By Jennifer Anderson
Have you done some online shopping recently? That remote connection you have to retail, complete with delivery to your doorstep, is so convenient. It makes it easier for everyone to gain access to high-quality goods, whether you are mobility-challenged, live far away from urban centres, or cannot visit a store for any other reason. It also saves time.
But shopping remotely was not invented yesterday.
Before the Internet, consumers could shop from a distance using catalogues that were delivered regularly to their homes. They could also pick up their orders at small catalogue stores sometimes located within other shops, like florists and gift stores.
In an earlier blog article, I mentioned that Library and Archives Canada (LAC) acquired the archives of Sears Canada in 2017. There are over 40,000 photographs in this archival fonds, many of which show the day-to-day operations of Simpson’s (and later, Sears) staff working on delivering goods to customers through the company’s catalogue service. Although originally the photographs were likely for public relations, today they offer researchers a window into the everyday working lives of the department store personnel.
After Sears arrived in Canada in 1952, purchasing Simpson’s and rebranding itself as Simpsons-Sears, it was the catalogue that remained the mainstay for the company, eventually outperforming Eaton’s, Dupuis Frères, Hudson’s Bay Company and all other department stores in the mail-order retail business. In the late 1970s, the company dropped the Simpsons name, and its stores became known simply as Sears. The company launched its toll-free telephone number in 1992, and a decade later, it was the most-called phone number in Canada. Sears launched its website in 1996, receiving millions of visits each year. But throughout this period, the catalogue’s popularity continued to grow.
Early catalogue imagery was composed of hand-drawn silhouettes, rather than photographs, aimed at enticing customers to purchase attractive items and ensembles. In many cases, the artists were women, who faced barriers at commercial design firms.
Similarly, the women who promoted fashion in catalogues and magazines had influential careers in journalism and played a role in social change. As Valerie Korinek showed in Roughing It in the Suburbs: Reading Chatelaine Magazine in the Fifties and Sixties (2000), Chatelaine was a powerful medium interacting with a community of Canadian women readers in a pre-Internet age. A photograph of Chatelaine’s fashion editor, Vivian Wilcox, suggests that she was involved in marketing the Sears catalogues.
Marketing researchers and historians will have considerable scope for research projects based on the analysis of advertising in the catalogue, and the ways in which attempts to appeal to customers have changed over the years. For instance, consider this ad for a camper-trailer, from the 1950s, and the ease with which the solitary female camper appears to be preparing for a meal in the woods.
But the photographs in the Sears Canada fonds at LAC are about more than nostalgia or public relations. They reflect real change within the Canadian economy and society over time. The records speak to one company’s efforts to show resilience and adaptation as the economic environment changed. Today, the archival records related to the Sears catalogue are about more than marketing a particular product or a business; they are about how the Canadian retail sector, rooted in a transnational network, worked to remain relevant through the 20th century and into the 21st century.
For example, consider this series of photographs showing the staff of Simpson’s, then Simpsons-Sears, and finally Sears, taking catalogue orders over the telephone. Dated from 1921 to 1972, they show real changes in the communications equipment used, in the desks and the clothing, as well as in the hairstyles. We can also see the change from black-and-white photography to Kodachrome colour photographs. However, the work itself, and the all-female staff, does not appear to change during this time.
These behind-the-scenes photographs of customers’ orders being wrapped, sorted and labelled suggest a long-lost time, and yet they evoke actions that must be very familiar to anyone working for one of today’s major online retailers.
Similarly, this series of photographs of delivery personnel with their trucks strikes a modern viewer as both antiquated and yet somewhat familiar. Today’s delivery staff is as likely to be female as male, and it is extremely unlikely that they would wear bow ties! However, the uniform itself as a symbol of trust and the pride taken in ensuring customer satisfaction are doubtless still parts of the service standards of any contemporary enterprise.
And certainly the economic importance of large distribution centres, both as places of employment and delivery hubs, is a familiar concept in today’s world of online shopping.
One photograph, which may appear anachronistic today, but which was at one time central to the guarantees that large department stores offered their customers, shows the appliance repair and service department.
The pages of these catalogues continue to generate high interest among LAC’s users, whether they are interested in the history of design, advertising, marketing or pricing. We are therefore confident that the Sears Canada fonds will generate an enthusiastic response from the research community and Canadians who are interested in the fascinating history of Sears Canada or have fond memories of the department store.
If you are looking into starting research on Sears Canada or a related subject, or have already begun, our reference specialists would be pleased to assist you. Simply use our Ask Us a Question form to contact us. We look forward to hearing from you!
Other LAC resources:
- Canadian Mail Order Catalogues (database)
- Shopping at Sears: A window into the archives (blog)
- Sears: Behind the scenes (Flickr)
Jennifer Anderson was an archivist in the Public Services Branch, and she previously worked in the Science, Environment and Economy section of the Archives Branch, at Library and Archives Canada.