There are several Canadian department stores that were active during the lifetime of the Watson family, such as Simpson’s, the T. Eaton Company, and the local Goudie’s. While the Watson family lived in the then-rural village of Doon, the growing industry of shopping as a pastime instead of a necessity was changing the commercial landscape of their nearby urban neighbours. This was especially true during the Christmas season.
This 1917 Goudie’s advertisement demonstrates some of the ways that department stores were turning shopping into an experience rather than a chore, such as promoting musical performances and a specific “Toyland” area designed for children. The “mall Santa” was also an invention of this era, and the first well-known one was introduced by James Edgar at his Brockton, Massachusetts department store in 1890. The Watson family participated in some Christmas dress-up of their own, with Homer Watson’s nieces making note of fond memories when “Santa” came to their house while announcing his arrival with “a great clanging of bells outside”.
The accessibility of mass-produced goods alongside their respective advertisements furthermore increased the emphasis on the practice of Christmas gift-giving in general. Lists of recommended gifts from businesses made their way into newspapers and especially into mail-order catalogues – it’s interesting to see what kinds of popular Christmas gifts have changed and what’s stayed the same!
While we don’t know for sure how much mail-order or department store Christmas shopping the Watsons did, we do know a few of the things they may have wanted to put on a wish-list. This hand-painted Christmas card from Phoebe Watson to family friend Frank Page includes a gift suggestion for her brother Homer – a copy of Peter McArthur’s book “Friendly Acres”.
Though the modern move to online shopping and the general decline of malls has certainly changed how we buy things, the impact of the early department store has still stuck around in some ways. It often feels strongest at Christmas, when the store displays, advertising, and imagery defined by their influence pop up in new forms when December comes around.