Manitoba History: Cool Things in the Collection: New Retail and Wholesale Records at the HBCA

by Marcia Stentz
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 63, Spring 2010

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Since we now live in the 21st century, the records of the 20th are increasingly of historical interest to people, whether to learn about their ancestors or explore subjects that continue or arise newly during the 1900s. The Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (HBCA) has extended its holdings of 20th century records through a donation made by the Hudson’s Bay Company to the Archives of Manitoba in 2007. These records are steadily becoming available to the public as they are arranged and described by staff. I highlight here a few groups of records that open new topics of research within the archives.

The 2007 donation consists of about 1400 linear feet of records including textual, photographic, architectural and moving image and sound recordings. Governing bodies of the Company, including the post 1970 Winnipeg-based head office, constitute about two thirds of the donation. These are high level records that cut across the increasingly diverse 20th century business of the Company. Among other topics, the records document HBC’s transition from a British company to a Canadian one and the formal move of its head office from London to Winnipeg, its involvement in commercial properties and real estate development (e.g., Rupert’s Land Trading Company, Markborough Properties) and in natural resources such as oil and gas (Hudson’s Bay Oil and Gas) and, of course, furs. They also track HBC activities which focused on merchandising— both wholesale and retail.

A selection of the Hudson’s Bay Company records received in 2007 were on display during a reception held at the Archives of Manitoba on 22 November 2007.
Source: Manitoba Government News Media Services

HBC Wholesale

A logical extension of HBC’s historic role as merchanttrader, Hudson’s Bay Wholesale broadened HBC’s role from supplier of its own business (fur posts and saleshops) to supplier of goods to non-HBC retailers including hotels, restaurants, gas stations and grocers. Merchandise carried by the department included goods that had long been important to the fur trade: dry goods, hardware, liquor, tea and coffee, tobacco and point blankets.

Initially an outgrowth of the saleshop business, Wholesale was established as a department by 1928 and it went through periods of growth and decline in the context of immigration, crop yields, liquor laws and wars. The department included at times the Wine and Spirits, Blanket and (short-lived) Frozen Food Divisions. It acquired tobacco wholesale businesses from Saskatchewan to Quebec. By 1977 it had built the largest national vending machine operation in Canada with 20,000 coin-operated machines that sold food and beverages, cigarettes, candy and entertainment. By the time Hudson Bay Wholesale was sold in 1987, it consisted of 34 wholesale and 28 vending branches across Canada.

The Wholesale department is documented through correspondence and subject files of its general manager dealing with all aspects of the operation, acquisition files showing companies acquired by the department, annual reports, annual accounts, staff records, catalogues, advertising, operational and financial records. Tobacco subsidiaries include charters, stock ledgers and minute books. Overall, wholesale records constitute approximately one tenth of the entire accrual, most of them dating from the mid-20th century. [1]

A 1976-77 catalogue for Hudson’s Bay Wholesale was among the items transferred to the Archives of Manitoba.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, HBCA H2-240-7-1

HBC Retail

Today, HBC means retail to Canadians. Arguably, the main event of HBC’s 20th century history was the transformation of its seminal saleshops into a modern department store and a retail empire. Among the stores subsumed by that empire were Simpsons and Zellers, both acquired by HBC in 1978, the records of which are now described and available for research at HBCA. A less well known retail store, The John Murphy Co. Ltd., is documented as well.

John Murphy and Co., a dry goods store established at Montreal in 1867, was acquired by The Robert Simpson Co. Ltd. of Toronto in 1905. The store, located at St. Catherine and Metcalfe Streets, was refashioned The John Murphy Co. Ltd. until 1929 when it became The Robert Simpson Co. Montreal Ltd.

Documentation for The John Murphy Co. Ltd. (1904–1929) at HBCA is a relatively small group of records that has the potential for socialeconomic studies of an early department store within English speaking Montreal. Records include a directors and shareholders’ minute book and a shareholders’ ledger, both of which cover the period up to 1929, a list of properties and a detailed property appraisal (both 1925).

But keys to understanding the store’s social and economic place within the larger context are located in ledgers which offer financial details of credits and expenses, and, in the course of doing this, name store customers and vendors and delineate departments and their relative values through weekly figures for stock, sales, wages, purchases, refunds, credit notes and mark up. [2] Research into the social and business networks of Murphy’s clientele and suppliers, using records of Montreal communities coupled with the financial picture of the store documented at HBCA, would result in a profile that captures the store’s interrelationship with its community.

HBC’s wholesale and retail histories wait to be written. The Hudson’s Bay Company Archives continues to be yours to explore.

Women’s fashions of the John Murphy Company store at St. Catherine and Metcalfe Street in Montreal are shown in this photo from around 1910.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, HBCA 1984/40/18


1. See the Archives of Manitoba Keystone database, available online at, for a fuller description of Hudson Bay Wholesale and its records.

2. Search in Keystone under “John Murphy” and “Simpsons subsidiaries.” Customer names and addresses are found in charge cash books (1913–1922), vendor names in city and Canadian ledgers (1905–1920), departmental names and statistics in stock report books and merchandise weekly reports (1905–1925). Simpsons Publicity Department archives files include some records of the store, including photographs.

Page revised: 22 December 2017