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Mail Box Before E-commerce: A History of Canadian 
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  Applying postage to parcels, Eaton's, 
winter 1943.  

Enlarge image.Applying postage to outgoing parcels, Eaton's Winter Catalogue, 1943.


Processing Orders in the Mail-order Industry
by John Willis

The successful operation of a department-store catalogue business rested on a large labour force and a sophisticated organization of labour. Many hands made light work, and many hands processed a lot of goods.

Introduction | Many Hands Make Light Work | The Structure of Mail-order Work | Incoming Mail | Handling the Money | Reading the Orders | Recording the Orders | Copying the Orders | Money-order Distribution | Assembly | Money-order Billing | Packing and Shipping | Conclusion | Further Reading


The history of the mail-order catalogue is a story about distribution on a massive scale. Railways and the postal service permitted orders to be processed through the mail from coast to coast. Distribution was made possible by the finely tuned internal organization of the mail-order companies.

The successful operation of a department-store catalogue business rested on a large labour force and a sophisticated organization of labour that permitted the distribution of goods to customers from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The organization of work in a catalogue processing centre resembled an industrial assembly line. This was no accident as this is how all major businesses were organized during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Many Hands Make Light Work

  Eaton employees, mail-order building, 
Moncton, NB, ca 1920-21.  

Enlarge image.One big family: Eaton's employees in front of the mail-order building in Moncton, New Brunswick, ca 1920-21. In 1930, 844 people worked out of Eaton's Atlantic headquarters in Moncton.


Mail-order companies were capable of handling a large volume of business in a short period of time. For example, during the 1930s, the Toronto Eaton's mail-order office processed 30 000 transactions per day, and the Winnipeg Eaton's office handled an impressive 47 735 orders in one workday. In 1931, Dupuis Frères processed 10 000 orders per month over the phone. At the same time, Simpson's was equipped with a state-of-the-art automatic switchboard system. So many orders and so much work, called for many hands, a veritable army of employees.

  Men's and boy's clothing, Eaton's Fall 
Winter 1899-1900, p. 118.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's men's and boy's clothing department as depicted in the Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1899-1900, p. 118.


In 1910 Toronto, 500 people worked in the mail-order division of the T. Eaton Co. The number rose to roughly 1100 by the 1930s. The mail-order staff was part of a labour force of 12 000 to 13 000 people working mainly out of the beehive of Eaton's stores, warehouses, and factories at the Queen Street location in downtown Toronto. At the regional headquarters in Moncton, most of the 844 Eaton's employees worked in mail order. Meanwhile, in Winnipeg, more than 1000 employees worked for Eaton's mail order during the early 1930s. Hundreds more worked in the store and factories.

Eaton's operated on a grand scale, with its large facilities in Toronto, Winnipeg, and Moncton. Although no less active in the East (in Halifax) and West (Regina), the Simpson's mail-order operation in Toronto was a relatively smaller affair, employing 350 to 500 people during the early 1930s. Dupuis Frères of Montréal employed a work force similar in scale to Simpson's of Toronto. Three hundred people - the vast majority women - worked in mail order in 1930. The number fell to 170 four years later, a decline indicative of the devastating impact of the Great Depression.

  New mail-order builidng, Montreal, 
Dupuis Frères Automne hiver 1936-37.  

Enlarge image.New mail-order building, home to 200 to 300 employees in southwest Montréal (Saint-Henri). The building was conveniently located close to at least two railway stations. Dupuis Frères, Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1936-37.


Mail-order buildings were industrial in scale and function. Dupuis Frères ran its comptoir postal out of a five-storey building occupying a space of 12.5 square metres [135 000 square feet]. Completed in 1916, Simpson's Mutual Street facility in Toronto was eleven stories high. The two Eaton's mail-order buildings in Winnipeg were eight and nine stories. An adjacent power plant generated electricity for lighting purposes and helped power the 2.4 kilometres [one-and-a-half miles] of conveyor belts that moved parcels throughout the mail-order and retailing complex.

The use of conveyor belts was a standard form of industrial technology during the first half of the 20th century, as common in mail-order buildings as in food processing plants and large urban post offices. Another common feature of these now archaic industrial interiors was the freight elevator with large wooden doors. Employees at Dupuis Frères were instructed not to use the freight elevator. They were supposed to walk the length of the building and use the passenger elevators instead.

  Conveyors at Eaton's, Toronto, 1919.  

Enlarge image.Mail-order employees and conveyor belts at Eaton's of Toronto, 1919.


By today's standards, technology in the mail-order "factory" was rudimentary. The outstanding feature was the combination of modern devices such as conveyor belts, elevators, and telephones with areas of work where human bone and sinew provided the necessary motive power.

The Structure of Mail-order Work

  Mail-order processing tasks, Simpson's 
Fall Winter, 1930-31.  

Enlarge image.Eight different tasks associated with the processing of a mail-order order as promoted in Simpson's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1930-31, p. 2.


Conveyor belts and elbow grease were the cornerstones of mail-order work in the early 20th century. The two elements were integrated into a common organization of labour. The work was divided into many individual tasks, each employee repeating his or her task day after day. In a sense, this minimized the incidence of mistakes, for each person rarely encountered an unfamiliar work situation. Overall, the result was a higher flow of orders throughout the system. More orders meant more money.

In 1896, Eaton's sent its mail-order manager, Fred Beechcroft, to study the mail-order system of Montgomery Ward, an American company with 20 years' experience in the field. The company then implemented a system consisting of ten or so major steps, which, for the next three decades, characterized order processing at Eaton's, and probably elsewhere in Canada. We will look at each of these steps one by one using information from the 1920s in the Eaton's Collection of the Archives of Ontario.

Incoming Mail

  Opening the mail at Eaton's Winnipeg, 
ca 1910.  

Enlarge image.Opening mail at Eaton's (Winnipeg), ca 1910. Towards the rear of the photo, a woman is exiting from a caged area. This is where the money was counted. Number 24 in a series of commemorative cards issued by Eaton's.


Each day, Eaton's personnel were sent down Yonge Street to fetch the mail from the postal terminal at Union Station or, in some situations, off the trains. Five trips were made per day. Ninety per cent of the mail arrived during the first two deliveries, which meant that by mid-morning a huge pile loomed for Eaton's staff.

Mail was separated into business and personal piles. Business mail was sorted into packages of 50 letters, which were put through the "Lightning Letter Opener Machine." Six women opened and sorted the mail according to contents, i.e., letters with or without money, and letters in English or French. The final task was to affix a shipping bill to the order.

Handling the Money

Customers frequently sent cash with their orders. Due to security concerns, counting was conducted in an area cordoned off in "authorizing" cages. The money was counted by electric adding machines, which were locked and unlocked by supervisors who hovered over the workers. The staff in the cages checked the shipping bills and money statements printed out on the machines. The money collected was prepared for shipment to the bank. Deposits were made three times a day.

Reading the Orders

Orders left the authorizing cage for the Reading Section, where they were assigned different itineraries. English and French orders were separated; the latter were sent to the translator's desk. Orders for a large number of goods (heavy multiples) were separated from those to be delivered by post. Requests for samples were handled at this point. A team of women picked up the paperwork and took it to its next destination.

   Women in Eaton's Toronto mail-order 
department, 1943.   

Women at their desks in the Eaton's (Toronto) mail-order department in Toronto, 1943.

Enlarge image.

Recording the Orders

Staff in this section made labels using the shipping bill number, date, and amount of money. The customer's address was typed onto the shipping bill using a stencil machine. If the order was from a new customer, the information was sent to a "new-name girl," who cut a new stencil. In the event the customer resided in an unsettled district, the address was made out to the nearest post office. The order now consisted of an addressed shipping bill and as many shipping labels as there were packages to ship.

Copying the Orders

Time was of the essence. Each copier had upper and lower compartments on her desk. The most recent orders went on top. The copier took the first order from the lower compartment. She copied each item from the customer order onto separate departmental order sheets. Two or more items from the same department might go on the same sheet, if they appeared close enough to one another on the list, and if the copier could take the time to do this. Copiers were credited the orders they completed. This information was sent to the wages office as the basis for bonuses to be paid out.

   Copying section, Eaton's mail-order.   

Copying section at Eaton's as represented in one of a series of commemorative cards. On the reverse side of the card it reads: "When the mail openers have opened the letters, and the cashiers have taken off the money, the young lady receiving your letter carefully reads it and makes abstracts on the order sheet for goods from each department. Every hour these orders are sent to the proper department."

Enlarge image.

Money-order Distribution

The Distribution department received orders and papers from Copying, and counted and sorted them according to the eventual means of transport: parcel post, express, or freight. The orders were stamped with a time that was three hours ahead of the moment the goods were expected to reach the Assembly department.

It took 80 minutes to stamp, check, list, and deliver orders to the various merchandise departments. Staff then had an hour and 40 minutes to get the goods to Assembly within the time limit. Particular care was taken to ensure that the correct list of goods was addressed to the correct department. Sales listers and checkers worked in pairs, two pairs of eyes being better than one. All the work was punctuated by intervals of 20 minutes. The ringing of the buzzer in one department signalled that there was more work for the staff next in line.


The order sheets went to the individual merchandise departments and the shipping bills went to Assembly, a crucial step in the mail-order process. The Assembly area, known in mail-order parlance as "the junction," consisted of conveyor belts, which moved goods to various stations, and a series of storage bunks for each of the three main means of conveyance: parcel post, express, and freight.

  Conveyor belt with packages, 1948.  

Enlarge image.Men and Women at a conveyor belt with packages, 1948.


Workers responsible for taking goods off the belts were known as pickers. They sorted goods according to the schedule stamp on the accompanying sheet. The storage bunks took up a lot of space: Express had three units of 10 bunks, parcel post three units of 18 bunks and three units of 36 bunks, and freight three units of 6 bunks. Once the order was completed (an average of 20 minutes), the shipping bill was sent to the Billing section. The goods were sent to Packing and Shipping.

Money-order Billing

In the Billing section, the list of goods and amounts charged to the customer was checked for the last time. Each "biller" made sure that the customer was not charged too much or too little for the order. Parcel post packages were weighed and amounts due by or to the customer verified using "mechanical accountants," i.e., by machine. Both staff and management personnel were trouble-shooters. An efficiency penalty of five cents was charged to the Recording section for each wrong address and a bonus of ten cents was paid for errors discovered in work done by the Copying section. The bonus system kept everyone on their toes.

Packing and Shipping

Goods received from Assembly were wrapped, labelled, and tied with string before being sent to the Shipping department. At the Eaton's Moncton office, packers handled 24 heavy orders, 30 light post orders, or 12 regular express parcels per hour. Men handled freight and express packing, women parcel post packing.

  Eaton's Toronto packing department, 
early 20th century.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's (Toronto) packing department, early 20th century.

  Applying postage to parcels, Eaton's, 
winter 1943.  

Enlarge image.Applying postage to outgoing parcels, Eaton's Winter Catalogue, 1943.


The Shipping department conveyed parcels to the appropriate means of transport: truck, train, postal service. Mail-order companies relied on their own fleets of horse-drawn and later motor-powered vehicles to deliver goods to city customers nearby. Otherwise, it was up to the post office, express company, or railway to deliver the goods.

  Eaton's delivery truckwith parcels and 

Enlarge image.Eaton's delivery truck laden with parcels and mail.

  Loading the delivery van, Dupuis 
Frères Automne hiver 1931-32, p. 3.  

Enlarge image.Loading the delivery van, Dupuis Frères Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1931-32, p. 3.



  Le Duprex, Dupuis Freres newsletter.  

Enlarge image.Cover of the Dupuis Frères newsletter (Le Duprex), October 1927.


The mail-order factory was a substantial premises and involved a complex operation. A single customer order was destined to pass through dozens of pairs of hands. The organization of work was specific, precise and timed, right to the minute. But, what held the entire operation together? What gave employees the necessary morale to come in day after day? The opportunity to earn a living was one motivation, but more was at stake. Work was certainly enlivened on occasion by on-the-job socializing. The games room, adjacent to the cafeteria of the Dupuis Frères comptoir postal, was a good place to make friends. The cloakroom was another. Then there were the company newsletters, softball, bowling and hockey leagues, summer camps, the annual Saint-Jean-Baptiste day parade in Montréal, and the Santa Claus parade in Toronto. In effect, company-sponsored leisure and on-the-job social exchange between employees made for a sustainable work environment. Then, as now, no place of work is complete without the human touch.

  Employee picnic, Simpson's, July 15, 

Enlarge image.Simpson's mail-order department picnic at High Park, Toronto, July 15, 1933.


Further Reading

Anderson, Carol J. "Mail-order Labour: Working in the Eaton's Mail-order Department." Unpublished manuscript, Canadian Postal Museum, 2001.

Archives of Ontario E. Eaton and Co. Fonds, F-229, Series 53, Box 1. Mail-order Procedures, "Mail-order Systems: Toronto, 1920-1926" and "Toronto and Moncton Systems Compared, 1933."

O'Connor, Eileen. "The Eaton's Mail-order Catalogue, 1884-1976: An Archival Analysis." Unpublished manuscript, History Division, Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1996.

Royal Commission on Price Spreads and Mass Buying. Committee on Price Spreads. Proceedings, vol. 3, 1934.

Service des Archives, HEC, Fonds Dupuis Frères PO 40-Z99,0026 (21684 16-02-02), "Instruments et réglements aux membres du personnel Dupuis Frères Limitée," Comptoir postal.



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