Adventures in the Eaton’s Catalogue

Every once in a while, I get an itch to dive down the rabbit holes of history. Sometimes to recreate a vintage hairstyle, sometimes for sheer amusement, sometimes just out of lazy curiosity.

Last night, thanks to the magic of the internet, I found myself here, flipping through the pages of the Eaton’s Spring/Summer mail order catalogue…from 1894. It was 185 yellowed pages of, well, everything. Anything and everything you might need for late 19th Century life – clothes, groceries, furniture – all delivered to your door (or the nearest railroad crossing).

For any of you who aren’t familiar with the Eaton’s catalogue in Canada, it was like the Sears-Roebuck catalog in the US, and dominated the Canadian retail industry for almost a century. It truly was the Amazon of it’s day, and possibly even catered to Sherlock Holmes:

SherlockHe’s missing his deerstalker hat, but don’t fret. That can be found on page 55 for 25 cents.

The magazine was amazing…at least for history nerds. The item descriptions were no-nonsense, the models were all poised and elegant. I found myself wanting to say things like, “I do declare!” and “Astounding! Simply Astounding!”

Then, my evening took a sudden plunge into jaw-dropping, head-shaking incredulity. You see, I skipped ahead a few years to the 1920 Fall/Winter catalogue.

Suddenly, I was browsing through SIX HUNDRED pages of some of the most disturbing things ever. Maternity corsets and corsets for children! Bear traps! Boxes of asbestos! Sixteen full pages of fur accessories – heads, legs and tails still attached! Instead of simple product descriptions, now even the most hideous of hats are described as stylish, popular, serviceable and pretty.

"Stylish" is not the word I would have chosen for this one.

“Stylish” is not the word I would have chosen for this one.

By the time I got to the switches of fine quality hair (guaranteed to be “Made from 50 per cent European hair and French refined hair”), I knew I should just call it quits and go to bed…but I couldn’t tear myself away. It was that awesome.

Even the hand drawn models had changed. The men were no longer dapper and refined like this fellow:

Why hello there, handsome.

Why hello there, handsome.

By 1920, the men were stern and frightening, like this angry man:

I might be sporting a comfy sweater, but rest assured, I will cut you.

In fact, I think you could probably write a creepy crime story based entirely on the characters found in the menswear section. I mean, really, what’s the back-story for these guys?

- I want to write a story based on strange vintage ads. - No George, you should write TWO stories.

– Herman, as I’ve been standing here lifting weights in my underwear, I’ve decided to write a story based on strange vintage ads.
– No George, you should write TWO stories.

The possibilities presented in these catalogues are endless. Now if you’ll excuse me, I just found the link to the 1907 catalogue – and I’m ready for some giant hats, ribbons ‘for street or evening wear’, some truly frightening hygiene products, a bottle of carbolic acid and a fancy new wood-stove.

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