The introduction of catalog shopping allowed isolated farmers to make purchases without travelling to town, but some prairie stores did not welcome the competition.
Barry Broadfoot in “The Pioneer Years 1895-1914” tells of his father’s situation when the catalog was first introduced. This is a summary:
Dad had stores in Manitoba at Morris, Carman and Portage and when the settlers moved into Saskatchewan, he headed west with them. I was old enough to help around the store and when Dad ordered bags of salt, soap flakes, dried fruit and other groceries, I’d make them up into one-, two-, and five-pound packages.
The post office was in the back of the store and when Eaton’s came to Winnipeg about 1905, they sent catalogs to the post office for the people in the district. Dad was annoyed that every catalog was distributed through the post office in his store but the contract for the post office was a sacred trust and he was honor-bound to deliver them.
Eaton’s sold every type of dry goods. They had a one-price system with no bartering, and that price was always less than Dad could sell for. Eaton’s bought in quantity and sold cheap.
Dad thought that the new mail order system would be the end of his store career and expected the competition to put him out of business. He had learned storekeeping from his father in the Ottawa Valley, and now at age 50 he did not expect his business to survive.
Farmers loved the new shopping as they could stay in their shacks on the prairies and look at the catalog. While the wind blew, they could shop. Eaton’s did not accept cash, so people came into the post office to buy money orders. It was most frustrating for Dad to see his old customers walk by his higher-priced merchandise.
Groceries continued to sell. We used the barter system and farmers came in with crocks of butter and eggs which were shipped to a wholesale house. These people still spent their credit in the store. Plus, Dad allowed customers to charge their orders, something that mail order sales couldn’t do. Also, if people needed something in a hurry, they came into the store. The store was a social center and people met to chat or to check out the magazines and papers left for them to read.
All country stores had the smell of kerosene, paraffin, raisins, dried prunes, the oil on the wooden floor, and the smell of people who didn’t bathe often and who had manure and straw on their boots. It was the smell of home and a mail order could not replace that.
© Linda C Butler, 2019
“The Pioneer Years 1895-1914” © 1976 Barry Broadfoot Publ: Doubleday Canada Limited p. 277