As the Christmas season approached, a sense of wonder filled the air, heralded by the arrival of the long-awaited catalogues in the mail.
In the late 19th century, this tradition took a significant turn with the emergence of mail-order shopping, and two iconic Canadian retailers, T. Eaton Co. and Simpsons-Sears, played pivotal roles in shaping the magical experience.
By 1896, T. Eaton Co. had already established itself as a mail-order powerhouse, fulfilling an astounding 200,000 requests from eager customers across the country. The catalogues, like portals to a world of possibilities, allowed patrons to not only order clothing and household goods but also farm implements and even kits for building houses. The anticipation reached a new level in 1897 when Eaton’s unveiled its first Christmas catalogue, creating a wave of excitement, especially among children eagerly awaiting Santa’s visit.
Simpsons-Sears, not to be outdone, entered the mail-order scene with its own iconic contribution — “the Wish Book” in 1952. This catalogue became a treasure trove for children who would spend hours carefully selecting the toys they hoped to find under the Christmas tree. The mail-order forms accompanying these catalogues became the bridge to Santa’s secret workshop, where dreams would hopefully be transformed into reality, bringing joy to households across the nation.
For children, the process of choosing toys from these catalogues was a delightful ritual. It was a moment to dream, to envision the magic that awaited on Christmas morning. The forms, meticulously filled out by parents, were sent away with the hope that the carefully selected gifts would make their way to Santa’s sleigh in time for the grand delivery.
The enchantment of the holiday season extended beyond the pages of catalogues. In Toronto, the magic of Christmas was reflected in the windows of department stores, turning the act of window shopping into a mesmerizing experience. Each window boasted mechanical displays, showcasing an array of toys that fuelled the imagination of every child who gazed upon them.
The Eaton store in Stratford, adorned with festive decorations, became a spectacle that captured the admiration of all who passed by, turning the town into a winter wonderland.
Oh, the magic of Christmas that the Eaton’s store located in the Gordon Block, Stratford held. Enchantment in every nook and cranny. Decorated windows facing Downie Street and Erie Street were a sight to behold for all ages. When you stepped into the store what other wonders were we children in awe of?
The brass cylinders that were used to place your money into and sent with a great whoosh hastened their way through the clear pneumatic tubes to the office on the third floor. Shortly after you could hear the return of the brass cylinders rushing through the tube and with a great plunk, a twist of the tube your change and a receipt appeared.
Depending on the year, Toyland was sometimes located in the basement of the store or on the third floor. This meant that an elevator ride was a treat for the children. Clare “Curly” Davidson was the elevator operator and custodian. Even though there were only 3 floors an elevator attendant in uniform and white gloves pressed the buttons for you. The biggest secret of all was Curly Davidson was also “Santa Claus”.
A couple of ladies working at Eaton’s, Edna Taylor and Leila Verner helped choose our toys to put on our list to Santa. Eaton’s Beauty dolls, BB guns, cowboy guns and holsters or a Punkinhead teddy bear were some of the favourites. There was a large metal clown shaped letter box to drop our letters addressed to the North Pole. The letters were always answered.
The most exciting tradition in remembering Eaton’s was when crowds gathered on the street outside the store waiting for Santa to suddenly appear on the roof. It now was Christmas season. It’s these kinds of traditions and memories that make the holiday season so special and create lasting impressions for generations.
Adding to the festive spirit were Christmas broadcasts on the radio. Families gathered around the radio, eagerly listening to tales of Santa, Rudolph, and the latest addition to the Christmas lore, Punkinhead, a new little bear. These broadcasts became a cherished tradition, building anticipation and excitement before bedtime, as children drifted off to sleep with visions of sugarplums and holiday delights dancing in their heads.
In retrospect, the mail-order era of T. Eaton Co. and Simpsons Sears marked a time when the holiday season was wrapped in the magic of anticipation. Catalogues transformed into wishful guides, department store windows became portals to enchanting worlds, and radio broadcasts added an auditory dimension to the festive atmosphere. As we embrace modern ways of celebrating, it’s worthwhile to revisit these nostalgic traditions and recognize the enduring charm they brought to the Christmases of yesteryear.