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Mail Box Before E-commerce: A History of Canadian 
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  Woodward's Spring Summer 1919, 

Enlarge image.Woodward's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1919, cover.


by Catherine C. Cole

Charles Woodward opened his first department store at the corner of what is now Main and Georgia Streets in Vancouver in 1892. The catalogue, published from 1897 to 1953, proclaimed that it was "The Great Mail Order House of the West." The mail-order business extended Woodward's influence beyond Vancouver into remote locations, particularly in British Columbia and Alberta. In the post-war period, Woodward's chose to expand its chain of departments stores rather than continue to focus on mail order.

Early Catalogues | The Drug Debate | Expanded Product Lines | The Great Mail-order House of the West | Conclusion | Further Reading

Early Catalogues

  Woodward's store at Hastings and 
Abbott, Vancouver.  

Enlarge image.Woodward's store at Hastings and Abbott.


Woodward's established a mail-order department in 1896 and published its first catalogue in 1897. Rival David Spencer of Victoria also introduced a catalogue around the same time. Vancouver's population more than doubled in the first decade of the 1900s, from 13 700 in 1891 to 27 000 in 1901. Woodward's market included the interior and coastal BC and, in the Klondike gold rush era, the north.

Early catalogues contained dress goods, ladies' wear, men's and boys' clothing, luggage, hardware, and jewellery. These were little more than price lists with line drawings and, on rare occasions, photographs. As British Columbia's economy boomed in the early years of the 20th century before the outbreak of the First World War, the catalogues grew in number of pages, variety of goods, and production quality.

In 1902, Woodward's moved to larger premises in Vancouver's new commercial district at the corner of Hastings and Abbott. New departments were introduced. Groceries were added to the catalogues, a service that was especially appreciated by people living in isolated areas where supply was sporadic. A separate grocery list was prepared for Albertans. The spring-and-summer catalogue proclaimed: "Cash business is part of the success of our large and growing business. We keep no books, have no accountants, thereby saving thousands of dollars to those who patronize this store."

  Grocery department, Woodward's.  

Enlarge image.Grocery department, Woodward's.

  Groceries, Woodward's Spring Summer 
1902, p. 77.  

Enlarge image.Groceries from Woodward's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1902, p. 77.


In 1908, Woodward's began to sell home furnishings, including floor coverings, and speciality goods such as religious and classical books, stationery, school supplies, and toys. The company stated, "We can get you anything you require, whether in this catalogue or not." By 1912, the groceries were removed from the seasonal catalogues and sold through price lists issued three times a year. As well as groceries, Woodward's offered food for farm animals, i.e., hay, oats, and chicken feed. Woodward's department stores were innovative, introducing a self-serve food floor and its famous 95-cent days in 1919 ($1.49-day in 1951).

  Woodward's Fall Winter 1908-09, inside 
front cover.  

Enlarge image.Woodward's Fall Winter Catalogue, 1908-09, inside front cover.

  Woodward's Grocery Buyers' Guide for 
Spring 1929, cover.  

Enlarge image.Woodward's Grocery Buyers' Guide for Spring, No. 64, 1929, cover.


The Drug Debate

Charles Woodward's son Jack was a pharmacist. In 1896, he established a practice in his father's store that quickly became known for its low prices. Drugs and patent medicines were a feature of the mail-order catalogues beginning in 1908. The 1912 catalogue assured customers: "Prescriptions are all carefully dispensed by qualified druggists, any containing poisons only filled when signed by a qualified medical practitioner." Woodward's was the only department store in BC with a drug department. Druggists and doctors opposed the sale of drugs at Woodward's through the store and by mail order, a fight that lasted until the 1930s. At one time, druggists effectively blocked Woodward's suppliers so they had to purchase from Eaton's and Simpson's.

  Drug department, Woodward's Spring 
Summer 1926, p. 29.  

Enlarge image.Drug Department, Woodward's Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1926, p. 29.


Expanded Product Lines

A limited range of furniture appeared for the first time in the fall-and-winter catalogue of 1908-09. This section grew throughout the 1910s and expanded lines of household furnishings, such as china and glass, were introduced. The toy section of the catalogue, printed on pink paper, was now known as Santa Claus's Toyland. Hobby equipment for photographers and sports and music enthusiasts grew in importance after the First World War.

  Woodward's Fall Winter 1915-16, 

Enlarge image.Woodward's Fall/Winter Catalogue, No. 38, 1915-16, cover.

  Woodward's Spring Summer 1927, cover.  

Enlarge image.Woodward's Spring/Summer Catalogue, No. 60, 1927, cover.



A large proportion of goods sold was now illustrated with either photographs or line drawings, but colour was not introduced until the late 1920s. At 9" by 12" [22.82 x 30.48 cm] in size and 152 pages in length, the catalogues were much smaller than Eaton's or Simpson's. There was a hole in the corner with a string through it for hanging. Customers were advised to keep it handy and to "hang [it] up in a convenient place." In later years, Woodward's included a six-month calendar on the cover, another reason to hang the catalogue in a prominent place.

  Cook stoves and heaters, Woodward's 
Fall Winter 1922, p. 73.  

Enlarge image.Cook stoves and heaters, Woodward's Fall/Winter Catalogue, No. 51, 1922, p. 73.

  Woodward's Spring Summer 1923, cover.  

Enlarge image.Woodward's Spring/Summer Catalogue, No. 52, 1923, cover.


The Great Mail-order House of the West

Woodward's identified with its BC customers, boasting in the spring-and-summer 1923 catalogue: "B.C. trade can be served best by a B.C. store." The company was acutely aware of the particular transportation challenges in the province and catered to the needs of people living in remote areas, such as miners, loggers, fishermen, and farmers. The catalogue gave local names to goods such as the "Pride of Vancouver" wood stoves ("Pride of Edmonton" was marketed in Alberta).

  Woodward's Spring Summer 1924, cover.  

Enlarge image.Woodward's Spring/Summer Catalogue, No. 54, 1924, cover.

  Woodward's Spring Summer 1929, cover.  

Enlarge image.Woodward's Spring/Summer Catalogue, No. 64, 1929, cover.

  Woodward's Fall Winter 1932-33, 

Enlarge image.Woodward's Fall/Winter Catalogue, No. 71, 1932-33, cover.


Woodward's built a new department store in Vancouver in 1924 and a second store in Edmonton in 1926, but the Depression of the 1930s soon ended any further expansion plans. The company traditionally operated on a cash-only basis but introduced a deferred payment plan for home furnishings in 1929. There was little disposable cash during the Depression and competition with both local stores and eastern mail-order houses was tight. In 1934, 38 people were employed in the mail-order department, a relatively small staff. Yet, according to the Royal Commission on Price Spreads and Mass Buying, on 95-cent sale days, the sales force expanded to 500 to 700 clerks.

The Second World War again disrupted supplies and made it difficult to guarantee prices but Woodward's assured customers that it was providing the best goods at the lowest possible prices. In 1940, Woodward's introduced the Overseas Parcel Mail Service in support of the British war effort, a service it later extended to the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, and continued after the war into the 1950s.

  Woodward's Spring Summer 1924, 
p. 1.  

Enlarge image.Woodward's, The Shopping Centre of Vancouver, Spring/Summer Catalogue, No. 54, 1924, p. 1.

  Woodward's Fall Winter 1947-48, 
inside front cover.  

Enlarge image.Woodward's Fall/Winter Catalogue, No. 100, 1947-48, inside front cover.



Woodward's celebrated 50 years of mail-order service in 1947. By 1950, between 25 000 and 35 000 catalogues a year were being printed. The company offered free delivery throughout Western Canada as well as "Mail Order Transfer Shopping" for out-of-town customers shopping at the Vancouver store, whereby shoppers could select items from the store and have them shipped home without cost. Even after the main catalogue closed in 1953, the mail-order division remained active. Woodward's continued to publish more modest "Best Buys" catalogues through the 1950s. The grocery list continued to be issued until 1967; fashion issues were published in the 1970s.

  Calendar, Woodward's Mail-order Service, 1940.  

Enlarge image.Calendar, Woodward Stores Mail-order Service, 1940.


Woodward's began an expansion program with the opening of the anchor store in Canada's first shopping centre in West Vancouver in 1951. By 1988, the chain had grown to 29 stores throughout British Columbia and Alberta. The food floors were always an important part of Woodward's stores. The stores closed and the Hudson's Bay Company acquired Woodward's assets in 1993, the end of an era for people living in the West.

Further Reading

Archival holdings in Hudson's Bay Company Heritage Collection, Toronto, and the City of Vancouver Archives.

Harker, Douglas E. The City and the Store. Vancouver: Woodward's, 1958.

Harker, Douglas E. The Woodwards: The Story of a Distinguished British Columbia Family, 1850-1975. Vancouver: Mitchell Press, ca 1976.

Watt, Robert D. The Shopping Guide of the West: Woodward's Catalogue 1898-1953. Vancouver: J. J. Douglas Ltd., 1977.

Woodward Stores Ltd. So Much to Celebrate: Woodward's 100th Anniversary. Vancouver: Woodward Stores Ltd., 1992.




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