The 1901 Eaton’s Catalogue

One of the coolest finds in the saga of clearing out my grandparents’ house (for me, at least) was this: the 1901 catalogue from the T. Eaton Company Limited. It’s actually a reprint of that catalogue, produced in 1970, which accounts for its exceptionally good condition. However, it is a faithful reprint of that catalogue, and what I love about it is the wonderful window it opens into the past. I mean, historical/steampunk writer’s reference, anyone?

Browsing through the catalogue is a ton of fun. It’s also an eye-opener in many ways. Yes, we seem to have some weird ideas about what constitutes the ideal feminine form these days. However, this is obviously NOT the first time in history that that has been true. Wasp waists, and oddly low-hanging, ample bosoms seem to have been the ideal of the day. One would think, looking at the corsets in the catalogue, that everything north of the waist would have been pushed dramatically up…but perhaps it’s a function of artist’s license, as well. At any rate, I am prfoundly thankful that I was not shopping from this section.

It’s also kind of mind-boggling to think that almost everything in the catalogue had to be drawn by hand, from all of these household items, to flowers you might want to order.

But what really struck me as I thumbed through it today was this little section: “Paper-covered Books for Summer Reading.”

As you can see, it’s a minuscule selection, when you compare it to the sprawling websites offering books for us to order today (there are other pages to order books in the catalogue, but it’s still a pretty limited number). There’s also nothing to tell you what any of the books are about. You want to know what House of the Wolf by Stanley J. Weyman or What Gold Cannot Buy by Mrs. Alexander are about? Pay your money and take your chance.

Which brings me to my real point. These books are “Printed on Heavy Paper” and cost “7 cents each; postage 2 cents extra.” When I read that, I can’t help thinking about all those .99 ebooks out there. Comparatively, that means that they cost about fourteen times the 1901 paperbacks. (Yes, yes, I know that some folks are going to accuse me of comparing apples to oranges because ebooks have no cost for physical materials, shipping, etc.–but bear in mind that those costs are a relatively small percentage of print book costs today.)

When I browse through the catalogue and see that most other items have increased in cost anywhere from twenty to fifty times (or more!)…I really wonder how we have come to this point. It seems such a devaluation of years of hard work on the part of the writer to say that the story is worth less than a dollar. When we’ll pay two to three times that without blinking for a cup of coffee, and ten to fifteen times that to watch a two-hour movie, it seems to me that something is severely skewed.

I think we need to think about this both as writers and as readers.

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  1. I think you need to adjust for inflation. There are a bunch of calculators out there, and none of them are perfect, but one I just looked at puts the value of $1 in 1901 at $27 in today’s money… meaning that 9 cents would be a bit less than $2.70 (can’t be bothered doing precise calculations), making it close in price to a $2.99 e-book or one of those cheap Penguin classics. I wonder if the authors even got paid royalties — I’m guessing not.

  2. So adjusting for inflation makes it even worse. Ugh. :(

  3. Just ran across your article. I too have this catalogue, the 1970 reprint. Over the years, I have enjoyed collecting some of the original, turn-of-the-century oak furniture within it’s pages. This furniture was made to be shipped all over Canada and was the ‘go to’’ for those who lived in the North. Thank you for writing about your ‘find’.

  4. I have the 1901 and the 1927, my favourite thing to do is look through them and think of a time when things were so simple. When you could order a rifle and bible on the same page. Having these in hopes that some day my children would cherish them as I do, probably won’t happen. Kids these days don’t even know!!! Thanks for the article

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