Eaton's Once Upon a Christmas
T. Eaton Company of Canada
and Catalogue Shopping
The "Homesteader's Bible"
Once known as the Homesteader's Bible, it was a long-standing Canadian
tradition to shop for Christmas gifts in the T. Eaton Company mail-order
catalogue. Some have claimed that only two books truly mattered in Canadian
homes - the family Bible and the Eaton's catalogue.
The T. Eaton Company of Toronto issued its first catalogue in 1884. In 1905, to serve the growing needs of the West, Eaton's built a combined store and mail-order warehouse in Winnipeg. Saskatchewan people responded. They ordered clothes, household items, farm tools, radios, books and sports equipment. In homes across Saskatchewan, a little boy or a little girl could dream of balls and dolls, tea sets and train sets, enticingly arrayed in the pages of the Eaton's catalogue.
The WDM has a large selection of things ordered
from the Eaton's catalogue.
For 71 years, until 1976, Eaton's provided mail-order service.
Collection of T. Eaton Catalogues
at the WDM George Shepherd Library
When the T. Eaton Company of Canada folded in 1999, its collection of catalogues had already been donated to the George Shepherd Library in the WDM Curatorial Centre in Saskatoon. Specialty catalogues include plan books for mail-order homes and farm buildings, radio, wallpaper and seed catalogues.
A Catalogue Order During the Depression
Seventy-five years ago, Saskatchewan was deep in hard times. Called by
some the Great Depression, the Dirty Thirties, or simply the dust bowl
years, the land was testing the mettle of those who lived here. A
depressed state of world economics added to the suffering that nature
Though dark clouds of dust and grasshoppers might darken the sun, there were stories of light and hope which epitomize the 1930s for many. One such story is treasured and preserved at the Western Development Museum.
“When I was in school in the 1930s, we got a holiday at Christmas, but also didn’t go to school during the month of January,” recalls James Carlson of Saskatoon. “It was too cold and too expensive to buy coal to heat the school.”
James grew up on the family farm near Strongfield. His father, Anton, had come from Sweden to the area in 1903, looking for a homestead. In 1907, he filed on NE20-27-6-W3. Later, the family lived on SE13-27-7-W3.
In 1914 Anton married Martha Braastad, a recent arrival to Canada from Norway. They settled on the farm and raised eight children, five sons and three daughters. James was the fifth born.
It was probably the winter of 1933-1934 when James, not yet a teenager, and his three older brothers started to catch rabbits during the winter break from school. Wearing the toques and mittens they had knit themselves, they stayed warm, always on the move.
“We explored ravines and coulees, trudging through snowfalls looking for rabbit runs. Arnold and I went out one day, and Henry and Edgar took over the next day. You had to catch jack rabbits, which were valued for their white skins. The price paid for each was 10 cents,” James remembers.
“We had no particular goal in mind when we started. You had to walk about six or seven miles a day to set the snares, and had to empty them promptly, lest magpies damaged the hides. We skinned the rabbits on site and left the carcasses for the magpies and coyotes.”
Despite hard times, the Carlson family had enough to eat. The boys were told to leave the carcasses, since rabbits in the area had been found with blisters under the skin. The meat was not considered edible.
“We turned out to be quite successful at snaring and caught 200 rabbits over the holiday and several weekends.”
The skin was peeled off in such a way that the fur turned inside. The boys brought the skins home and stretched them over boards. They were air-cured until it was time to pack them for shipping.
“My older brothers did the packing,” explains James. The skins were packed, the box addressed and hauled to Strongfield to be put on the train to Winnipeg. Just as the boys were musing about how to spend their earnings, the cream separator broke.
“Our family cream separator wore out, just broke down. My Dad needed to buy a new one, but this was the Great Depression and he didn’t have the money. The rabbits came to the rescue. We sold the skins to Sidney I. Roberston and Company in Winnipeg, Manitoba. We used our earnings of $20 for the 200 rabbit skins to help out our Dad and Mother.”
“Dad added $2 and we had the $22 needed to buy a new Vega cream separator from the T. Eaton Company catalogue.
Catalogues were a lifeline for many early prairie households. An order form mailed to Eaton’s assured a prompt return delivery. There was no telephone in the Carlson farm home, so a catalogue order meant a trip into town to mail the order form and a return visit to pick up the merchandise. With the farm twelve miles west of Strongfield, visits to town were limited to one or two a month.”
“We all did our share at the cream separator,” James recalls. “You had to turn it at a certain speed until the bell stopped ringing. Then you knew you had reached the right speed.
“We had good food in those years. We were never hungry. There was no money, but we never missed it because we never had it. It was the same with all our neighbours,” James reflected on growing up in Saskatchewan in the 1930s.
“You can tell people who lived through the thirties. They’re the ones who can’t throw anything away,” he smiled.