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Eaton's Catalogue: 'The Homesteaders Bible'

T. Eaton Company was formed shortly after Canadian Confederation and soon became rooted in the country's cultural landscape. The department store was part of Canadian life. The Eaton's mail-order catalogue was called the "Family Bible" and the company's lavish Santa Claus parade launched the Christmas season. When the last Eaton's store closed its doors on Feb. 26, 2002 many Canadians mourned its death. It wasn't the business empire they would miss, but the loss of a national institution.

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In 1884 Eaton's strikes a chord with Canadians when it gives away a small, pink-covered catalogue at a farmers' exhibition in Toronto. Back on the farms families pore over the catalogue and soon begin to write in for orders. Timothy Eaton has unwittingly stumbled upon a new business enterprise. At the time Canada is a vast, sparsely settled country where most people live miles from the nearest town. The Eaton's catalogue becomes a valuable tool in pioneer Canada, as this radio segment reveals.

By the early 1900s the Eaton's mail-order catalogue has become a Canadian institution. Often called the "Homesteaders Bible" in the West, the catalogue offers rural Canadians all the merchandise available in a big city and more. Besides clothing, furniture and appliances, Canadians can purchase farm equipment, seeds and even live chickens. In 1912 Eaton's begins to sell prefabricated houses through the catalogue. For $890 you are delivered all the materials to construct a small house.

While Canadians love the Eaton's catalogue, small-town shopkeepers despise it. They can't compete with the fixed prices or the money-back guarantee. Some postmasters who are sympathetic to local merchants throw out the catalogues when they arrive.
•In 1884 the Eaton's catalogue had 32 pages. Twelve years later it had grown to 400 pages.
•The Eaton's catalogue was such a valued part of Canadian life that it had a number of nicknames including the "Homesteaders Bible," the "Family Bible" and the "Wish Book."
•The Eaton's catalogue seemed to offer all things to Canadians. In the late 1800s an expectant mother could even order supplies for giving birth at home. In the early 1900s the Eaton's catalogue offered prefabricated barns and schoolhouses along with various sizes of prefabricated houses.

•The Eaton's Christmas catalogue was first published in 1897. The store's French catalogue first appeared in 1928.
•Canadians found practical uses for old Eaton's catalogues. They were used as shin pads in hockey games; boiled down for their dye to colour Easter eggs; used as readers in classrooms; and rolled up tight and put near the stove to be used as foot warmers in bed.

•In the classic Canadian children's story The Hockey Sweater by Roch Carrier, a rural Quebec mother orders her son a hockey sweater from the Eaton's catalogue. The boy is appalled when the package arrives. Instead of a beloved Montreal Canadiens sweater, "Mr. Eaton" has sent him a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey.
Medium: Radio
Program: Between Ourselves
Broadcast Date: Dec. 18, 1976
Duration: 5:05
Eaton's catalogue image used with the permission of Sears Canada Inc.

Last updated: September 3, 2014

Page consulted on December 17, 2014

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