Christmas Shopping

Banner image is of a Christmas window display, featuring gas ranges and water heaters, in 1937.  Courtesy of Toronto City Archives. 

Well, here we are on the cusp of Christmas once again and, I have to say, I’m feeling quite festive.  The tree’s up, carols are tinkling in the background and I’ve big plans for baking a bunch of stuff I don’t need to eat.  I’ve even managed to get some Christmas cards in the mail – which for me is always quite a feat.  About the only thing left to do is my Christmas shopping – but then this is something I always leave till the absolute last minute.  The strain and anxiety, which build as I run feverishly from shop to shop, is the special gift I give myself each year.  Surely, you can see the allure.

To help me mentally prepare for this impending shopping spree, I’ve been paging through old newspapers to see what Toronto of yore had to offer last-minute-shoppers, like myself.   … What’s that?  Okay, fine, yes – I’m really just procrastinating.

Anyhow, should you also be looking for a diversion, I offer you this selection of Christmas gift offerings from yesteryear.

Just like today, retailers hoped to cash in on the public’s anxious, last minute hunt for gifts.  Though some things seem less likely to be an impulse buy than others:

You know what sells pianos? Pictures of women playing mandolins. From the Toronto Daily Mail, December 22nd 1893.

Use of the feminine form was apparently a favourite ploy of Mason and Risch’s ad department:

Mason and Risch 1900 TPL
If she’s not sitting on something, I don’t know how she’s keeping her balance. From 1900. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Here’s another example – this time found on sheet-music for their very own ditty called the “Mason and Risch Two-Step”:

Mason and Risch Two-Step
At least here, the piano itself makes an appearance.

Though the above sheet music is not dated, there is a clue to its age.  The cover notes the address of their King St factory, which was built in 1894.

And I’m happy to report that the factory itself is still with us:

Mason and Risch 2018
The lovely Mason and Risch factory at 642 King St. W.

But enough of pianos.  Let’s see what else folks might be shopping for:

“Immolation” isn’t a word used much in retail these days. Strange, that. Also note that, through the miracle of electric light, the store would stay open till 10PM on Christmas Eve.  A true marvel of modernity in 1884.  From the Toronto Daily Mail, December 24th floor, 1884.

You’ll notice that R. Walker and Sons didn’t list their address, but they really didn’t have to – everyone would’ve known their store.  See that lion in the ad?  It was kind of the company’s thing:

This is one of my favourite “lost” buildings of Toronto.  I’d give anything for an afternoon spent poking around in there.  R. Walker and Sons on King St E near Victoria, circa 1873.

But if clothing and fur capes weren’t quite what you had in mind, you could always go the traditional route and pick up a bottle of perfume.  Perhaps something from Taylor’s line of “concentrated extracts for the handkerchief”:

“Can I interest you in a special odor for the lady?” From the Toronto Daily Mail, December 22nd 1893.

And, of course, you couldn’t go wrong with a good pair of boots.  Perhaps not quite romantic, they would certainly be a sensible choice during a gold ol’ Canadian winter:

There’s something a little Punk rock about this one, though apparently it “Depicteth ye joy of Santa Claus.” Funny, for an old ad, that sounds like distinctly bad old-timey English. From the Toronto World, December 23, 1885.

Happily, I’m able to show you William West’s boot shop on Yonge St:

Yonge st., Queen to College sts., w. side, between Queen & Albert Sts 1872 cropped
With streets like that, you’d need a good pair of boots.  William West’s shop on Yonge, between Queen and Albert, 1872. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

Though if you were up in chips you might want to splash out and bring home something truly exciting – something that would have all the neighbours talking:

Grafanola Toronto Sunday World Dec 22 1912
“Every one at home can contribute and buy a Grafonola.”  Translation: this thing was really expensive.  So much so, they didn’t even list the price.  Though this thing could play the three kinds of music – band music, instrumentals and singing – it was known as a “talking machine.”  From the Toronto Sunday World, December 22, 1912.

But if you didn’t have Grafonola money, not to worry – there were other more affordable gifts which were sure to satisfy.

Saturday Night Christmas Number 1896
Does your sweetheart suffer murderous nic-fits?  Give him “peace on earth” and “goodwill toward men” with a box of smoking mixture.  From Saturday Night’s Christmas edition, 1896.

In the same vein:

Sweet Crop Dec 22 1912
Sweet Crop: happy to help the undecided wife with some pointed words for her nagging ways. Though, frankly, if he’s smoking two at a time like this guy, nagging is in order. From Toronto Sunday World, December 22nd, 1912.


Wilsons Marlborough Dec 22 1912
Holy smokes, Santa’s enormous – and angry! From the Toronto Sunday World, December 22, 1912.

For something less fleeting than the joy of a good smoke, you might consider a solid, handsome piece from the Adams Furniture Company:

Dec 22 1912 Adams
Weary Santa musters his last bit of energy to sell you on odd parlor pieces. From Toronto Sunday World, December 22, 1912.

Adams even had something for the kiddies:

Bissell Sweepers Dec 22 1912 Toronto Sunday World
Children will squeal with glee over their very own kid-sized table and chairs.  A bargain at $1.45.  And look – there’s also something for Grandma!  She’s so taken with her new Bissell sweeper, she hasn’t noticed the kids have snuck a cup onto her head. From the Toronto Sunday World, Dec 22, 1912.

If you’ve never heard of the Adams Furniture Company, it might surprise you to learn that they once occupied a prime spot next to Old City Hall (or just plain City Hall, as it was then.)

Adams Catalogue circa 1907
From the Adams Catalogue No. 26, circa 1907.

Today this site is part of the Eaton Centre complex – an enormous mall that runs from Queen St all the way up to Dundas.  Here, over several floors, endless corridors are thronged by brand name shops of every description.  And at this time of year, it’s really bustling – loud and chaotic, the hapless shopper can be carried its length by hordes moving quickly from one busy store to another.

No doubt you’ll be surprised to hear it,  but this is not where I will be heading this weekend (okay, probably Christmas Eve.)  Instead I’ll likely stick to some of the smaller, stand-alone shops where the pedestrian traffic is less unnerving.  The sort of places that the old retailers we’ve met today would find, if not quite recognizable, certainly less stupefying.

… And with that, I should now probably get back to my Christmas preparations.

But before I go, there is one last ad I’d like to share – sort of as a Christmas card from me to you:

The riot of, uh, unique fonts makes this one a bit hard to decipher – but I’m pretty sure it extends the “The compliments of the Season” from Tooke Bros’ Haberdashery.  Toronto Daily Mail, December 22nd, 1893.

Whatever you’ve planned this holiday, I hope it finds you surrounded by good food, old friends and great cheer.  May you make merry, my friends.

6 thoughts on “Christmas Shopping

  1. Fabulous selection of ads! I think I’ll skip the Immolation Sale, but I love the many creepy Santas, especially boot Santa (when I first looked at him, I thought his mitten was an ear, and he was a very elvish big eared Santa, which I kind of liked). My museum sells a creepy Santa card based on an old Kingston department store ad, but apparently someone removed the original text, which said something like, “Come away with me, children!” (Sadly this was before I worked there, as I would have left the text in!) Hope you had a lovely Christmas!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! We had a really wonderful Christmas – I hope you did too!
      Ha! I see what you mean about Boot Santa’s mitten. That being an ear makes him much cuter.
      I’m with you, I’d have left the original text on the museum’s Santa card. Why mess with what was? Also, I think it’s best to embrace the creepy – otherwise it’s just another Santa.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. How did I miss this post?! Better late than never, I say. What a fabulous collection of advertisements. I’m always intrigued by the shifts in connotation over the years… “special odors” would bring to mind something entirely different these days. Well, whatever it takes to sell the product! I bought my husband a package of cologne samples for Christmas and each scent included a description that, to my ears, is eye-rollingly hilarious (“This Eau de Parfum is the scented messenger announcing an epic night when overpowering cinnamon and exuberantly woody red cedar meet the commanding sensuousness of a tobacco harmony.” No, I’m not making this up.) What will the folks 100 years from now think?!

    I hope you had a wonderful holiday season and that 2019 is going well for you. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I’m so glad you liked it!
      Wow … my goodness, that cologne description. That’s truly one for the books. Out of curiosity, does it remotely match the scent? “Epic night” aside, I quite like the idea of cinnamon, cedar and tobacco.
      I had a lovely Christmas and New Year – hope you did too! And I wish you a grand 2019. May it hold all good things for you 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you!
        I like the smell of the cologne but I have no idea if it’s truly a cinnamon, cedar and tobacco harmony. I shrug at perfume descriptions the same way I shrug at wine descriptions. I either like the taste of the wine or I don’t, but my taste buds will never be able to tell you whether a wine has been “oaked.” Hahaha!

        Liked by 1 person

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