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  Order information, Dupuis 
Printemps été 1934, p. 2.  

Enlarge image.Dupuis Frères, Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1934, p. 2.


Read the Fine Print: How the Postal Service Served the Mail-order Industry
by Gaëtanne Blais

The Post Office serviced the mail-order industry in many ways: by shipping catalogues and merchandise and offering various fee schedules; by issuing money orders and postal notes so that customers could pay for their merchandise by mail; and, by collecting money on cash-on-delivery orders. The mail-order houses responded and adapted in their own ways.

Introduction | How the Mail-order Business Fit with the Postal Service | Paying for the Order | Shipping the Merchandise | Free Shipping | Using Local Postage Rates | Shipping Perishables | Returning Merchandise | Conclusion | Further Reading


The Canadian Postal Museum (CPM) has collected various objects related to the sale of merchandise by mail, including mail-order catalogues, order forms, envelopes for sending order forms, samples, postal notes, and money orders. Such objects are significant as they illustrate the importance of the postal service in making a wide variety of merchandise available to all Canadians, especially in rural areas. Through an examination of documents from the collection dating back to the 1930s, a view of the relationship between the Post Office department and mail-order houses emerges. The Post Office department earned revenue from mail-order houses; mail-order houses sold a wide variety of goods, and customers had access to goods not available locally. Everyone benefited. Yet, there is evidence of tension.

How the Mail-order Business Fit with the Postal Service

Mailing to the Customers
Mail-order catalogues and merchandise fell into two mail matter categories: third-class mail and parcel post. Third-class mail included newspapers and periodicals as well as books, pamphlets, circulars, and catalogues. Thus, catalogues and samples could be mailed at lower rates.

  Expansion Sale, Army and Navy 1937, 

Enlarge image.Army and Navy Expansion Sale Catalogue, 1937, cover.


The Post Office department facilitated the shipment of catalogues through arrangements "whereby the prepayment of postage on such matter may be effected in cash (instead of by postage stamps) … Each article must have printed upon its wrapper or cover an impression of one of the official stamps provided for the purpose." A permit and an electrotype ("electro") bearing the name of the post office, the permit number, and the amount of prepaid postage had to be obtained from the postmaster. Such arrangements could only be made at larger post offices in cities where mail-order houses were established and "where there is a system of checking and accounting which fully protects the postal revenue."

The shipment of samples was described in a category of its own. The Canadian Postal Museum's samples fit the Post Office department's guidelines in terms of size and weight limits and contents that were "not of saleable value." However, there is no mention in the guidelines for or against the use of the envelope as a marketing tool, which was clearly Eaton's intention. The graphics are attractive and the text goes beyond "such words as may be necessary to indicate precisely the origin and nature of the merchandise."

  Packet and samples, Eaton's Wallpaper 
Book 1933,  

Enlarge image.Packet and samples, Eaton's Wallpaper Book, 1933.


Parcel Post was used for shipping "farm and factory products … dry goods, groceries, hardware, confectionery, stationery, … seeds, cuttings, bulbs, roots … and all other matter not included in the first class, and not excluded from the mails by the general prohibitory regulations with respect to objectionable matter." As mail-order houses shipped large numbers of parcels of varying weights and sizes, they had to inform themselves of the numerous parcel post regulations and rates (25 regulations described over 13 pages in the 1933 Official Postal Guide).

But, calculating the correct amount of postage to include could be daunting for the customer. What if a person did not want the "buy-for-$5.00-and-we-pay-the-shipping-charges" deal? Then, an "amount allowed for charges" had to be enclosed with the order. Or, when buying seeds from Eaton's, a customer had to determine which merchandise was "price delivered" (whereby Eaton's paid the delivery charges) and which was not. Could everything be ordered and shipped at once to save on charges? A chart of distances and weights was used to determine what was owed for shipping merchandise so that Eaton's could determine how much could be subtracted for their part of the charges.

  Order form, Eaton's Wallpaper Book 

Enlarge image.Order form, Eaton's Wallpaper Book 1933.

  Eaton's Seeds Catalogue, 1933, 
pp. 2-3.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Seeds Catalogue, 1933, p. 2.

  Eaton's Seeds Catalogue, 1933, 
pp. 2-3.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Seeds Catalogue, 1933, p. 3.


Proximity to the Post Office or Railway
Some details on order forms and envelopes appear insignificant until they are examined in light of postal guidelines. To order wallpaper, for example, the customer had to include his or her name, the name of the closest post office, a street name, the rural route or post office box number, and the province. A customer's street address was insufficient.

A post office name was required by Eaton's and other mail-order houses to make sure the merchandise was delivered to the right person and to establish whether money-order service and train service were available. Thus, the order form in Eaton's wallpaper catalogue asks: "Is there an agent at your station? How many miles do you live from the station?"

Such factors were important especially when shipping fragile items: "There are certain post offices in Canada, situated on Railway Lines which are served by what is known as 'Catch Post Service' only, as the mail trains do not stop there. In these cases the mailbags are taken on and thrown off moving trains, and it has been found impossible to handle fragile parcels satisfactorily."

Paying for the Order

  Order-form envelope, Eaton's Wallpaper 
Book, 1933.  

Enlarge image.Order-form envelope, Eaton's Wallpaper Book, 1933.


When ordering from a mail-order house, customers could pay using money orders or postal notes. The amount could be sent with the order form or paid by Cash on Delivery (COD). Money orders and postal notes were highly recommended by Dupuis Frères as they were cheap and perfectly secure. Eaton's also encouraged these methods of payment and reminded its customers on the order form envelope: "Did You Enclose Money Order?"

  Money order.  

Enlarge image.Money order.


To ensure the popularity of this service in the eyes of mail-order companies and consumers, these modes of payment had to be practical and secure. Money orders could be issued in amounts up to $100, the limit on a single money order. Multiple money orders of $100 could also be purchased. They were a safe way of sending money. In case of loss, a duplicate could be obtained.

  Postal note.  

Enlarge image.Postal note.


Whereas money orders were used for larger orders, postal notes were used for smaller ones, from 10 cents to $5. As with money orders, postal notes could be traced and duplicates issued. Eaton's further emphasized in its 1938 seed catalogue that money orders and postal notes "prevent loss and protect all concerned."

  Seed order form, Eaton's Seeds 
Catalogue, 1938.  

Enlarge image.Seed order form, Eaton's Seeds Catalogue, 1938.


Money orders and postal notes facilitated the purchase of merchandise by being readily available to customers. In addition, there was money to be made by the Post Office department. In the fiscal year ending March 31, 1934, a total of 11 790 068 money orders worth $101 926 368.91, generated gross revenues of $1 462 016.60. A total of 5 115 761 postal notes were issued worth $9 247 458.65 and generated revenues of $114 308.02.

Shipping the Merchandise

Cash on Delivery (COD)
Once an order was prepared, the mail-order house could ship by Cash on Delivery (COD).The postmaster or mail contractor (if in a rural area) was responsible for collecting the payment from the customer and returning it to the mail-order company.

  COD tag, 1931.  

Enlarge image.COD tag, 1931.

COD tag, 1931.
  Bankers' and Manufacturers' 
Liquidation Sale Catalogue, Army and Navy Fall Winter, 1932-33, 
p. 2.  

Enlarge image.Army and Navy Bankers' and Manufacturers' Liquidation Sale Catalogue, Fall/Winter 1932-33, p. 2.


Army and Navy offered this service somewhat offhandedly, "We ship COD if you request this service," while Dupuis Frères did not recommend it because, they said, it was more costly for the customer and could cause delays.

The Post Office department charged a commission for the service, which was passed on to the customer. In 1933-34, the COD fee schedule was as follows: "15 cents if the amount to be collected is not more than $50.00; 30 cents if the amount to be collected is more than $50.00; limit of collection, $100.00. The fee must be paid by means of postage stamps affixed to the article by the sender [i.e., the mail-order house], and is additional to the ordinary postage."

  Ad for COD.  

Enlarge image.An advertisement for Cash on Delivery.


Although not all post offices in Canada were "accounting" or money-order post offices, rural post offices were and thus could obtain COD service. In 1933-34, the Post Office department handled approximately 1 709 304 COD parcels that generated $256 395.60 in fees, an average of $6 per collection. These fees added up. Oblivious to the opinion of the mail-order houses, the Post Office department pushed COD.

Free Shipping

As a further means of enticing customers, mail-order houses offered to pay shipping charges on orders of a certain amount, thus encouraging the customer to spend more, without necessarily increasing shipping charges for the company: "We pay shipping charges on all orders of $5.00 or over. If your order does not amount to $5.00 you can make it up to this amount with items from our General Catalogue."

Army and Navy offered to "pay postage or express charges on every order big or small." This incentive was repeated on every second page in their 1932-33 catalogue, and was still available in 1937. In addition to free shipping charges, Army and Navy offered gifts on orders "ten dollars or more." Dupuis Frères made shipping a bit more complex. Delivery was paid on orders of $2 or $5, but only on certain items. Read the fine print!

  Bankers' and Manufacturers' 
Liquidation Sale Catalogue, Army and Navy Fall Winter, 1932-33, 
p. 3.  

Enlarge image.Army and Navy Bankers' and Manufacturers' Liquidation Sale Catalogue, Fall/Winter 1932-33, p. 3.

  Order information, Dupuis 
Printemps été 1934, p. 2.  

Enlarge image.Dupuis Frères, Spring/Summer Catalogue, 1934, p. 2.


In its 1938 seed catalogue, Eaton's offered to pay delivery charges (although not on parcels shipped Air Mail or COD) on all the garden seeds marked "Price Delivered." This meant Eaton's paid for mail delivery to the nearest post office (thus the requirement for the name of the post office on the order form) or to the nearest railway station for larger orders. Delivery Charges were extra on "Field Seeds, Seed Potatoes, Rose Bushes, Onion Sets, Bulbs, Roots, Plants and Fertilizers." As these items were perishable and probably ordered in such quantities and weights to require special treatment: "Be sure to see your Station Agent regarding the Special Low Freight Rate on Farm Seeds."

Eaton's also shipped by airmail upon customer request, but would only pay the standard parcel postal rate on items for which it accepted to pay delivery charges. Customers had to: "Make inquiries from your postmaster as to Air Mail Rates, and be sure to enclose sufficient money to pay the extra Air Mail Charges." In all cases, Eaton's kept to its guideline: "We reserve the right to ship the cheapest way."

Using Local Postage Rates

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, tensions over postage costs grew between the Post Office department and the mail-order houses. To keep postage costs down, Eaton's and other mail-order houses shipped their parcels to distribution centres using their own fleets of trucks or express companies (transport by truck or train). Once at these centres, parcels were mailed to customers using low, local postage rates.

This was against Post Office department guidelines, as expressed in the filed correspondence: "Mail order houses have again made application to ship their parcels of merchandise part way by fast freight and then mail them for distribution at the lower parcel post rates … [W]e have always compelled mail order houses to mail their parcels of merchandise at the natural office of posting … paying the full parcel post rates covering transmission by post all the way. We have always taken the stand that to grant them the special concession which they ask … would be an infringement of the pledge given to country merchants when parcel post was inaugurated [in 1914]."

Very noble sentiments, indeed. In 1932, the Post Office department was earning "$3 500 000 per annum from mail-order houses for conveying their parcels by post."

Shipping Perishables

Although not a complaint against the post office or the railway service, Eaton's felt it was necessary to warn customers against shipping perishables at certain times of year: "Please note that we cannot ship Seed Potatoes, Onion Sets …during the cold weather on account of the danger of freezing. Orders received at a time when, in our opinion, it is unsafe to ship on account of frost, will be held, together with remittance (including postal charges) until is safe to ship."

Returning Merchandise

  Instruction sheet, Eaton's Wallpaper 
Book, 1933.  

Enlarge image.Instruction sheet, Eaton's Wallpaper Book, 1933.


To avoid merchandise returns, Eaton's made sure its customers understood the merchandise. For example, in its 1933 wallpaper catalogue, detailed instructions were included. Nevertheless, Eaton's provided customers with a "Goods Satisfactory or Money Refunded" guarantee: "[I]f you are not perfectly satisfied, return what you have left and we will refund the money you paid for the entire lot, including shipping charges." (It's not in the fine print but the customer had to pay the cost of returning the goods.) When an order was delivered COD, customers were not permitted to examine the parcel before paying the charges, nor could they give back the parcel and request a refund: "[T]he COD service does not carry with it any examination privilege …In the event of the addressee having paid the charges due on a COD article, and after examination of the same desiring to hand the article back, and have the money refunded, such request is under no circumstances to be complied with."


The documents examined here were produced by Eaton's, Army and Navy, and Dupuis Frères, and are a testimony to manoeuvring on the part of both the Post Office department and the mail-order houses. Although the relationship between two was not always amicable and had its inconveniences, it was beneficial to both partners.

Everything possible was done by the mail-order houses to ease the shipping process for their customers, at the lowest possible cost to themselves. Not surprisingly, subtle advertisements for free shipping and free gifts must have been powerful incentives during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

To shore up its relationship with the Post Office department, mail-order houses took out ads thanking the Post Office employees. One such ad celebrated, unfettered, the spirit of co-operation with which postmasters processed mail-order merchandise. Yet, other ads, while thanking postmasters for their good work, also served as reminders to the postal service of its responsibility to maintain a good relationship.

  Eaton ad in The Canadian Postmaster, 
1933, p. 16.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's ad in The Canadian Postmaster, December 1933, p. 16.

  Simpson's ad in The Canadian 
Postmaster, 1934, back cover.  

Enlarge image.Simpson's back-cover ad in The Canadian Postmaster, September 1934.


The handling of catalogues was an incremental part of the mail-order process. Postmasters at the mailing end would receive large quantities of circulars and catalogues (bundles of 50, 75, and 100). These had to be counted and weighed and the postage checked. Postmasters at the receiving end had to comply with postal regulations and with the mail-order houses when items were addressed "Householder," or had to be redirected or returned due to non-delivery, etc.

So, by quoting the Postal Guide in this last ad, the Robert Simpson Company Ltd. had a very effective argument, characteristic of this relationship - it required the Post Office department to read its own fine print!

Further Reading

Canada Official Postal Guide, 1933. Ottawa: Post Office Department, 1933.

National Archives of Canada, RG13, Justice, Series A-2, Volume 368, file 1932-740, "Post Office Department - Proposed Evasion of Higher Parcel Post Rates by Mail Order Houses."

Report of the Postmaster General for the Year Ended 31 March 1934. Ottawa: Post Office Department, 1934.


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