Mail orders were once an important part of life

Published on Tuesday, 03 January 2023 07:57

By Ed Stozek
For the Herald

For over a century Eaton’s department store’s main rival was Simpson’s. Through the pages of the first Simpson’s catalogue in 1893, the last Simpson-Sears catalogue in 1978 and the final edition of the Sears catalogue in 2016, the company offered its products to Canadians all across the country.

Long before the Internet it was common to place an order via the telephone or mail order. Looking at my parent’s expense records from their farm operation there were many entries regarding mail orders from Eaton’s and Simpson-Sears. For example, an entry in 1959 noted “$16.40, pay for Simpson’s order.”

As a young boy it was always exciting to receive the catalogues associated with the two rival companies. Catalogues that arrived in the mail included the Spring and Summer, Fall and Winter as well as the Christmas Book edition. There were many items in those catalogues that a young boy dreamed of ordering.

In 1855 an enthusiastic 21-year-old Scottish immigrant, Robert Simpson, settled in Newmarket, Ont. He eventually opened his own shop in Toronto directly across from his primary competitor, Eaton Co. Ltd.

By 1890 Simpson’s evolved from a dry goods retailer into a modern department store and the afore mentioned catalogue offered their wares across Canada. Simpson unexpectedly passed away in 1897. Without a Simpson heir, a group of Canadian businessmen purchased Simpson’s inventory and holdings for $135,000. Under new management Simpson’s opened a mail order building on Toronto’s Front Street and expanded nationally to Halifax and Regina in 1924.

By 1943, 1,000 employees worked in the Simpson’s mail order division. There were 149 mail order offices across Canada, 298 delivery trucks and 66 horses.

During WWII many goods were delivered by horse and carriage as gasoline was rationed. Simpson’s switchboards handled two million telephone orders per year in a nation of 12 million people.

The Robert Simpson Western Limited order office store opened in Dauphin on Sept. 1, 1949, at 214 Main Street. An advertisement in the Dauphin Herald extoled the many advantages of shopping at Simpson’s.

Shoppers had the option to purchase catalogue merchandise by phoning 184 and placing an order or coming down to shop personally where experienced salesclerks could assist in selecting the products and making the order. “You save money. Buy at low mail order prices. There are no money order or C.O.D. (cash on delivery) fees to pay, no postage, no inconvenience writing letters or buying money orders.” (August 30, 1949, Dauphin Herald)

Customers also had the choice to pay cash or use a Simpson’s charge account or monthly payment plan with an option to personally pick up their package at the office or have it delivered. Customers were also invited to pick up a copy of the Fall and Winter catalogue. Samples of merchandise were also displayed at the store. “You are protected by Simpson’s guarantee. Satisfaction or money refunded.”

In 1951 Simpson’s joined with American retailer, Sears. Canadians received their first Simpson-Sears catalogue in February 1953. The spring and summer edition had 556 pages featuring a wide variety of products including All-State car insurance, live baby chicks, saddles and even radiation detectors.

A grand opening of the Simpson-Sears furniture and appliance store was scheduled for 9 a.m. on Saturday, July 11, 1953, at the 214 Main Street location. The official opening ceremony was scheduled at 10 a.m. Shoppers had been encouraged to preview the merchandise on Friday from 7-10 p.m.

“Two great companies, Simpson’s and Sears have joined forces to bring you better merchandise and better sales. You’ll enjoy shopping at the Simpson Sears order office furniture and appliance store. You have complete buying service.” (July 9, 1953, Dauphin Herald)

By 1954, nine new Simpson-Sears stores had opened. A large catalogue centre was built in Burnaby and the catalogue centres in Halifax and Regina were enlarged.

Occasionally we took the nine-mile trip from our farm to Oakburn in the ‘51 Chevy. After buying needed supplies at one of the town’s stores we headed to the post office. Along with the usual mail we also eagerly anticipated a parcel from Simpson-Sears.

What did my parents order for $16.40 from the catalogue in April 1959?

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