Since its incorporation in 1670, the Hudson’s Bay Company has grown from remote trading posts to a network of stores in big cities and small towns across the country. Its influence on our shoppping habits really took hold in the 20th century with the acquisition of regional retailers: Cairns and Woodward’s out west, Montreal’s venerable Morgan’s, Freimans of Ottawa, and Simpsons, as well as value chains including Zellers and Fields. HBC marks its 350th anniversary in 2020 and Nathalie Atkinson was invited to dig through its in-house cache of artifacts that capture the department-store era of the company’s history. As we experience another major shift in how people shop for the holidays, these objects and images highlight the many ways retail therapy has changed.
Gift shopping can be a tricky business, so in the 1950s tiny Fashion Chart cards “for his wallet” were introduced to help a man keep track of his wife’s tastes and sizes. The retailer printed all manner of other ephemera, including artfully illustrated packaging and shopping bags such as this Christmas tote with an image of its Calgary store. HBC often punched them up with slogans that ranged from the pithy “Your Friendly Store” (1940s) to mouthfuls including “Western Canada’s Great Headquarters for anything obtainable to Eat, Drink, Wear or Use” (in the 1910s) and this dare, from 1980: “Ask Us for Anything…Almost.”
Do it yourself
In the beginning, HBC carried fabric, not fashion, and support for home sewing continued into the 1970s. Co-produced with Vogue publisher Condé Nast, pattern flyers such as this 1929 example came out every two weeks across the country. Its pages tout the latest modes from Paris: frocks with shirring or box-pleats to sew up at home from wool poplin or printed crepe. “Vogue Patterns Cost a Few Cents More,” a tagline promises, “but the Difference is Style Insurance.”
Retailers once cultivated employees for life. At HBC, the journey began with recruitment flyers and, once hired, associates were trained on the finer points of customer service with booklets containing dizzying facts. That kind of loyalty meant community building was at the centre of staff social life. Enhancing the connection were in-house publications such as the Bay Builder newsletter, produced for the downtown Vancouver store from 1934 to 1950. It solicited employee opinions on store policies, chronicled personal news and even had its own society columnist.
In the 1920s, department stores became social hubs by opening cafés and lunch counters. The Simpsons Toronto flagship boasted six restaurants, including a motor grill in the parking garage. The pinnacle was the Arcadian Court. The art deco dining hall boasted ceilings hung with Lalique chandeliers and soaring windows. In her novel, The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood sets a scene in “the rippling pastel space.” In 1934, when the book’s high-society luncheon takes place, the menu included consommé Julienne and baked nectarines with cookies (price: 20 cents).
Luxury by design
“Utterly sophisticated clothes that can trace their style origin back to Maggy Rouff, Patou, Alix, Mainbocher and Schiaparelli” is how The Globe put it when the St. Regis Room opened at the Toronto flagship in 1937. Though department stores played an important role in democratizing consumption, they also created exclusive fashion salons showcasing couturiers including Christian Dior and Givenchy. In 1971, when Margery Steele became the fashion director, the Room would become the first to introduce American labels such as Geoffrey Beene to Canada.
This 1960 photo of teen girls taking a beauty course at HBC’s Victoria store presages the imminent Youthquake. A junior size category had appeared with the postwar baby boom, but by the rebellious mid-sixties teenagers no longer wanted to shop like their parents. The culture of consumption was about to change its focus to ever-cheaper and accessible options for young people. HBC’s store lineup included several value chains that catered to modern adolescence, and gave rise to the department store’s emerging nemesis: suburban malls.
True to their name, department stores cemented their importance as destinations by encompassing a wide range of categories and services, especially during the 1950s economic boom. Larger stores had travel concierges, hair salons, gas stations and food halls. The basement-level food floor of the historic Woodward’s building in downtown Vancouver (seen here in 1954) was at one time the largest supermarket in North America. It imported exotic delicacies and kept staples stockedin quantities that reassured consumers of postwar plenty.
Throughout the Bay’s history, currency shifted from the pelts and bartering of the early fur trade to aluminum HBC tokens with values based on Canada’s new decimal monetary system. Charga-Plates, such as the one pictured here, sit on the timeline between promissory notes (which became cash) and today’s credit-based economy. In the 1940s, in order to make the shopping experience more convenient, regular customers with charge accounts were issued a personalized embossed sheet-metal plate in a handsome leatherette sleeve. By the 1950s, they were obsolete.
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