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Mail Box Before E-commerce: A History of Canadian 
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  Army and Navy 50th Anniversary 
Bargains, 1919-69, cover.  

Enlarge image.Army and Navy 50th Anniversary Bargain Catalogue, 1919-69, cover.


Army and Navy
by Catherine C. Cole

Army and Navy's mail-order catalogue operations ran from 1925-86, making it one of the longest running Canadian department store catalogues. "Canada's Original Discount Store," Army and Navy's low-end retailing approach was unique with a focus on distress merchandising: bankruptcy sales, cash purchases, and discount goods. Although the catalogues days are over, the company still has six department store locations in British Columbia and Alberta.

Discount Shopping during the Depression | The Second World War and Its Aftermath | Department Store Expansion | The End of the Mail-order Business | Acknowledgements | Further Reading


  Samuel Cohen.  

Enlarge image.Portrait of Samuel Cohen.


Born in San Francisco in 1897, Samuel Joseph Cohen opened his first Army and Navy store on West Hastings Street in Vancouver in 1919, selling liquidation stock, and First World War army-and-navy surplus goods. For many years, Army and Navy purchased its stock from closing, bankrupt, or destroyed (fire and flood) stores. The company's philosophy was to buy goods at the cheapest prices possible and pass the savings on to customers and to buy and sell in volume for cash.

  First World War gas mask sold by Army 
and Navy.  

Enlarge image.First World War gas mask, first supplies of surplus goods sold by Army and Navy.


Cohen opened a second store in Regina in the 1800 block of Scarth Street in 1920 and, in 1925, the mail-order headquarters. The first Army and Navy store in Edmonton opened in 1928, north of Jasper Avenue on the west side of 101 Street. Cohen's brothers, Joseph Cohen of Vancouver and Harry Cohen from Edmonton, joined him in the business.

  Original Army and Navy store in 

Enlarge image.The original Army and Navy store in Edmonton.


The Army and Navy catalogue extended the reach of the department stores into the rural heart of the prairies. In the late 1920s, the Regina store's advertisement in "The Farm Movement," encouraged readers to watch for the new catalogue and to use the slogan: "Your money's worth and more — or your money refunded." It advertised that the mail-order department was "equipped to give 12 hour service on all orders."

  Army and Navy mail-order warehouse, 

Enlarge image.Mail-order coupon.


Running from 40 to 80 pages, Army and Navy's catalogues were small relative to Eaton's and Simpson's, but they were filled with bargains. Army and Navy was not a full-line department store: The catalogues featured primarily clothing, hardware, hunting and fishing supplies, some toys, and household goods. Stock varied considerably from one catalogue to another because of the way goods were purchased. Catalogue pages were relatively small at 8" x 10" and colour was limited, making it an inexpensive catalogue to produce. Along with the orders, Army and Navy sent customers mail-order coupons that could be applied to their next purchase. It was also possible to purchase gift certificates for use through mail order. Goods not sold through the catalogues were sometimes cleared out through the store.

Discount Shopping during the Depression

The Depression of the 1930s provided opportunities for Army and Navy to purchase stock of bankrupt manufacturers and department stores for sale through its department stores and catalogue. The store in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, opened in 1933. The catalogue began to be called "The Bargain Book of a Nation." The spring-and-summer catalogue of 1936 stated: "[W]e are very happy to know that by offering better merchandise at Canada's lowest prices we will to some extent help the thousands of people who must 'stretch' their dollars this fall and winter as never before — this is the first Mail-order house in the history of the Mail-order business to offer its customers the advantages in 'price' and 'quality' made possible by the purchase of hundreds of Bankrupt stocks, Distress merchandise and factory surpluses …"

Cohen was sensitive to the situation of prairie farmers and their need for practical, inexpensive goods. On retiring as manager of the Regina store, Cec Keiser was quoted in The Leader-Post, April 30, 1977: "Sammy was always concerned with the poor people and many of our customers in the 1930s were farm families and those on relief."

  Price Crash! Army and Navy Spring 
Summer 1936, p. 3.  

Enlarge image."Canada's Lowest Prices" from the Army and Navy Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1936, p. 3.


The 15th anniversary fall-and-winter catalogue of 1937-38 noted: "Owing to the failure of crops in a large portion of our Mail-Order territory we have repriced downward practically this entire Catalogue in order to unload huge stocks of New Fall and Winter Merchandise, regardless of greatly advanced prices everywhere." Keiser noted that much of their daily take in the 1930s was government relief cheques. Cec recalls that it wasn't uncommon to have a farm family arrive and spend its entire cheque in the store. "Yes, and many times we would take a family across to a nearby café and buy them dinner before they headed home at night. It was almost an everyday thing."

The 1938-39 fall-and-winter catalogue, promoted as a Manufacturers Liquidation Sale, noted: "The industrial recession that set in over a year ago, bringing prices down, caused manufacturers stocks to pile up and orders have gone out to liquidate — sell out and get the cash …"

The Second World War and Its Aftermath

The New Westminster, BC, store opened in 1939, making Army and Navy one of the largest department store chains in Western Canada, with branches in Regina, Moose Jaw, Edmonton (two), Vancouver, and New Westminster. Each store was responsible for its own buying. During the Second World War, Army and Navy was the first store in Western Canada to introduce self-serve shoe departments, with tables dedicated to individual sizes. The retailer became famous for its shoe sales, for which people would line up around an entire city block. Following the war, Army and Navy again carried army surplus goods.

  Lineup for Army and Navy's famous shoe 

Enlarge image.Lineup for Army and Navy's famous shoe sale.

  Army and Navy Fall Winter 1945-46, 
back cover.  

Enlarge image.Army surplus, Army and Navy Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1945-46, back cover.

  Army and Navy Fall Winter 1950-51, 
back cover.  

Enlarge image.Wartime surplus, Army and Navy Fall/Winter 1950-51, back cover.


By 1950, more than 400 000 catalogues were being distributed throughout Canada. In the 1960s, to save printing costs Army and Navy produced an annual catalogue, "The Nation's 12 Month Bargain Book," rather than two seasonal catalogues. Periodically, extra catalogue pages were added to promote particular bargains.

  Army and Navy Fall Winter 1952-53, 

Enlarge image.Army and Navy Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1952-53, cover.

  Mail-order Price Smashing, Army and 
Navy Fall Winter 1955-56, cover.  

Enlarge image.Mail-order "Price Smashing," Army and Navy Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1955-56, cover.

  Army and Navy Sale, Fall Winter 
1961-62, cover.  

Enlarge image."12 Month Bargain Book," Army and Navy Fall/Winter Sale Catalogue, 1961-62, cover.


Department Store Expansion

  Army and Navy 50th Anniversary 
Bargains, 1919-69, cover.  

Enlarge image.Army and Navy 50th Anniversary Bargain Catalogue, 1919-69, cover.


In December 1966, Samuel Cohen died and Garth C. Kennedy became president with Jack D. Cohen, vice-president. The company grew. Edmonton's north side store, located at 97th Street and 103rd Avenue since 1955, was extensively renovated and enlarged. The second floor, previously used for storage, was converted to sales in the fall of 1968. At the time, the company employed over 500 people in Edmonton.

  Bargain Roundup, Army and Navy Sale, 
Spring 1978, cover.  

Enlarge image.Bargain Roundup, Army and Navy Sale Catalogue, Spring 1978, cover.


In 1969, Army and Navy doubled the floor space of the Regina store (now in its fifth location). In 1973, "Canada's Original Discount Store," opened a store in a former Eaton's location in Saskatoon at 21st Street and 3rd Avenue. The New Westminster store moved to a new location at 502 Columbia Street in 1978. In 1980, encouraged by the boom taking place in Calgary, Army and Navy opened the chain's eighth link at 1107 33rd Street NE. The Calgary store marked a departure in several ways. It was the first store built by the company, rather than a refurbishment. The store was located in a new kind of location in a shopping centre serving a blue-collar clientele, rather than in a downtown area.

Shopping at an Army and Navy store was a treat for bargain hunters from all walks of life, particularly at the $6.95 shoe sales. A number of monikers, such as Antoine's, the Army and Navy Boutique and, in Regina, "The Little Shop on 11th Avenue," were introduced by middle-class customers to disguise the fact they shopped at a discount store.

The End of the Mail-order Business

  Last catalogue, Army and Navy Fall 
Winter 1985-86, cover.  

Enlarge image.Cover of the last catalogue: Army and Navy Fall/Winter Bargain Catalogue, 1985-86.


The Army and Navy "Bargain Catalogue" of the mail-order department store continued to be published out of Regina until 1985. The Leader-Post indicated that the company decided to cease publication because the rural population was smaller (circulation had dropped to 100 000) and they were more mobile than in the early years; at the same time, postal service had declined and costs had increased. In 1998, CEO Garth Kennedy died and management of the company passed to Samuel's granddaughter Jacqui Cohen. The head office moved from Regina to Vancouver. The Moose Jaw store closed in 2000, followed by the other two Saskatchewan stores. The mail-order business is no more, although business is still brisk at the department stores. Two new stores were recently opened in Langley, BC, in 2001, and the newest store, in Edmonton's Londonderry Mall in November 2003.



Thanks to president Jacqui Cohen and Army and Navy staff including the late Harry Singh, Kari Logue, and Gerry Loughran for their assistance while conducting the research and obtaining images for this text.

Further Reading

Little research has been done on the history of Army and Navy. The corporate archives, consisting of catalogues, newspaper clippings, photographs, financial records, etc. are held at the Vancouver store.



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