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Pioneer Shopping

by Irene Craig

Manitoba Pageant, September 1960, Volume 6, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Somehow I picture the pioneer woman, the average one, I mean. pouring over the advertisements and trying to take advantage of the odd bargain just as we do. The ads today may be bigger but I doubt if the bargains now are better than they were a hundred years ago; prices then posed the same problem as today.

Mr. E. L. Barber at Thistle Cottage near Fort Garry in June, 1861 advertised temptingly: "I have just returned from St. Paul with a stock of goods. Hoops and hoop-skirts great and small. Scythes, and scythe-handles etc.", while Ross and Caldwell had note paper and lead pencils ..."as many as you pleased," it said, "all the envelopes are self-sealing! Wax too, mourning or sprightly red."

Another store that had a lot of all-over Swiss Embroidery Flounces that looked tempting, went on to say: "Elegant they are ... and with still two months of intense heat. Please do try to come early in the day to shop. So much more pleasant for you, and thus avoid the afternoon crowd and rush at the counters." Now doesn't that sound nice? Today they just call us shoppers a "bottle neck" and make extremely rude remarks if we're caught on a bus before ten, or after four o'clock, on a weekday.

But about the ads. The children got into the game too, though one particular advertisement was a direct appeal to Father. "Oh, Papa" it shrieked in huge block letters, "I want a nice warm knicker-bocker suit — Take me to the Big Boston Clothing Store and buy me one, and pick me out an overcoat as well!" Wasn't he a cute little codger? And all the time poor Mom with her heart set on a new pair of corsets because—"Interesting to the Ladies", the same paper said, "Come and bring your friends. We sell today at EXTRA BARGAIN PRICE ("Extra bargain price" was in capital letters), "EXTRA BARGAIN PRICE, the finest French corsets in the City" — and that young tyke demanding a knickerbocker suit!! "LA BELLE CORSETS, $1.50 value for $1.00 — LAVINIA $2.00 usual for $1.50 — AND — SENSATION!!! usual 75 cents, for 50 cents." Poor Mom, studies it closer — No. Her "Sensation" days are over. She struggles bravely, but she knows she'll have to go as high as the "Glove-Fitting" brand at $1.75.

An example of 19th Century advertising from a recent display sponsored by the Manitoba Historical Society.
Source: Winnipeg Free Press

Yes, we certainly took our corsets seriously; only as I remember it, our family called them "stays" — I always like that word somehow, but those yards and yards of silk cable that got tied in a double bow and got tucked out of sight as we watched wide-eyed, were always a puzzle. You wondered where there was any room for the bundle. 'Sad' irons always brought a lump into our throats too. Especially "Mrs. Potts Double pointed" ones. We never knew why they were sad.

In a nearby column, another firm guaranteed nerve shattering affairs called cycles — picturing a man perilously placed, mountains high on a fantastic wheel made with alarmingly thin tin spokes. Fastened on this somehow, he dragged after him a smaller wheel that looked as if he'd dropped it out of his watch. All the same, those bicycle ads gave one confidence. "Perfectly reliable", they said, "No sudden bend at the hub." However, the wise housewife merely glanced at these things in passing. Her man, she hoped had more sense. He didn't hold with such fan-dangles.

Her eyes lit up. Can we blame her? Something about an awe-inspiring dolman with just that satisfying curve to the bustle. Further — could any woman resist a reclining chair, just when she's sat down to rest while the clothes boiled and the cat stretched lazily under the "Happy Thought" range? She reads on — "Nature's Sweet Restorer has a close ally in this chair! Slumberous desire steals over him who owns it, and dreamland's gates open to those who confide themselves to its honest support." She sighs. Some day, when the crop's good she'll get one and be able to really sink back and enjoy an instalment of the story in the same paper by Wilkie Collins; "I Say, No", or "The Love Letter Answered." But that must wait.

Her heart is set on one of those darling little "Solid Sterling Silver Name Broaches, for only a dollar and a half." She particularly admires the long narrow one with the silver band built right around the letters, spelling her very own name, "Jennie." Of course she has to admit the one for "Minnie" is attractive too. And oh see the oblong one! with little scallops and silver knobs all around the edge, and sure enough tiny orange blossoms twined around it, for the girl who is lucky enough to be called "Fanny."

Oh yes — those were the days, but she might as well stop planning. Then — as if to rub it in, there it was on this hot day right before her eyes, another store on Main Street inviting the ladies to "Come and get fanned by the only electric fan in the City." Of course, whilst being fanned you were expected to buy "a soda, cool from the fountain" — but that seems reasonable. She turns the page. "We just have to hand a large lot of cornice poles at 25 cents each" — she'll have to take a look at them, and perhaps — well, just a peek at that electric fan.

She turns back to the reclining chair — "If you stretch, it will stretch with you. If you wish to rise it will actually land you on your feet." No, she decides, it's the same as when there's chicken at Sunday mealtime. Mother always gets the neck. Besides, as the next column reminds her, "The Glorious 12th is Coming! Every young man, old man,

An example of 19th Century advertising from a recent display sponsored by the Manitoba Historical Society.
Source: Winnipeg Free Press

Orangeman (or otherwise) will certainly want a brand new suit for the occasion. The trousers that we are sacrificing at $6.00 and $7.00 are the sensation of the day among nobby dressers ..."

She might as well face it. Father read that ad which said "I took cold. I took sick. I took Somebody's Emulsion, result — I take my meals. I take my rest AND I'm vigorous enough to take anything I lay my hands on." Since then, there's no holding him. We can hardly wait for the 12th!!! Men like bargains too. She'd better hide it. Those $6.00 pants are shouting out loud.

Still, it appears, men as shoppers are difficult. One firm comes right out with it, saying..."One of the most interesting features of our whole trade, is the 'trouble with trousers', no two people having the same idea of what is the proper style, or fabric, or cut. One wants a tight leg another a loose leg, and many still cling to the spring bottoms. But our sale is on! All these goods from the 50 cent overall for the working-man, to the elegant rich styles of $5.00 dress pants to measure and cut, and made tony." Well — you can't beat that! No. She won't hide. Instead, she reads it over.

Only $5.00 — Yes, the silver broach will have to wait. "Dress pants to cut — and made tony." But here we must leave our petticoat pioneer. Her shopping becomes a family affair.

Miss Mary Kennedy, a granddaughter of Alexander Kennedy who came out in 1798 to work for the Hudson's Bay Company told me once that in the early days here in Winnipeg no parcels were wrapped. People carried red bandana handkerchiefs and tied up their purchases in them and carried them home. We've learned to carry our parcels too, but the red bandanas seem more dashing than shopping bags.

The ads in the old days, to my mind, had a much more intimate slant than the ones today. All so cosylike with an almost protective air about them. Another thing we must remember too, there had to be a deal of scurrying through the dishwashing when bargains were announced, because for the pioneer woman there was no such convenience as being able to step to the telephone and having goods brought to her house the way we do today. Something indeed has been added.

Page revised: 1 July 2009

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