Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
Postcard of the Eaton’s store and factory complex at Yonge and Queen streets, 1920, from Wikimedia Commons.
In the late 1960s, author and journalist Harry Bruce wrote a regular column for the Toronto Star comprised of wry observations gleaned from his strolls around the city. More often than not, Bruce’s walks took him away from the city’s bustle, through ravines and lonely railroad tracks, to reminisce about growing up in Toronto.
But in one column, later reprinted in Bruce’s The Short Happy Walks of Max MacPherson (Macmillan of Canada, 1968), the author hurls himself head-long into the mad rush of Christmas shopping. He joins the sea of shoppers crowding the massive Eaton’s department store at the northwest corner of Yonge and Queen. Stopping and starting at irregular intervals, squeezing past mothers while dodging elbows and armfuls of parcels, Bruce describes the timeless horrors of holiday shopping we each experience. “I am no more fit to compete with these squat, heavy-footed, fur-collared, and bespectacled dowagers,” he writes, “than a figure skater is fit to compete in the Stanley Cup.”
He added: “No walking is more gruelling than shopping walking, no shopping walking is more gruelling than Christmas-shopping walking, and no Christmas-shopping walking is more gruelling than Christmas shopping in Eaton’s or Simpson’s.”
In the days before indoor shopping malls became predominant, a pilgrimage to the Eaton’s (or the Simpsons store across the street) was an annual necessity for Torontonians at Christmas. And Bruce’s observations illustrate how many twentieth-century Canadian Christmas traditions were bound tightly with department stores.
Page from the Eaton’s Christmas Catalogue, 1956, from the Library and Archives Canada.
Beginning in the Eaton’s basement annex—where budget-priced “bathroom scales, breadboxes, plastic trays, flashlights…and an unstrung plastic guitar” seem like unappealing gifts—Bruce moves through the many floors and departments of the main store. He walks through the books section, past socks and purses, and beyond the lighting fixtures and tools.
All those products (and more) also appeared in the venerable retailer’s famous catalogues. Having issued its first catalogue in 1884 (nearly a decade before Sears, Roebuck, and Co. distributed their first catalogue in the United States), Eaton’s had been a mail order giant and received orders from across Canada. Eaton’s catalogues were produced in Toronto (although the western Canada edition would be prepared in Winnipeg), where commercial artists provided illustrations of Eaton’s products. Likewise, Simpsons, the other Canadian department and mail order retailer, printed its catalogues in the basement of its main Toronto store.
At various times over the years, the Eaton’s artists included the likes of Charles Comfort, Hal Foster (who created the Prince Valiant comic strip), and Hal Thorson (who achieved fame as a Disney animator). Changes came in the 1950s when photography came to dominate the catalogues. Illustrators now largely provided filler or cover images.
In 1953, Simpsons (which operated several large, downtown stores in major Canadian cities) began to collaborate on a catalogue with Sears (which was beginning to open suburban stores in the country). That year, the first Simpsons-Sears Christmas Wish Book was distributed.
Cover of the Eaton’s Christmas Catalogue, 1956, from the Library and Archives Canada.
As Derek McCormack recalls in Christmas Days (Anansi, 2005), “[n]o season was as lucrative as Christmas” for the department stores. “As a child, I spent hours with [the Simpsons-Sears] Christmas wish book, compiling a list of toys I wanted. My mother watched over my shoulder. It’s a holiday custom in Canada: Children send their wish lists to Santa Claus; parents send theirs to Sears.”
The Christmas catalogue’s annual arrival in the mailbox signaled the start of the holiday season for many Canadians—just as the unveiling of the elaborately decorated Eaton’s store windows did for Torontonians. Shelley Page and her brother—like children across the countryside—would circle images of toy trucks, dolls, and Easy Bake Ovens. “We obsessed over each page,” she recalled in the Edmonton Journal (December 10, 2005), “fantasizing about the toys we knew we would never have.”
Eaton’s eventually contracted out the production of the eastern edition of the catalogue to the Toronto firm of Pringle & Booth. Then, in January 1976, Eaton’s announced that the spring catalogue that year would be their last. The company’s expansion of brick and mortar stores meant that by the 1970s, about 60% of their customers lived within a half-hour drive of a store. The mail order business could be abandoned—and none thousand employees were put out of work. Sears continued to publish its annual Christmas Wish Book. But increasingly, contemporary catalogues became more like lifestyle magazines, meant to encourage store visits rather than generating mail order sales.
Catalogue display of Punkinhead merchandise, Eaton’s Christmas Catalogue, 1956, from the Library and Archives Canada.
Among the wares displayed in the catalogue were many items emblazoned with the long-running but nearly forgotten Eaton’s icon, Punkinhead. Launched as a store mascot and plush toy in 1948, Punkinhead was a brown bear with a tuft of blonde hair. Design by an Eaton’s catalogue artist, Punkinhead was soon adorning enough sweaters, tea sets, and slippers to occupy two full pages of the catalogue by 1956. There were even story books—Shanda Deziel noted in a March 2003 Maclean’s article—recounting how he was once a sad little bear picked on by others until Santa’s head elf fell ill one Christmas and Punkinhead filled in. Country singer Wilf Carter released a theme song: “Punkinhead (The Little Bear).” By the late 1960s or early 1970s, the cute character fell out of favour. With the downfall of the Eaton’s catalogue, he was all but forgotten and relegated to antique shops and collectible shows.
Photo of Santa on the platform at the downtown Toronto Eaton’s store, 1924, from the Archives of Ontario (F 229-308-0-801).
Continuing his tour of the Yonge and Queen Eaton’s store, Bruce went up to Toyland on the second level. “There, old Santa is doing very well,” Bruce observed. “Dozens of little children are humouring their mothers by lining up in a little corral to wait their turn to sit on Santa’s knee for a colour photograph.”
Around 1900, Santa Claus began a long association with North American department stores, as rival retailers each hosted a costumed character greeting children in often elaborate North Pole sets. In 1905, seeking to outdo its rivals, Eaton’s launched the annual Santa Claus Parade—which, for many years, finished with Saint Nick climbing a ladder and through a window into the Eaton’s toy department.
It wasn’t long before kids were sending their letters and wish lists to department stores. And department store employees wrote back on Santa’s behalf—often on illustrated letterhead featuring Punkinhead.
By the time of Bruce’s Christmas expedition, however, the department store was losing its place of retail dominance. In the decades that followed, it became much more common for Canadian kids to sit on Santa’s lap at an indoor shopping mall. But, as McCormack notes, “[m]alls didn’t reply to kids’ mail.” Canada Post employees took over the North Pole’s correspondence in the 1980s.
Although many of these holiday traditions remain—like crowded shopping, visits and letters to Santa—they’ve shifted venues. Other holiday traditions, like scouring a catalogue or getting a new Punkinhead stuffed bear—have gone the way of Eaton’s. The downtown Eaton’s store was itself torn down and replaced with the Eaton Centre, and the chain itself finally went bankrupt in 1999.