Most of our readers will not remember the Robert Simpson’s catalogue of the Second World War (and no, I don’t). This post’s musings of his Spring and Summer catalogue of 1943 will give us an insight into his catalogue and in particular the growth of the mail order business. In the early days ‘dodgers’ known today as fliers were favored over newspaper ads, and they were distributed throughout Toronto. The first mail concept of shopping had no illustrations or color. Illustrations appeared by 1887 and a few years later, featured illustrations on selected pages on such items as clothing, fabrics and toys. In the early days the most advertised items were women and children’s clothing, with a small section for men. Later catalogues included mattresses, books, stationary, and even glass, china, silver, lamps and medicines. By the early 1890’s furniture was being sold and by the mid 1890’s farm equipment and agricultural implements appeared. In the 1910-1920’s, a person could place a mail order for materials needed to build houses and barns! One can actually trace the coming of many technological innovations throughout the pages of the mail order catalogue. Electricity, modern indoor plumbing and labor-saving devices such as the washing machine bear witness to all these life-altering changes.
In the early years of the catalogue people spent many Winter days and nights pouring over it for the possibilities it offered. The old catalogues had many uses such as pictures for school projects and to decorate scrap books. Boys strapped a catalogue to their shins for goalie pads when playing hockey. Girls searched the pages of the catalogue to cut out paper dolls and outfits for them, and to furnish home made doll houses. Women eagerly awaited the catalogue to learn of the latest fashion styles. Some cut their own patterns based on catalogue illustrations from newspaper, and sewed family clothing. The final catalogue’s destination? To the out house where it was used to decorate the walls for reading material and yes…for toilet paper! I remember the ‘the little brown shack out back’ but was never ‘privy’ to using it. LOL. Today the ancient catalogues are valuable research tools providing information to museum curators, historians and writers, as well as collectors and dealers in anything from the past.
By 1943, over a thousand employee’s worked in the Robert Simpson’s mail order division. The Toronto store employed over 5,500 workers and by now had 149 Order Offices across the country, 298 delivery trucks and 66 horses. During the Second World War, many of their goods were still delivered by horse and carriage because gas and rubber, like so many other raw materials, were rationed. It said that their switchboard handled two million telephone calls a year, this in a nation of only twelve million people. In 1941, the Canadian government put in place a national salvage program. Households across the country were asked to collect metals from old machinery, trucks and cars that were recycled into airplanes, jeeps and tanks as well as bombs, ammunition, guns and battleships. Rubber was used for gas masks, life rafts, cars and bombers, and paper was use to pack explosives. Even excess fat from rendered cooking was donated to the army to produce explosives. The United States explained to Minnie Mouse and Pluto in a wartime video “fats are used to make glycerin, and glycerin is used to make things blow up”. During WW2, even children were asked to support the war effort. They could buy War Saving Stamps for 25 cents. After saving $4 they could stick them in a special booklet and send them to the Federal government, and in return would receive $5! Salvage collection allowed every Canadian to feel part of the war effort. A total of 1,703 Simpson’s employees enlisted for Military duty, 85 perished in the war and only 583 returned to work after the war.
Below, are quotations from the Catalogue: “The Wartime Prices and Trade Board, regulations regarding prices in this catalogue, have ruled that maximum prices for goods in Simpson’s Spring and Summer Catalogue shall be determined as follows: (1) Mail order prices may not exceed the ceiling prices that prevailed from September 15 to October 11, 1941, in all retail branches of the Company for the same or similar merchandise. (2) Prices for new and seasonal goods may not exceed the maximum prices established in accordance with rulings of the Board for retail sales. (3) In a few exceptional cases the Board has given written authorizations for retail price adjustments on specific items which were being sold at prices abnormally low in relations to the prices established by other retailers on the same or similar items. (4) Whenever it has been customary to price mail order items lower than retail store prices, the same differential must be continued. All prices in this catalogue conform to the above ruling”.
“Help Reduce Returns: The Wartime Prices and Trade Board have restricted Deliveries and Returns throughout the retail trade in Canada, in order to conserve manpower and materials. As a Mail Order customer, you too, are asked to cooperate by following a few simple directions when ordering or returning merchandise: (1) When ordering Wearing Apparel or Shoes-Always Measure to be sure of the correct size. See General Measuring Instructions on page 286. For Shoes -see page 86. (2) If you find it necessary to return any merchandise for Exchange or Refund it must be sent back within 12 days after you receive your order. (3) When returning merchandise, pack your parcel carefully so goods will not become soiled, damaged or lost in transit. Collapsible Metal Tubes: The Wartime Prices and Trade Board have ruled that orders for tooth paste or shaving cream contained in a collapsible metal tube cannot be filled unless accompanied by a used metal tube. When ordering tooth paste and shaving cream from Simpson’s catalogues – be sure to send an empty tube with your order. Any collapsible metal tube formerly containing any substance will be accepted. It is not necessary to send us the tube caps. They are not important to salvage”.
“Important Notice Regarding the Filling of Customer’s Orders: During the coming months manpower requirements, raw material shortages and government regulations will affect the supply of goods. Some lines usually catalogued have been eliminated (see page 289), many other lines curtailed. While we have tried to provide adequate quantities of all merchandise offered, we know that circumstances beyond our control will cause shortages and delays during the Spring and Summer Season. We ask your indulgence if these difficulties affect your orders. When we are unable to fill your order correctly, we will send you a suitable of equal or better value, or we will return your money. Order only what you need and for best selection we suggest you order early. We reserve the right to limit the quantity of any article to be sold to a customer. If further government regulations affect the supply of goods or the terms of sale, you will be advised on receipt of your order”.
Farm machinery, Auto Batteries and Auto Accessories: “Before ordering Farm Machinery and Equipment, Auto Batteries or Auto Accessories, you are required by government order to fill out a Certificate of Essentiality. Write to Simpson’s for these Certificates. When completed return them to us attached to your order. On receipt of approval from the Wartime Prices and Trade Board, your order will be promptly forwarded”.
According to his biography, Robert Simpson was born in 1834 in Speymouth, Scotland, the son of Peter Simpson a general store owner. Educated at a Scottish grammar school until the age of sixteen, he then apprenticed with an Elgin storekeeper. On arriving in Upper Canada in 1854, he was employed as a clerk in the general store of D. Sutherland and sons in Newmarket. Following the sale of the Sutherland business in 1858 to William McMaster, Simpson and a fellow clerk, William Trent opened a small store there, retailing dry goods, groceries, hardware, boots and shoes. In a time of economic depression, the partners offered the lowest possible prices and announced they would only conduct business in cash. The partnership was dissolved in1862 and two months later Simpson entered another partnership with M. W. Bogart. In 1862 was hit by the first of several fires which would damage or destroy his premises. The $1,000 loss was covered by an insurance policy and he resumed business. A second fire in 1864 caused greater damage and he relocated in temporary quarters. At this time Bogart withdrew from the partnership. With funds from the insurance payment, Simpson liquidated most of his debts with his suppliers and independently re-established himself in Newmarket.
The 1860’s were years of economic growth and even a rural merchant like Simpson generated an annual sales volume in 1866 of $60,000. In April 1867 he moved into what he considered “the largest and finest shop north of Toronto”. By imaginative advertisements and handbills and flyers distributed throughout the countryside, he not only kept up with competition but improved his credit standing. The move by retailers during this period to obtain merchandise directly from suppliers and manufacturers in Great Britain may have been responsible for his last visit to Scotland in 1869. Despite Simpson’s great success, his health during the years in Newmarket appears to have given concern and may have been related to a drinking problem. Simpson’s sudden death in 1897, at the age of 63 with no son to inherit the business placed a heavy burden on his wife and daughter, Margaret. The business was then purchased by a Toronto business syndicate that purchased the Simpson inventory and chattels for $135,000.