Before drones – delightful oat driven parcel post mail

Before drones – delightful oat driven parcel post mail

Parcel post mail is still here, despite constant chatter about replacing it with drones. Forecasters see the skies filled with drones dropping off orders.  Back in the heyday of the big super malls, people crowed home delivery was dead, there’s no need for it. Just close the parcel post mail outlets and hop down the road to the nearest mall and everything will be there – one stop shopping. Mail order catalogues, a staple in every house, struggled to find a niche, with many folding by the end of the 1970s.

Mail order parcel post given a boost by catalogue shoppers

Funny how things didn’t work out the way people envisioned. It’s also surprising how many malls are now abandoned and rotting away Parcel post mail is having a resurgence driven by companies like Etsy, Amazon, and eBay. Online shopping has ushered in a second life for mail order shopping and the demand for catalogues. Along the way the internet changed how we look at catalogues and the convenience of shopping. Until there are enough drones to fill the gap, old fashioned parcel post mail delivery will remain alive and well.

Cover from an Eaton's Christmas mail order catalogue cover 1903 - ready to send via parcel post mail

Eaton’s Christmas mail order catalogue cover 1903

Automation may have sped up delivery over the years, but the basics remain the same – fill out the order, send in your payment and wait anxiously for it to be delivered by the local post office. Here in Canada, one of the big names in department stores was Eaton’s and their mail order section was kept hopping.

Eaton’s opened its doors in 1869, and issued their first catalogue in 1884. It was 34 pages, offering basics items to a largely rural market via parcel post mail:

“This catalogue is destined to go wherever the maple leaf grows, throughout the vast Dominion. We have the facilities for filling mail orders satisfactorily, no matter how far the letter has to come and the goods have to go.”
Timothy Eaton – Eaton’s Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1884 (Museum of Civilization, Canada)

Within 15 years, Eaton’s was shipping135,000 parcels by mail and nearly 74,000 parcels via express mail. To offer a bit of perspective, Canada’s population at the time was slightly over 5 million people. That was just one company’s deliveries. Combine this with Sears, Simpsons and a host of other companies and you get a better picture of the staggering number of parcels being shipped by mail across the country.

Hundreds of pages of merchandise to satisfy every need

By 1913, customers had over 600 pages of shopping glory – everything from patent medicines, to horse feed & plows, tents, music & the latest fashions delivered by mail.

Ad from Eaton's catalogue 1913 for parcel post deliver of a "Compound elixir of Beef, Iron and Wine"

1913 ad from the Eaton’s catalogue for elixir by parcel post mail

Ad from Eaton's catalogue 1913 for a "Victor Victrolas, the new popular horness instruments"

Even the latest in music “Victor Victrolas, the new popular hornless instruments” 1913

Ad from Eaton's catalogue 1913 for a Kenyon "Take down House" 3 room bungalow tent.

Why aren’t these still sold? They would be awesome

Here’s an interesting photo from the Toronto Archives. Eaton’s department store in Toronto with a long line of mail order horse carts and two truck ready for loading. The photo was taken at the back entrance on Albert Street February 19, 1913.

Photo of horse carts lined up outside Eaton's store 1913

Horse carts lined up outside Eaton’s store 1913 – oat driven parcel post mail!

Nostalgic stamps for the Eaton’s Department store

Canada Post booklet issued for Eaton's anniversary

Single stamp Scott #1510, booklet pane 1510a and BK169 which held 10 x .43c stamps.

By the 1970s, demand for mail order dwindled and Eaton’s ceased the service in 1976. Canada Post issued a commemorative booklet on March 1994, celebrating the storied business and its founder on the 125th anniversary. Included was an insert describing a bit about the history of the company. The booklet and stamp were heavy with nostalgia for the company’s glory days. In reality, the store was tired, dowdy, and dying. By 1997, Eaton’s was bankrupt.

Canada Post stamp .43c issued for 125th anniversary of the T. Eaton Company

Single stamp Scott #1510, booklet pane 1510a and BK169 which held 10 x .43c stamps. Perf 13.3 x 13, GT4 tagging on all edges of each stamp. Paper was Harrison and Sons Inc (with greenish gum). Inside was a 10 page insert that described the history of Eaton’s

The stamp was colourful and ripe with nostalgia.   Timothy Eaton (the founder) was front and centre on the stamps. Stamps were sold, as usual, at any post office branch or directly from Eaton’s itself. Those sold at Eaton’s included a foldout insert about the company, not available in the regular issues. I remember wandering down to Eaton’s one afternoon to buy the special edition. I used to have the receipt kicking around, but after numerous apartments moves, it’s done a vanishing act. The booklet and stamp shown on this page were the last things I purchased from Eaton’s.

Scan of the Eatons Booklet Insert of a 1930s delivery truck

Booklet insert, available only from Eaton’s stores.

Louis Fishauf designed the stamp. The booklet, by Louis Fishauf, Stephanie Power and Reactor Art & Design. Reactor Art & Design are still producing interesting work. Check them out here I recommend spending time looking at Fishauf’s website. It’s a masterclass in design You might recognise his style from other stamps he designed over the years, including the Superhero series and a classic Chinese New Year’s Dragon stamp.

Eaton’s collapsed few short years after the stamp was issued, through corporate indifference and changing demographics. Eaton’s didn’t live to see a second century turn. After 130 years serving the Canadian public, Timothy Eaton’s department store empire closed in 1999.

NOTE: This article was edited Oct. 16, 2020. Formatting was corrected, new headers added, and a new link included. Small edits to make sentences concise were done.  Info about the designer of the stamp included in the update.

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Enjoy paging through Eaton’s catalogues, courtesy Ontario gov archives: and the Canadian History Museum