October 21st, 2020

From trendsetter to end of an era

By Submitted Article on December 3, 2019.

By Danica Renke, Zoey Lorne and Aimee Benoit

The Eaton’s catalogue is an iconic symbol of 20th-century consumerism, but it was also a valuable tool for Western Canadians. The catalogue was often referred to as the “Homesteader’s Bible,” and was used by rural residents to order goods that had previously only been available in larger central Canadian cities. These included personal and household items such as clothing, furniture or appliances, as well as farm essentials like seed, equipment and live chickens. In 1912, Eaton’s expanded into housing, selling prefabricated houses that were shipped unassembled by train for $890.

Demand for catalogue items was so great that, by 1910, the Eaton’s catalogue business ran as a separate entity from the Eaton’s store. In 1916 it adopted the “goods satisfactory or money refunded” policy and required that salespeople and ads “must be accurate and honest at all times when describing merchandise.” The Eaton’s catalogue remained trusted and widely used until its final issue in 1976. By that time urbanization and greater access to local Eaton’s stores had made catalogue shopping less popular.

In the later 20th century, traditional department stores faced growing competition from shopping malls, discount retailers and online shopping. The Hudson’s Bay Company, Sears Canada and Zellers all took market share from Eaton’s, and the creation of big-box stores in the 1990s made it difficult to compete.

The changing economic and retail environment, as well as mismanagement from the last two generations of Eaton’s family members, led to Eaton’s demise. While the T. Eaton Company had controlled 60 per cent of department store sales in Canada in 1930, this was reduced to just 11 per cent in 1997. Eaton’s declared bankruptcy and closed in 1999 after 130 years as a Canadian retail empire.

For more about the history of Eaton’s in Lethbridge, you can visit the Galt Museum & Archives’ temporary exhibit It Pays to Shop at Eaton’s, on display until Feb. 2, 2020.

Your old photos, documents, and artifacts might have historical value. Please contact Galt Museum & Archives for advice before destroying them.

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