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Mail Box Before E-commerce: A History of Canadian 
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by Carol J. Anderson

For over a century, Eaton's department store's only real rival was Simpson's. Through the pages of the first Simpson's catalogue in 1893, to the last Simpsons-Sears catalogue in 1978, to Sears Canada's 50th-anniversary edition, the company offered its wares to Canadians all across the country.

The Death of Robert Simpson and the Expansion of His Enterprise | Sears, Roebuck, through Simpson's, Enters the Canadian Mail-order Business | The End of Simpson's | Further Reading

  Simpson's over the centuries, 
Simpson's 1893, cover.  

Enlarge image.The Simpson's catalogue spanned three centuries and offered a wide range of goods to Canadians. Simpson's Catalogue, 1893, cover.

  Simpson's over the centuries, Sears 
2003, cover.  

Enlarge image.Sears Canada Anniversary Catalogue, 2003, cover.


Canada's Modern Departmental Store talks to you again through the present Spring issue of the Canadian Shopper's Hand-Book. We are now comfortably located in our beautiful new store, possession of which was taken a few months since. No one can, under all conditions, dispute our supreme position as great Retailers. The familiar corner of Queen and Yonge Streets is beyond question the Leading Retail Headquarters of the Dominion.

So Robert Simpson engaged his catalogue readers in 1896, months after the opening of his great new store in downtown Toronto. The six-storey, steel-girded structure rose from the ashes of another six-storey building built in 1894 that had been completely destroyed by fire on March 3, 1895.

Simpson's Toronto store, Simpson's 
Spring Summer 1896, cover, and Simpson's Fall Winter 1896-97, p. 3.
   Simpson's Toronto store, Simpson's 
Spring Summer 1896, cover, and Simpson's Fall Winter 1896-97, p. 3.   

Simpson's imposing building was a downtown Toronto landmark and destination for shoppers. Simpson's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1896, back cover, and Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1896-97, p. 3.

Enlarge image.

By the 1870s, the Industrial Revolution had reached Canada. Families moved from farms to big cities and took factory jobs. Downtown areas grew, and so did the stores in which the workers shopped. Simpson's - and Eaton's - of Toronto were part of this new trend. And, their catalogues helped bring big-city goods to rural and small-town residents.

  Robert Simpson.  

Enlarge image.Robert Simpson, 1872-1897.


Robert Simpson was a Scottish immigrant who set up his first retail venture in Newmarket, Ontario. In 1871, he moved to Toronto and founded Simpson's department store. By 1872, Simpson was hand delivering "dodgers" - handbills, or flyers - to houses in the city. Simpson's published its first catalogue in 1893. Its 82 pages were filled with fabrics and notions; women's drawers, hosiery, mantles, and jackets; men's ties and suspenders; valises; and, perfumes and other fancy goods.

  Shoppers on Queen Street, 1924.  

Enlarge image.For decades, Simpson's and Eaton's shoppers criss-crossed Queen Street to compare prices and quality, 1924.


Simpson's major competitor was Timothy Eaton. Eaton promised "goods satisfactory or money refunded." Robert Simpson declared that "You'll enjoy shopping at Simpson's." The two retail giants stared down each other across Queen Street at Yonge. Their prices and selection stayed competitive, thanks to employees who criss-crossed the street and pored over the stores' wares.

The Death of Robert Simpson and the Expansion of His Enterprise

  Simpson's Halifax mail-order and 
retail store, 1940s.  

Enlarge image.By the 1940s, Simpson's mail-order department had opened distribution centres across the country.


In 1897, Robert Simpson died and his store was taken over by three investors: H. H. Fudger, J. W. Flavelle, and A. E. Ames. Over the next half-century, they began to expand Simpson's reach. Stores opened in Montreal, Halifax, Regina, and London. The mail-order business moved to an eleven-storey building in Toronto in 1914.

  Simpson's shipping receipts, 1943.  

Enlarge image.Simpson's shipping receipts, 1943. These receipts were probably for parcels sent from Canadians to Canadian prisoners of war in Germany.


By the 1930s, the catalogue's printing plant took up an entire floor of the building and soon became one of Canada's largest publishing enterprises. In 1916, an eight-storey mail-order warehouse was built in Regina. A five-storey building opened in Halifax in 1919.

By 1943, 1000 people worked in the Simpson's mail-order division. The Toronto store employed 5500 workers - undoubtedly one of the city's largest employers. Simpson's now had 149 order offices across the country, 298 delivery trucks, and 66 horses. (During the Second World War, many goods were delivered by horse and carriage because gas and rubber were rationed.) Its switchboard handled two million telephone orders a year, in a nation of 12 million people.


Sears, Roebuck, through Simpson's, Enters the Canadian Mail-order Business

Mail-order revenues reached $100 million in 1951. The company's success attracted the attention of an American retail giant: Sears, Roebuck. Sears began to open new stores in Canada under the Simpson's-Sears name, and took over the mail-order division. (The five original Simpson's stores were not sold, however. They remained open under the Simpson's name.) Finally, with the backing of Sears, Simpson's could challenge Eaton's retail dominance.

   First Simpsons-Sears  catalogue, 

The opening pages of the first Simpsons-Sears catalogue published in 1951 carried a reassuring message to Simpson's shoppers worried about the sale of Simpson's to the American retail giant. From Simpsons-Sears: The First Twenty-Five Years, 1979.

Enlarge image.

Canadians received the first Simpsons-Sears catalogue in February 1953. The spring-and-summer edition had 556 pages. It featured Allstate car insurance, live baby chicks, saddles, and even radiation detectors (Geiger counters).

   Geiger counters, Simpsons-Sears Spring 
Summer 1954, p. 547.   

Geiger counters for measuring home radioactivity levels were available to Canadians at the beginning of the Cold War. Simpsons-Sears Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1954, p. 547.

Enlarge image.

By 1954, nine new Simpson's-Sears store had opened. A large, new catalogue-order centre was built in Burnaby, BC, and the Halifax and Regina catalogue centres were enlarged. In the 1960s, Simpson's-Sears stores moved to suburban malls, following Canadians as they bought homes on the outskirts of cities. The Toronto Yorkdale store opened in 1964, sharing mall space with Eaton's. Montreal's Fairview store opened the next year.

   First Simpsons-Sears  store in 
, 1963.   

Simpsons-Sears store, Québec, 1963. The company expanded rapidly during the 1950s and 1960s. From Simpson's-Sears: The First Twenty-Five Years, 1979.

Enlarge image.

The 1971 fall-and-winter catalogue was 736 pages long: 50 000 items could be ordered from it, from children's wear to televisions. Two million copies were distributed in French and English. Simpson's-Sears had 41 stores, four catalogue centres, and 553 catalogue-order offices.

   Simpsons-Sears largest catalogue in 

By the early 1970s, the company was a real rival to Eaton's. Simpsons-Sears Catalogue, 1971, cover as published in Simpson's Sears: The First Twenty-five Years, 1979.

Enlarge image.

The End of Simpson's

   Hudson's Bay Company renovated 
Simpson's store of 1896.   

The Bay department store, Queen and Yonge Streets, Toronto. The Hudson's Bay Company renovated and expanded Robert Simpson's 1896 building.

Enlarge image.

  Still-popular Sears catalogue, 2003, 
p. 710.  

Enlarge image.The Sears catalogue is still very popular with Canadians. Sears Canada Catalogue, 2003, p. 710.


Eaton's published its last catalogue in 1976. In 1978, Sears Canada took over the mail-order division from Simpsons-Sears and began publishing the catalogue under the Sears name. In 1978, the Hudson's Bay Company bought the remaining Simpson's stores and one-third of the Simpsons-Sears stores. By the late 1980s, the Simpson's stores were either sold to Sears or converted into Bay stores, including Robert Simpson's original store at Queen and Yonge Streets in Toronto.

Today, Sears is the only traditional department store catalogue published in Canada. Sears bought Eaton's in 1999. In the year of its 50th anniversary, it published 24 different catalogues and handled 22 million orders. Since the 1950s, it has been Canada's most successful department store catalogue.


Further Reading

Burton, G. Allan. A Store of Memories. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1986.

Denison, Merrill. This Is Simpson's: A Story of Canadian Achievement Told in Celebration of the 75th Anniversary of One of Her Great Institutions. Toronto: Simpson's Limited, 1947.

Ferry, John William. A History of the Department Store. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1960.

Simpsons-Sears Limited. Simpsons-Sears: The First Twenty-Five Years. Toronto: Simpsons-Sears Limited, 1979. The author wishes to thank the University of Toronto Libraries for graciously providing the illustrations from this book for this essay.

Toronto Star Limited. The Simpsons Century. Toronto: The Toronto Star Limited, 1972.



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