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The Shopping Guide of the West*


The Great Mail Order House of the West

(*Acknowledgements: Includes comments written in 1977 by Robert D. Watt, Head of the Museum and Chief

of the History Division-- Vancouver Centennial Museum,  and quotes from the above book published by J. J. Douglas Ltd., )


    “In a series of retail catalogues published over many years, one can discover a way of life that is largely vanished, described in great detail in a vast array of products which are puzzling, amusing and often highly evocative---all at prices which, if nothing else, emphasize the distances between then and now.


    The major significance of the Woodward’s catalogues is that they exist, for the survival of these unique documents was a lucky accident. By their very nature, mail order catalogues are ephemeral; an early throw-away item. Each issue repeated the message, “This catalogue cancels all previous issues,” emphasizing obsolescence and virtually ensuring their destruction after the order was sent in. If they lingered around the house at all it was a fund of fine illustrations for younger members of the family with school projects—or more commonly, as a handy cheap source of paper in the outhouse. According to one former catalogue user, the Woodward’s catalogue sometimes escaped this latter fate because the paper used in printing was too thick and glossy to be suitable. All but inveterate hoarders cheerfully threw outdated copies into the wastebasket.


    Compounding this steady, built-in, annual destruction of copies was the store’s own failure to preserve catalogues, for apparently there was no requirement for any department to keep one or two copies of each new issue. There is nothing particularly surprising in this since Woodward’s business was sales, not history. Nevertheless, the absence of any systematic setting aside of copies meant that by 1953 the company had no complete record of the publication. The significance of this date is that catalogues were discontinued then, phased out in line with a company philosophy which was to bring full-line stores to outlying areas—Port Alberni, West Vancouver, New Westminster, Westmount in Edmonton,  etc., being among the forerunners of the modern shopping centre—rather than perpetuating sales by mail.


    Fortunately for everyone interested in British Columbia history, a number of people in the advertising department, notably Herbert Wood, Harry Aitkins, Sita Crombie, Joe DeBruin and Miss F. Markham recognized that the catalogues were of value as a source book for old illustrations to be used in their advertising campaigns such as “Old Fashioned Days” and in orienting new employees to the store’s past achievements. Some months after the catalogue operation was shut down, they quietly gathered up all the copies they could locate. Virtually all of those they found had been used by one of the departments and bore the marks of this use; holes were punched through to hold a string so they could be hung on a nail, covers and pages were dog-eared and torn away. Yet the final tally was quite impressive: thirty-five catalogues issued between the spring of 1902 and the winter of 1934/35. The advertising people cared for this collection and used it until it was donated to the Vancouver Centennial Museum in the spring of 1976. The fact that these important documents of a social history have survived at all is thanks to the initiative taken by a few of the store’s employees.


    This collection, incomplete as it is, offers an excellent means to examine the growth of Woodward’s , the nature of the mail order business and above all, the revelation it affords of the changing Western Canadian look.  The real significance of these catalogues lies in the fact that they were issued by a local, leading retail firm on a regular basis for more than fifty years; they were aimed at the widest possible audience and as such, form a superb chronicle of the changing lifestyles of the average man and woman.


     The earlier catalogues in particular emphasized this connection with “the people,” assuring them that the selection of goods was made with them in mind. Taken together, the catalogues make up a series of stop-action portraits of provincial life through important decades of change, from the end of the Victorian era, through the boom years of the Edwardian period to the crises of World War I, and from then through the Roaring Twenties to the years of the Great Depression.

Subsequent research has completed the record a little. Three more catalogues, from 1948 to 1950, have been discovered and they bring us almost to the end of Woodward’s catalogue story.


    If Woodward’s was in business today, they would surely have had a successful new “Internet Sales” Division, introducing the latest form of the mail order business.


    In Vancouver in 1902, Charles Woodward Limited, a rapidly growing “departmental” store at the corner of Westminster and Harris streets (now Main and Georgia), had just issued its latest catalogue. It was a modest affair when compared to those published by Eaton’s and Simpsons but Charles Woodward was determined not to let the Toronto stores, or Sears of Chicago for that matter, have all of the British Columbia mail order business.


    The introduction to the 1902 catalogue reflects his determination, as well as pride in the quality of the operation and a forthright declaration of the store’s basic business dealing—these were the watchwords:


                 We have good reliable men at the head of every department (there must have been many women too) and great care is taken to send you exactly what you order....We treat all alike.  Your order for ten cents will receive the same attention as if it were for ten dollars. Cash  business  is part of the success of our large and growing business. We keep no books and have  no accountants, thereby saving thousands of dollars to those who patronize this store... We guarantee all goods to be as represented. You may depend that what we say is reliable,  and accurate.  We aim to please you because one satisfied patron is worth more than fifty  dollars spent in newspaper  talk.... Courteous attention, honest, straightforward dealing, good goods and low prices are friend   winners.


    Whether or not Charles Woodward personally wrote these words, they certainly reflected his character. At the time this catalogue was printed, his store was ten years old: he was nearly fifty and had already experienced a number of business reverses in Ontario, his native province, before deciding to try his fortune in the West. The 1902 catalogue, which included a large section on drugs and patent medicines, does not reveal the bitter fight he was waging against the combined forces of druggists and doctors who wished to prevent the sale of pharmaceutical goods at Woodward’s.


    Charles Woodward’s plans clearly exceeded even his own great hopes. Woodward’s became a household word to several generations of British Columbians and Albertans and it was, in its day, probably the greatest merchandising success story in Western Canada.


    The mail order business and the catalogues were part of the campaign to increase sales. Charles Woodward did not invent this form of merchandising, of course, but he may have been the first to develop it in British Columbia. He founded the mail order department in 1896 and shortly afterwards began to publish the catalogue. The first issue must have come out in the fall of 1898 or the spring of 1899. No exact record of the numbers of catalogues published or sent have survived, however, by 1950 each run averaged between 25,000 and 35,000 copies to make the catalogue one of the “best-selling” B.C. books of all time.


     Mr. Woodward may have been provoked to start this new venture for one of two reasons: the Klondike rush of 1997 or the publication of a catalogue by Spencer’s of Victoria, Woodward’s chief rival. Whatever the reason, the Klondike rush faded into memory, but the Spencer’s competition remained very much a constant stimulus for Charles Woodward to expand and improve the catalogue trade.  As the store grew, adding new departments, so did the catalogue increase the range of products advertised. Consequently, they provide a rich source of information about how the people of British Columbia and Alberta lived. They are a delightful time machine into our past.


    How did the people feel about the people’s catalogue? It was obvious that customers regarded the catalogue as vital. Many relied on Woodward’s for regular shipment of groceries and other merchandise needs”! The part that the catalogues played in the lives of so many people is revealed in thousands of positive comments from old customers---here are a few:


 1/ We used to receive both Woodward’s and Spencer’s catalogues in the 20s, 30, and 40s. Freight rates were low so we bought bulk goods and groceries from Woodward’s. However, the paper in the catologue was too smooth to end up as Eaton’s or Simpsons did. We were living in the West Kootenays  at a small community called Johnson’s Landing on Kooteyay Lake, that was only accessible by water. Our nearest town was Kaslo, B.C. and as Kootenay Lake has some bad storms we could never be sure of getting into Kaslo, so we did most of our shopping by catalogue...The C.P.R. sternwheeler delivered.

                          Elsa and Ray Roper

                          Meadow Lake B.C.


2/ My parents started buying from Woodward’s in Vancouver in 1923. The catalogues were small and were more or less just to give one an idea of what could be bought. The great thing about Woodward’s was we could buy hay, oats, chicken feed, groceries and clothes all in the same order. We lived at Alta Lake (now part of Whistler) or rather near there and our home wasby the side of the Railway. Our address was 34 ¼ mile P.G.E.R.R.  S.&Q.R.R.  P.O.  Once a month for 20 or more years we had our orders from Woodward’s

                          Janet A. Betts

                          Port McNeil, B.C.


3/ My husband, John Dunbar, used the catalogue during the four years he was Director of Chalmers Unighted Church Camp at North Bay, Gambier Island, 1926 to 1929 for obtaining grocery supplies for the camp.

After our marriage in 1933 we also used the Woodward’s catalogue for ordering our food supplies, such as flour and sugar by the 100 lb. Sack and canned goods by the case. At that time we were living in a rural area known as Hillbanl on Vancouver Island and our goods came by barg to Cowichan Bay where we picked them up by our model T truck.

We would like to mention here that it was a boon to country folk and the goods and service were both most reliable and excellent!

                          Mrs. Dorothy Dunbar

                           Duncan B.C.


4/ In November, 1927, our family moved to Anyox...we sent to Woodward’s for many of our needs and I know others did too. We depended solely on the Union Steamships Catala, Cardena, etc. And the C.N. Prince George or Prince Rupert,--on Mondays  and  Wednesdays.

                          Mrs. J.J. McDonald 

                          Trail B.C.


      These comments sum up the essence of the catalogue experience for many British Columbians. They believed it was a service designed for them, which provided quality goods and merchandise on a reliable basis. It did not matter if their house floated on logs, miles from anywhere; necessities and even a few luxuries were still only a stamp and regular steamship visit away.


 In 1926, Woodward’s Store # 2, Downtown Edmonton, opened and was able to provide catalogue and mail-order service to the residents of Alberta.