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Mail Box Before E-commerce: A History of Canadian 
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  Eaton's (Montreal) Spring/Summer 
Catalogue, 1959, cover.  

Enlarge image."Will I be pretty, Will I be rich?" she hums to herself. Eaton's (Montreal) Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1959, cover.


Fe-mail: Women in Eaton's Toronto Mail-order Catalogues
by Lorraine O'Donnell

Women were the primary targets of Eaton's (Toronto) mail-order catalogues, because they were usually the ones who purchased their own and their families' personal items. The catalogues appealed to them in their roles as housewife and mother, glamorous career woman, and model citizen. Girls were encouraged through the catalogues to emulate their mothers' shopping habits.

Introduction to a Love Story | Little Women, Girlish Fun | Calling All Teenagers | Adult "Women of Canada" | Career Women | Housewives | Pleasure Seekers | Conclusion


Introduction to a Love Story

An Eaton's wag once told his customers that "instead of mail it should be called 'fe-mail,' since women do most of the buying." That was in 1924, and by then it was no secret: The Eaton's Toronto catalogue and its women readers were in a relationship that went beyond just business.

  Pretty females and productive 
factories, Eaton's Spring Summer 1915, p. 110.  

Enlarge image.Pretty females and productive factories: the Eaton company's idea of a perfect match. Eaton's (Toronto) Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1915, p. 110.


Since the founding of the catalogue in 1884, millions of Canadian females had become devoted to the Eaton's book. Mrs. Lynde, a character in Lucy Maude Montgomery's 1917 novel Anne's House of Dreams, protested that the catalogues were "the Avonlea girls' Bible now … They pore over them on Sundays instead of studying the Holy Scriptures." Eaton's certainly returned the sentiment, using the catalogue to woo what it called its "lady readers." The catalogue spoke to them directly, intimately, as "you." "From Our Factory to You," says the headline of an underwear page in the 1915 spring-and-summer book, for example. Below, a blurb extolls the quality of Eaton's-made merchandise, amid pictures of company knitting mills vigourously puffing smoke … and of pretty women and girls wearing nothing but their unmentionables.

It was no accident that the picture made the females look so pretty and the factories so productive. After all, Eaton's was trying to charm the ladies it addressed (not to mention undressed) and that involved appealing somewhat to their vanity. In this same spirit of flattery, the company emphasized the excellence of its merchandise, the implication being that women who bought their goods were smart shoppers. In so doing, Eaton's managed to make itself look good too.

  Trust Eaton's, Eaton's Fall Winter 
1902-03, cover.  

Enlarge image.A message to stylish young women: Trust Eaton's. Eaton's (Toronto) Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1902, cover.


The firm likewise routinely boasted about the mail-order book itself. Eaton's called it the "woman's news," and proposed to put in its pages much that women would want to know, be it fun, like the latest coat colours, or more practical, like testing the garments' wool content. And, the company promised to provide women with practically everything they would want to buy. Trust us, Eaton's seemed to say, to give you the guidance and the goods, whether light-hearted or serious, that you need.

So it was that Eaton's tried to seduce women with the message that it understood something slightly paradoxical about them. Yes, we know you are hard workers and smart buyers, suggested the catalogue, but we also realize that you might want a treat or a compliment now and then. Like a love letter, then, the catalogue said as much about the ardent suitor as the object of love.

Let us now leaf through the pages of some of the old Toronto catalogues to see how the they portrayed women and in so doing, coaxed them to choose Eaton's.

Little Women, Girlish Fun

  Sitting pretty, Eaton's Spring Summer 
1925, cover.  

Enlarge image.Girls sitting pretty. Eaton's (Toronto) Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1925, cover.


Eaton's portrayed females differently than males throughout their lives. In infancy, dimpled and bonneted, all babies appear pretty much alike in the pages picturing prams and other essentials. But the differences surfaced soon enough, especially in images of children having fun. The catalogues depict girls as delightfully different than boys. On catalogue covers, if boys are shown at all it is usually in some dynamic activity like football, whereas girls are often shown simply sitting pretty. The 1925 spring-and-summer catalogue cover, for example, features a pretty syrupy portrait of girls in a garden doing little but wearing old-fashioned hoop skirts.

The inside catalogue pages say similar things about play. They pitch the exciting action toys mainly at boys; the 1916-17 fall-and-winter catalogue is explicit in indicating that the beautiful bicycles, velocipedes, and wagons it showed were primarily for them. Only in passing is it mentioned that one coaster sled could "be steered with hands or feet by boys or girls." What a contrast to the marketing of that most beloved of Eaton's toys, the dainty Beauty Dolls! From 1900, when they first featured the dolls, the catalogue pages plainly intend them for girls. Equally clearly, they meant for the girls to mother them, carefully.

The mail-order catalogues thus portrayed girls as little women in the making who played "dress-up" and "house." (Boys were also shown as men in the making—with little engineering overalls and doctors' kits.) Already, we see here the Eaton's idea that being a woman meant a mix of pleasure and work. What is more, the catalogues express an expectation that eventually girls should mature by leaving their playthings behind altogether and getting on with serious adult roles.

The role Eaton's was most eager to have girls adopt was, not surprisingly, shopping. A number of covers dating from the 1920s on pictured girls practicing it, often by looking through catalogues with their mothers.

   Learning to shop, Eaton's Fall Winter 
1939-40, cover.   

This vivid cover tells the Eaton's version of a female coming of age story. A girl lets her doll lie in the snow, unheeded, as she looks through the catalogue, all by herself, in imitation of her mother. Eaton's (Toronto) Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1939-40, cover.

Enlarge image.

Calling All Teenagers

  Teenage symbols of hope, Eaton 
Printemps été 1945, cover.  

Enlarge image.Teenage symbols of hope. Although the catalogue was prepared months in advance, it appeared after the end of the war in 1945. Eaton's (Toronto) Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1945.


The cover of the 1945 fall-and-winter catalogue pictures two teenage girls waving flags. They were an attractive symbol of hope, peace and prosperity in post-war Canada, and, at the same time, of Eatonian hopes that they and their peers would lead the way as consumers. The catalogues had long targetted female teens and simply stepped up these efforts in boom times like this. Similarly, the 1947 spring-and-summer book sparkles with trendy prose, pictures, and products designed to catch their attention, like shoes in the "frisky ballerina style of California inspiration, home of new-as-tomorrow sports fashions."

  Trendy teenagers, Eaton's Spring 
Summer 1947, p. 3.  

Enlarge image.Appealing to trendy teenagers. Eaton's (Toronto) Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1947, p. 3.


Eaton's, however, expected teens to be more than just cute and clothes-conscious. The company also suggested that they should start exercising some responsibility and that shopping was a good way to do so. Eaton's claimed to be "The Store for Young Canada." By shopping there, the company implied, teens would contribute to national economic recovery.

In comparison, teenage boys get short shrift in the Toronto mail-order books where they receive little special treatment, either on covers or inside. There was one notable exception, perhaps: It seems that Eaton's may have encouraged the tendency of some young men to look at pictures of scantily-clad females. In the 1947 book, at least, Eaton's placed the pages for teenage girls' lingerie directly after the pages for clothes for boys, where the latter couldn't help but stumble across them!

Relatively speaking there was, therefore, a certain gravity to the Toronto catalogues' portrayal of girls. Even when presenting them at play, the words and pictures emphasized learning to act like women and doing their duty, whether it was by raising children or contributing to Canada. The catalogues often portrayed adult women in these roles. Thus, taking girls seriously was a way for Eaton's to say it honoured the grown-ups they would soon become.

Adult "Women of Canada"

All this being said, it was the adult females Eaton's was most interested in. It was the women who purchased not only their own corsets and combs, but also many personal items required by their families as well as that multitude of fancy or banal things - from linoleum to oleographs - that made a house a home.

There were a few lines of goods like tires and tools for use mostly by men - such as the suburban "do-it-yourselfers" whose emergence Eaton's encouraged - and the company pitched its copy to them accordingly. Eaton's also grudgingly conceded that once in a while a man might buy his own clothes. An 1893 catalogue used business-like language to appease them, saying, "[T]his is properly a woman's store … but we keep a store of things [that] the men can find it to their interest to buy, because we keep the prices down." What a far cry from the book's chatty, confident call to the "women of Canada" to buy lace! It babbled, "[P]erhaps you know the difference between one kind and another. Most likely you don't care. You want a bit of [it] for a particular purpose ... and you take the most suitable."

"Women of Canada" were the company's target group. It was, obviously, huge and heterogenous. Eaton's sent out catalogues over nine decades to homes rural and urban, rich and poor, and was far too savvy to oversimplify how it depicted this composite clientele. Instead, it used the catalogues to portray women in all walks of life, engaged in everything from baking in a housedress to strolling, fur-clad, down some chic street. There was a thread tying the images together, however. It was the message that Eaton's, respectfully and reverently (and, of course, anxious to make sales), grasped the nature and importance of adult women's work.

   Eaton's targets women, Eaton's Spring 
Summer 1904, cover.   

Eaton's target audience: the women of Canada. Eaton's (Toronto) Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1904, cover.

Enlarge image.

Career Women

The company took women's paid work seriously. Early catalogues brim with glowing images of its own industrious female employees. Maids' uniforms and overalls are among the sober specialized garments for women in the trades. The clothing was illustrated as attractively as possible and was often worn by pretty models. Smart suits, hats, and such were aimed at office workers. Eaton's went further in flattering this group for its glamour: The catalogue sold one line of stockings, for instance, "for your party dates - right for wearing to the office or shopping - youthful and smart in appearance."

   Women at the pneumatic cash system, 
Eaton's Fall Winter 1894-95, p. 4.   

Eaton's women at work on the pneumatic cash system. Eaton's (Toronto) Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1894-95, p. 4 (detail).

Enlarge image.


  On the farm, women clean and shop, 
Eaton's Spring Summer 1926, cover.  

Enlarge image.Women's work well done: cleaning and shopping on the farm. Eaton's (Toronto) Spring/Summer, 1926, cover.


The women's labour to which the catalogues referred the most, however, was housework. Hundreds of pages devoted to banal, basic items like the brushes and brooms needed to scrub every corner of a home signalled Eaton's awareness that housework was a demanding job. The catalogues covered the cleaning and cooking still common to most women today, plus the provisioning done by farm women and many city-dwellers, especially up to the mid-20th century: gardening, canning, sewing. The 1947 spring-and-summer catalogue - aimed at suburbanites as much as farm or city women - shows its respect for the latter task in declaring, "[M]ore than ever it's thrifty and smart to sew. Don't wait - start now and make necessities for the family and the home ...."

Eaton's touted women's skills as housekeepers while emphasizing their reliance on the related household job of careful shopping. This meant, according to the firm, properly discerning the quality, necessity, and value of merchandise. Catalogues of the 1890s flattered their readers as being "expert judges" of underwear, for instance, while also saying they were obliged to be so: "[Y]ou must distinguish good underwear from poor or buy against your own interests."

Eaton's was particularly sensible to the fact that, for many women, the challenge of careful shopping was intensified by limited budgets. More than frankly acknowledging this, the catalogues made a virtue of it, in terms flattering to both its readers and Eaton's. Thus did the 1905 fall-and-winter catalogue explain that "the successful woman is the one who gets all things of value for as little as possible. We supply the best goods at the lowest prices." Satisfaction in housework well done: Eaton's acknowledged and promoted it.

Eaton's also said that housework could be not just satisfying but pleasurable, and that housewives were artists in their own homes. It was in this spirit that the company highlighted the beauty of its goods, like the "Novel and Rich Design" of the lace curtains the 1907 catalogue sold. The more that women attended to colour, texture, form, and style in their household goods, the more fulfilled they would be, said the mail-order books. Of course, once again in promoting a role for women - in this case, of taste-maker and decorator - Eaton's served its own interests, because the fashionable house was by definition always in need of something new.

   Decorating: creative housework, 
Eaton's Spring Summer 1938, cover.   

Stylish decorating: a creative kind of housework for women. Eaton's (Toronto) Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1938, cover.

Enlarge image.

Pleasure Seekers

In portraying women's activities, Eaton's tried to strike the right balance between promoting their pleasures and honouring their exertions. This held true even for the hedonistic pastime of dressing stylishly. Thus, Eaton's emphasized the effort, not to mention expense, women expended in cultivating this fine art. As the 1893 spring-and-summer mail-order catalogue explained, "A man may wear his last year's hat and look tolerably respectable. Not so with a woman. Her bonnets must be modish and to a certain extent dress and hat and parasol are expected to match." Keeping up, Eaton's implied, was work.

  Fashion as luxury and pleasure, 
Eaton's Spring Summer 1903, p. 6.  

Enlarge image.Fashion as luxury and pleasure. Eaton's (Toronto) Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1903, p. 6.


However, the catalogues did focus more on the fantasy and pleasure aspects of being in fashion. This was especially clear in the first few pages of most Toronto catalogues that presented beautifully illustrated, richly written homages to the latest and most luxurious goods available for women's adornment. These might be fancy silk yardage, furs, finely tailored suits, or designer dresses, all depending on the period.

Many written descriptions heightened the extravagant effect by wreathing fashions in opulent promises. In 1894, this meant enticing women with the idea that "evening" shades of silk had "the delicious suggestion of the autumn bridal." Later depictions of clothes show the models in places such as a foreign grand boulevard, hinting that the buyer too would be thus transported - if only in her imagination. While it might be a burden, Eaton's seemed to say, being in fashion was mostly a luxurious treat, the exception proving the rule that most of women's waking hours were spent working.

   The imagination travels, Eaton's Fall 
Winter 1903-04, p. 1.   

The catalogue as magic carpet: The mail-order books allowed women to travel to grand places, if only in their imaginations. Eaton's (Toronto) Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1903-04, p. 1.

Enlarge image.


The cover of the1965 spring-and-summer catalogue features a woman it called "Lovely Maureen Kennedy," who pursued "an active TV and modelling career in addition to managing a home and raising four children." It quoted her as praising Eaton's goods as "Canadian Standards of Value." Though hardly typical, Mrs. Kennedy captured many of the roles Eaton's presented for women in its catalogues: housewife and mother, glamorous career woman, and model citizen. We may certainly question whether the way Eaton's depicted them was true to real women's lives. We can also criticize the motive behind the company's message that to do these activities well and to their own satisfaction, women needed to excel as mail-order shoppers. But, no matter how limited and rosy these roles were, we can still credit Eaton's for presenting, very publicly, a reasonably respectful and balanced image of womanhood in its catalogues. The mail-order catalogues were, after all, meant to serve as affectionate tokens of a company's love for its customers.



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