The Coveted Christmas Catalogue

Seasons Greetings to all! With the holidays approaching rapidly, many of us reminisce about the Christmas experiences from childhood. One of the common memories my co- workers and I share is waiting impatiently for the fabled Sears Wish Book to arrive in our mail boxes. For many of us, the arrival of Christmas catalogues was a much anticipated event in our households. The very name, Christmas catalogue, conjures up images of flipping excitedly through pages filled with shiny new toys destined for children’s wish lists. I for one, remember spending hours pouring over the catalogues, carefully folding the corners of the pages containing coveted items and circling of all the gifts I hoped Santa might bring me.

Children waiting for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, 24-Dec-1947 (City of Edmonton Archives EA-600-663b)

In the late 19th Century, mail order catalogues for larger department stores in urban centres, such as Montreal and Toronto, were the norm for purchasing goods in rural communities in Canada. In 1822, the first mail order catalog in Canada was introduced by Carsley’s department store in Montreal. The first Eaton’s Christmas catalogue, called “The Wishing Book” was produced in 1884. Timothy Eaton’s vision was for the book to be accessible to all and “go wherever the maple leaf grows, throughout the vast Dominion.” The department stores had vast mail-order departments dedicated to making sure mail-order customers received their purchases no matter how far the goods had to travel. By the 1950’s, the ability to purchase a variety of consumer goods through mail-order catalogues expanded rapidly. Many department stores marketed to the young and old, with catalogues specifically designed for the lucrative holiday season. The catalogues offered a variety of gift-giving options from fashions to merchandise and included a special section containing all manner of toys for under the Christmas tree. In 1953, Canadian department store giant Simpson’s was acquired by the American Sears. The business merger resulted in the first Simpsons-Sears catalogue to be published and would eventually become the most successful department store catalogue in the country.

If you would like to take a stroll down memory lane and revisit Christmas catalogues from your childhood, please visit Wishbookweb. This fabulous online resource of vintage Christmas catalogues has a current catalog page count of 25,617 pages. For Flash-enabled desktop browsers, users can enjoy full-featured navigation, including text-search features and special page-turning sound effects! Happy browsing!!

Eaton Catalogues:

Simpson-Sears Catalogues:

Snapshot of a few Wishbook Web catalogue resources available, accessed via: Wishbook Web – The Christmas Catalog Archive Project, Dec 4/18.
“A sincere wish for happiness at Christmas and throughout the New Year.” Christmas card, made in Canada date unknown.

Written By: Marsha Mickalyk, Archaeological Permits and Digital Information Coordinator & Pauline Bodevin, Regulatory Approvals Coordinator, Historic Resources Management Branch.

References

“The Story of the Mail-order Catalogue” http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/edu/ViewLoitCollection.do?method=preview&lang=EN&id=25258 retrieved Dec 06, 2018.

City of Edmonton Archives – https://archivesphotos.edmonton.ca

WishbookWeb – http://www.wishbookweb.com/

Alberta Remembers

The Beverly Cenotaph, a simple stone obelisk, was unveiled on October 17, 1920. (City of Edmonton Archives, EA-160-14)

On November 11, 1918, after more than four years of fighting the “war to end war”, an armistice was called in France and all hostilities came to an end on the Western Front of the First World War. While the battles may have ceased, the effects of the conflict continued to reverberate around the world and across the years, even to the present day, a century later.

Albertans were among those who fought alongside fellow British citizens, as well as French and American soldiers – among others – to defeat Germany and its allies. Estimates place the number of Albertan soldiers at 48,885 – or over one third of the province’s male population aged 18 to 45. Of these, about one in eight did not return from the war, and almost half of those who did return had been wounded.1 The effect of the distant, unseen war was felt throughout the province on a personal level.

One way Albertans dealt with the trauma and loss was to come together and commemorate those who had sacrificed their lives. A model for these activities was provided by “Peace Day”, celebrated on July 19, 1919, in London, England, in honour of the signing of the Treaty of Read more

“Erin go Bragh” in Alberta

This post was originally published on RETROactive on March 17th, 2015. We are once again approaching St. Patrick’s Day and we wanted to highlight this great post that talks about the history of the holiday in Alberta. Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Enjoy.

“What is the matter with the Calgary Irishmen?” asked a frustrated correspondent to the Calgary Herald in March 1916. The writer, who identified themself as ‘F. Fitzsimmons,’ was complaining about the city’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for St. Patrick’s Day, with no public events planned to celebrate the day. Fitzsimmons conceded that people were likely distracted by the war effort, but lamented that Calgary’s leading Irish citizens had gotten “cold feet” and failed to plan any celebrations. “If all Irishmen were like the Calgary bunch” closed the writer, then “‘God Save Ireland.’”

The language used by Fitzsimmons in this letter is highly suggestive. By stating that Calgary’s Irish leaders had gotten ‘cold feet,’ he/she was implying that they lacked the courage to publicly celebrate their ethnic heritage. Further, ‘God Save Ireland’ was an explicitly nationalist slogan, associated with the last words of three Irish revolutionaries executed by the British in 1867. In short, Fitzsimmons was calling for an open celebration of Irish identity that did not shy away from nationalist politics. What Fitzsimmons saw as a simple issue, however, was much more complex for the majority of Irish people in Calgary and across Alberta. The often turbulent politics of the Irish homeland, and the campaign for Irish autonomy from Read more

Christmas at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village 2017

The Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village is a major open-air museum with the network of provincial historic sites and museums operated by Alberta Culture and Tourism. Located 50 km east of Edmonton, the museum preserves more than 35 historic structures and interprets the lives of Ukrainian settlers in east central Alberta between the years of 1892 and 1930. Based on extensive contextual and site specific research, the museum is an important steward of the intangible cultural heritage of Alberta’s Ukrainian settlers. Read more

Love It or Loathe It: A Brief History of the Holiday Fruit Cake

It’s hard to believe the Christmas holidays are just around the corner. Along with all the regular festivities, several traditional foods are due to make their annual appearances. One of the quintessential desserts of the season is the fruit cake. Described as either a rich, moist and flavorful cake filled with holiday cheer or a dried out, tasteless leaden brick chockfull of bitter candied fruit. We seem to have a love-hate relationship with this fruit-filled, spirit-soaked cake garnished with sugar-coated nuts. But why was it invented? How did this tradition start?

fruit cake photo

It turns out that fruit cake has staying power. Its origins may be linked back to the ancient Egyptians who made rich fruit- and nut-laden funerary cakes for their departed loved ones, meant to sustain the dead on their journey to the afterlife. Others trace its early roots back to the ancient Romans’ references to a type of energy loaf, which combined barley mash, pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and raisins. A more modern version of fruit cake became popular in the Middle Ages in Western Europe as dried fruits, honey and Read more

Haunted Heritage

In Alberta, autumn is the perfect mix of sun-soaked days and brisk star-filled nights. Our trees are coloured all sorts of stunning shades of sunburst, heralding the changing seasons. As the winds snatch away the golden foliage, only bare lonely branches are left swaying eerily in their place, it’s the perfect time for telling tales of ghosts and spooky places. From haunted hotels to spooky schoolhouses, Alberta has a rich history rife with ghostly tales. It’s no wonder we love to share local tales of the paranormal.

Here’s our top 5 list of the spookiest heritage sites:

1. The McKay Avenue School: Built between 1904 and 1905, the McKay Avenue School is an early twentieth-century, three-story building situated in the heart of Edmonton’s Downtown district. The building has a red-brick façade with sandstone trim, round arches over the windows, and imposing columns flanking the main entrance. The building hosted the inaugural session of the Alberta Legislative Assembly. It’s also connected to early educational institutions in Edmonton and is an example of stately Richardson Romanesque architectural style.

McKay Avenue School circa 1913, Edmonton (photo courtesy of Provincial Archives of Alberta)
McKay Avenue School circa 1913, Edmonton, said to be haunted by spirits of children and a worker who fell from the roof to his death (photo courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Alberta).

The school is now home to the Edmonton Public Schools Archive and Museum run by the Edmonton Public School Board. Tales abound of possible paranormal activity in the building including objects mysteriously moving around, water taps found running, and lights being turned off and on by Read more

Not the song but the singing; not the object but its making

March 20th marked the first day of spring.

In our family, we have a tradition of celebrating the event by sitting around a special table setting and observing the moment the sun crosses the celestial equator on its way north along the ecliptic! In the Northern Hemisphere, this is known as the Spring Equinox. We call it Norooz literally translating to “new day.” We inherited this tradition from our grandparents and we try to pass it along to our children in hopes of keeping it alive for the times to come.

Haft Seen - The traditional table setting for Norooz which includes seven symbolic items starting with the letter ‘S’ or ‘Seen’ in the Persian alphabet (Photo by Alireza Farrokhi).
Haft Seen – The traditional table setting for Norooz which includes seven symbolic items starting with the letter ‘S’ or ‘Seen’ in the Persian alphabet (Photo by Alireza Farrokhi).

Similarly, we inherited a traditional doll made by our late grandmother. It is valuable to our family as it reminds us of her and the stories she shared. We make sure to keep it safe until such a time that our children are old enough to care for it.

Both Norooz and the doll are important to me; they are what I would like to preserve for the next generations; they are “my heritage.”

While the doll is cherished only in a small circle of people close to me, my family is not alone in celebrating Norooz. The festivities, which usually last 13 days, are celebrated by more than 300 million people worldwide (including three individuals in the Historic Resources Management Branch). You might see it spelled interchangeably as Novruz, Nowrouz, Nooruz, Navruz, Nauroz, Nevruz or Norooz as it marks the New Year in many regions including Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Turkey and Uzbekistan.

The doll is an artifact, a tangible object with associative values made by people. It can be physically handed over to the next generations. Norooz, on the other hand, is a cultural practice and an example of intangible heritage.

Doll making traditions have been part of almost every culture. Dolls are more than mere playthings, often representing costumes and other cultural practices. This Doll was made by our late grandmother, demonstrating the continuation of such traditions in our family (Photo by Alireza Farrokhi).
Doll making traditions have been part of almost every culture. Dolls are more than mere playthings, often representing costumes and other cultural practices. This Doll was made by our late grandmother, demonstrating the continuation of such traditions in our family (Photo by Alireza Farrokhi).

In 2003, recognizing that cultural heritage does not end at monuments and artifacts, and to emphasize the important role that traditions, social practices, rituals, knowledge and skills have in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalization, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

The Convention defines intangible cultural heritage as:

Practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills […] that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. […It] is transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity […] Intangible Cultural Heritage is traditional, contemporary and living at the same time; it is inclusive, representative and community-based.

Intangible cultural heritage is manifested in the following domains:

  • oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage;
  • performing arts;
  • social practices, rituals and festive events;
  • knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe;
  • traditional craftsmanship.

As of May 2014, the Convention has been ratified by 161 State Parties and 314 elements have been inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Norooz promotes the values of peace and solidarity between generations and within families, as well as reconciliation and neighbourliness, thus contributing to cultural diversity and friendship among peoples and various communities. In 2009, Norooz was added to the Representative List.

Haft Seen setting
Haft Seen setting (photo taken by one of our colleagues in Calgary).

Looking out the window, I see snow is melting away; trees are waking up; the ground is breathing. I am witnessing a cosmic event. Norooz is my heritage, what is yours? Please share yours with us in the comments.

And by the way: Happy Spring, Happy Persian New Year!

Written by: Alireza Farrokhi, Head of Conservation and Construction Services, Historic Places Stewardship.