!

top of page


It is September 1948. You live with your family in rural Canada. Your family has just received the Eaton's Fall and Winter catalogue, only one of two major catalogues you will receive this year and the only major catalogue you will receive before next spring. Each member of your family would like to order a few items from the catalogue. However, you have a limited amount of money and must stay within your budget. Your task is to learn about your family and your own particular character, think of what you would want to order as a member of that family, discuss as a group what you really need and can afford, and then fill out an order form with your family's final selections. You will then travel to 1936 and 1956, and consider how the catalogue order would change, and what a similar family could afford in those years. You will then return to the 21st century, make a collage of the items you ordered, and make a presentation about your family and its order to the rest of your class.

top of page


With the help of your teacher, divide into groups of four or five students. These will be your 1948 families.

  1. As a group, ask your teacher to help you select a family:

    Each group should select a different family. 

  2. Read about your family. Fill in Worksheet #1 as a group.
  3. On a map of Canada, locate the town where you live.

    Fill in Worksheet #2 as a group.

  4. Decide which family member each of you will be: father, mother, child 1, 2, or 3. Each student must take on a different character.
  5. Now find out about your character. Working on your own, go to the Roles section, to your Family section, and then to your character. Fill in Worksheet #3 on your own.
  6. As a group, meet with your family members. Each family member presents their name, age, place of birth, role in family, occupation and interests, and what they want to buy. Find out how much money is available for this order. Then go back to working on your own.
  7. Look through the Eaton's Fall and Winter 1948-49 catalogue. Start with the links that are provided with your family member's role description, and then search the catalogue to find other items that could be of interest to your character. Make notes of all of the items you would like to buy. Fill in Worksheet #4 on your own.
  8. Narrow down your list to the items you would most like to buy. Think of why you really want each of these items. Fill in Worksheet #5 on your own.
  9. Optional: If you have access to a printer, print out the catalogue page with each item on your Needs List.
  10. Fill out an order form for the items on your Needs List. Be sure to include the item name and page number, size, colour and other specific information needed, and cost. Calculate the total cost of your order. How much will it cost? Don't forget the shipping cost to your town and taxes if there are any.

    For shipping rates read "Information about ordering." For sales tax rates, consult the sales tax information page.

  11. Meet with the rest of your family. Go over each person's order. Add up the total cost of all orders. Are you within budget? If not, as a group, discuss which items can be deleted. You must come up with a list that fits within your budget. When you have a list that each family member is satisfied with and that your family can afford, fill out another order form.
  12. If you printed out your items in Step 9, assemble one collage of all items each family member ordered, and a second collage of all the items that weren't ordered.
  13. Now it is time to travel to 1936 and 1956. As a group, take your 1948 order and try to find equivalent items in the Eaton's Spring and Summer 1936 catalogue and the Eaton's Christmas Book 1956. When similar items are not available, select an item that will serve a similar purpose (for example, shoes instead of winter boots, light gloves instead of winter gloves). When you have found an equivalent item for each, fill out two order forms.
      As a group, determine the income for a family like your 1948 family in 1936 and 1956. How much money would be available in each year for ordering goods from the catalogue? Can you afford the order? Think of reasons why a family like yours could afford more or fewer goods in 1936 and 1956 than in 1948.
  14. Changing technologies and fashions

    Look at your orders in Step 12. How did types of items change between 1936, 1948 and 1956? How did fashions change? Did some items disappear completely? What replaced them?

    Look in each catalogue for examples of items that disappear, appear, or change. Here is a list to start you off: clothing such as gloves, corsets, hats; accessories such as parasols and handkerchiefs; radios; record players; wood stoves; barn equipment.

  15. Post a large map of Canada on the wall or project onto a screen. Make a presentation to class members about:
    • your family (members, income, disposable income) and where you live in 1948
    • how catalogue goods arrive at your house: where are they sent from? Where do they travel to using which mode of transportation? At which post office do they arrive?

    Display on the wall of the classroom your two collages and final order form. Make a presentation about:  

    • each family member, what you wanted to buy and what you finally ordered; and
    • an explanation of how you proceeded from your wants to your needs individually and as a family.

    Discuss what was challenging about this task.

    Present your catalogue orders in 1936 and 1956. Looking at your three orders from 1936, 1948, and 1956 , point out which items changed, which items disappeared, and other changes you found in the items available. Present the income and disposable income available to a family like yours in 1936 and 1956, and whether or not the money could pay for the order in those years.

  16. Concluding class discussion

    As a class, discuss the differences and similarities in the goods ordered by the five families in 1948. What accounts for these similarities and differences? Some factors to consider are regional variations, living in town or country, and individual desires and values.

    As a class, discuss the changes between 1936, 1948, and 1956 in goods available. How did the selection of goods change? How did fashions and technologies change? Did buying power increase or decrease during this period? Why?

    It has been suggested that Canada's consumer society blossomed after the Second World War. Until that time, most people purchased what they needed and had little money for extras. After the War, disposable incomes grew and the goods available increased. This trend of increasing consumerism has continued to this day. How did mail-order catalogues contribute to consumerism between 1936 and 1956? Was their impact positive or negative?

top of page


Here is the grading rubric.

top of page


In 1948, mail-order catalogues were an important part of the lives and dreams of most Canadians. With the assistance of an efficient postal system and the railways, mail-order catalogues provided the means of selling a wide variety of clothing, toys, furniture, and other consumer goods to rural Canadian families. These catalogues must have led to a lot of dreaming and wishing, bringing the images of clothing and other items from across Canada and all around the world into people's lives in even the smallest towns.

After completing this Webquest, we hope that you have a better understanding of the goods that were available to Canadians in mail-order catalogues in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, and some families that lived then. We also hope that you have learned how these catalogues contributed to the growth of consumerism and made it more difficult for people to balance their wishes with their needs and their budgets. Finally, we hope you have discovered how fascinating and informative old mail-order catalogues can be, and that you will return to our site …  to do more shopping!


top of page
image image