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Catalogues and Consumerism Yesterday and Today

Canadian History, Social Studies, Information Technology


  • Mail-order catalogues on this site
  • Current Sears catalogue and Christmas Wish Book (one per group, to bring in)

Change, Consumerism, Materialism


  1. Break the class into groups of three or four students.
  2. Ensure each group has a copy of a modern Sears catalogue. Groups that select one of the Christmas catalogues on the site would benefit from comparison with a modern Sears Wish Book.
  3. Begin with a discussion about consumerism and materialism. Define these terms. Explain that this activity will use historic catalogues to evaluate consumerism and materialism in Canada during the late 19th and 20th centuries. Students will also compare the catalogue design and goods available in the old catalogues to modern catalogues, and will assess the current state of consumerism and materialism.
  4. Ask students to suggest specific features to compare in the two catalogues. Use the following suggestions below to formulate a complete list of features to compare:
    • Cover: Image, design, text, message
    • Index:
      • How extensive is the index?
      • How many pages?
      • How many entries?
    • Contents:
      • How many pages in the entire catalogue?
      • What are the main categories, and how many pages are in each category?
      • In comparing the catalogues, how do the categories change?
      • Which categories disappear and which new ones appear?
      • How has the order of categories changed?
    • Specific items for sale:
      • Select a few items that appear in both the old catalogue and the modern Sears catalogue.
      • Some possibilities are women's shoes, boy's pants, dolls or other toys, stoves, and lamps.
      • How many choices are available in each catalogue (for example, how many shoe styles)?
      • For each choice, how many variations are available (colour, size, material)?
    • Text and messaging:
      • What words and phrases are used to sell items?
      • What qualities are presented as most important?
  5. Assign each group a different historical catalogue from this site, beginning with the oldest catalogue. The group must locate the catalogue on the site.
  6. Using the list of specific features to compare, ask students to compare the design and contents of their selected historic catalogue with a current Sears catalogue.
  7. After a reasonable amount of time, lead a class discussion about the changes in catalogue design and contents and in goods available.
  8. Ask students to think of specialized catalogues that are available today and make a list of titles and goods that they carry. Explain that, until the 1950s, most Canadians received two major seasonal catalogues per year and perhaps a few smaller catalogues.
  9. Conclude with a discussion about the growth of consumerism and materialism in the late 19th and 20th centuries; assess their state today; and, discuss the implications of consumerism and materialism on life today.


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