Christmas 1912 — purchases sent home on sleigh drawn by horse with jingling bells

by Jim Blanchard

Winnipeg’s stores had a wonderful Christmas season in 1912. The weather was warm and there was money in the city; most people had work all year and some had made huge profits from the boom. Extra help had been hired and the papers were full of Christmas ads for Ashdown’s, Birk’s, Eaton’s, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and many other stores. 

Eaton’s and the Hudson’s Bay store spent enormous amounts on publicity, employing full-time staff to produce full-page ads for all the Winnipeg papers. The ads emphasized prices, suggesting that people in the city were out to find a bargain and decided on the basis of price where to shop. The ads also constituted a sophisticated “campaign,” which started with reminders to shop early and avoid the crowds, and ended a few days before Christmas with lists of one-dollar items suitable for last-minute shoppers.

Ruth Harvey, the daughter of C.P. and Harriet Anderson Walker, owners of the Walker Theatre, recalled a girlhood shopping trip with her mother to the old Hudson’s Bay store on Main. They entered the store near the grocery department, which was at the back. “To step inside there on a December day, half blinded by the dazzle of sun on snow, was to be Ali Baba entering the vast gloom of the treasure cave. For a moment I could see only dimly the laden shelves and counters. But even before my eyes had adjusted to the light, my nostrils were aware of many odors — coffee, apples, warm bread, spices, tea and oranges, mingled with others pleasant but unidentifiable, in a symphonic smell of good food” (Dominion Magazine 1911).

Shopping was a dignified process, as Harvey remembers it. “Mama and I moved with leisure from section to section .... In due time our purchases would be sent to the house in a sleigh drawn by a horse with jingling bells on its harness. At each department we sat down on the chairs there and mama took out her list. The clerk displayed, measured, weighed, and suggested.” 

She lingers over the biscuits, describing them in loving detail: “Here were the everyday biscuits and the special-treat biscuits. The bins behind the counter held the ordinary ones: social teas, fig newtons, oval arrowroots for the nursery, raisin biscuits and ginger snaps. But on the shelves above were tins of plumcake and shortbread from Edinburgh, and boxes and boxes of the very finest biscuits from England. They were packed for the colonies: boxed in tin and soldered tight against heat and cold and damp. From England they went by ship over the globe, to all the big red splashes on the map and all the tiny red pinpricks dotting the blue expanses of the oceans.... Every moment of my day and night, it was tea time someplace or other in the Empire. People were warming the pot, measuring the tea leaves, pouring on the boiling water, and perhaps while the tea steeped opening a box of biscuits like these.”

The last stop in the store was to buy wines and liquors, where, “as mama ordered, the names took on an aura of festivity. First, claret for the holiday dinners. Even the children would have a few drops of claret in their glasses — enough to make the water a faint pink and to make us feel regal. Then brandy, to put around the pudding and set alight. And sherry, to serve to callers and put in the grownups’ pudding sauce .... And now mama asked for rum. That was for past Christmas, for New Year’s Day. It would go into the punch bowl with brandy and lemons and sugar and spices and hot water.”

The Bay’s ads at Christmas 1912 offered a bewildering mass of possible gifts. Just like today, everything was on sale and prices appeared to bear no relation to the actual value of the goods. Leather mitts with wool lining were selling for $4.50; for $1.25 more you could buy a wooden writing desk. Morris chairs were $9.50.

The Hudson’s Bay store that Ruth Harvey remembered stood on the southwest corner of Main and York, a Victorian brick building of the 1880s, far from the retail district that was developing between Eaton’s new store and Portage and Main. By 1912 the Bay was preparing to move their business to Portage Avenue as well, but it had been difficult convincing the London Committee to do that. When it had become known, in 1904, that Eaton’s was going to build a department store in the city, the local Hudson’s Bay Company commissioner, Clarence Chipman, had counselled the London board to expand the Main Street store, so they could continue to do business “in the face of any competition that may arise.” The board refused to panic and approved only a $43,000 facelift to modernize the store.

No doubt, the renovations helped to keep the store from going under in the face of the Eaton’s onslaught: in 1905 the Hudson’s Bay sales figures declined by eleven per cent, but they did escape the fate of two other local department stores, Nash, Carson and Naylor, and Imperial Dry Goods, which were forced to close the first year Eaton’s was in operation.

The continued growth of the city finally convinced the London board to approve a new Portage Avenue store and in February 1911, they authorized the local real estate firm of Oldfield, Kirby and Gardner to spend up to $1 million to acquire lots south of Portage Avenue between Vaughan and Colony streets. The site was large, but the local Sales Shop commissioner, H.E. Burbidge, who was the son of the manager of Harrods in London, wanted to be sure the company had enough room for future expansion. Eaton’s had not acquired enough property in their first purchase and had paid astronomical prices for land when they expanded their store. Burbidge took great care to keep the acquisitions quiet, in order to keep the prices down. Messages were telegraphed to and from London in code and Burbidge received correspondence at his rooms in the Royal Alexandra, rather than at his office.

At first W.H. Gardner, who was handling the purchases, was able to get some lots at less than market value; by March 15, 1911, he had secured, for $850,000, more than three-quarters of the land now occupied by the store. But then the news leaked out: on March 17 the Free Press ran a story reporting that Gardner was buying up lots for a British client. A speculative frenzy ensued. One woman who owned a house in the area received seventeen phone calls in one day from people trying to buy her property. A certain Charles McCarrey, who had purchased a lot for $12,000 a few weeks before, was now offered $14,000 for it. He refused and said he would hold out for double his money.

By April 1, in spite of the speculators, Burbidge was able to report to London that all the land had been purchased, with the exception of a short crescent of houses near St. Mary’s Street, for which the price was too high. The final bill: $950,000, just within the authorized million dollars. The real estate fever moved elsewhere, but there were hard feelings. Several landowners accused Gardner of misleading them and there were a number of court cases, including one brought in November 1912 by Michael and Martin Kelly, partners in the successful contracting firm of Thomas Kelly and Sons. They had sold property on Portage Avenue between Vaughan and Colony but were not told about the Hudson’s Bay store, and claimed that the price they were paid was too low.

Gardner survived with his profits intact. Although the London board authorized money to begin excavations in July 1913, the work was delayed and the new store finally fell victim to the economic downturn that set in that year. The land remained vacant for 15 years, hidden behind advertising billboards, an embarrassing symbol of Winnipeg’s reduced circumstances. It was 1927 before the new Hudson’s Bay store began to rise on the corner of Portage and Vaughan.

For the shopping public, the new Eaton’s store on Portage Avenue had, by 1912, become the western anchor for retail business on Portage. In December the full-page Eaton’s Store News appeared every day and sometimes twice on Saturdays. The News alerted children to the store’s Santa Claus Parade on November 30. Santa started out on Pembina, inexplicably entering the city from the south, and made his way from the underpass north to Stradbrook, then turned west. He travelled along Wellington Crescent to the Maryland Bridge and down Maryland to Portage, where he turned east and headed for the store.

Santa’s image was not standardized in 1912. Instead of the roly-poly Santa with red cheeks that we are used to, he was often quite thin, giving his smiles a slightly sinister appearance at times. He was shown in one Eaton’s ad wearing a holly wreath around the fur trim of his hat, an older, Victorian ornamentation.

At the store, Santa was available during certain hours morning and afternoon to shake hands with the children and show them the mound of toys in his massive toy trunk. There they would see plush animals, dolls, tin automobiles and trains, games, and sports equipment.

Anyone walking east of Eaton’s along Portage Avenue toward Main Street would find plenty of shops, especially on the north side of the broad avenue. There were small clothing stores like Stiles and Humphries Clothing, Cornell Clothing, and Decatur and Ferguson Clothing. There were a number of restaurants on this stretch of Portage: the Olympia Cafe, the Venice Cafe, the Alberta Café, and a Bowes Dairy Lunch, one of a number of Bowes outlets in the city. These cafes were busiest at lunch when the office buildings around Portage and Main disgorged their many typists and clerks and bosses for the noon meal. The offices around the busy corner were occupied by lawyers, real estate agents, trust companies, loan companies, and insurance agents, all of which employed managers, clerks, stenographers and messengers. The owners and managers were likely to give the Bowes Lunch a miss and go down Main in the first block south of Portage to eat at the Carlton Club or the Conservative Adanac Club. Or they might walk or take a cab all the way to the Manitoba Club on Broadway for their lunch.

Rounding the corner and heading north on the west side of Main, pedestrians encountered a mixture of offices and retail businesses, although by 1912 office buildings were definitely predominant. The Canadian Northern building, with its ticket office and telegraph office, stood next to Gordon Mitchell’s Drug Store and Jerry Robinson’s Department Store. While not as big as Eaton’s or the Bay, Robinson’s store was a profitable local business. Robinson had just completed a new addition that year, which expanded the rear of the store all the way back to Albert Street. The Main Street show window had a large display of lady’s purses, all different and all costing $6.68. Robinson’s sold everything you would expect to find in a large dry goods store, plus groceries.

Further north stood the McIntyre Block, with its seven floors of every kind of office imaginable — lawyers, insurance agents, tailors, and so on. Holt Renfrew was still doing business on this block of Main Street in 1912.

Across McDermot, past the CPR telegraph office, stood the Blue Store, Chevrier and Sons Clothing, “Outfitters to Mankind.” This business dated from the 1870s when Noe Chevrier, who became a senator, opened his clothing store. Many people in Winnipeg couldn’t read then, so he painted the store blue and called it the Blue Store, so they could find it. Earlier in 1912 the building and land had been sold, along with much of the rest of the block, to Sir Herbert Holt, the Montreal billionaire, for close to a million dollars. It was expected that the old store and its neighbours would soon come down to make way for a new office building. The belief was that Main Street would soon be all office buildings and the shopping district would move to Portage Avenue, because of the draw of Eaton’s. This change did take place slowly and surely, and by 1929, when Jerry Robinson’s finally closed, Main Street had very few retail establishments.

In 1912, Ashdown’s store on the north side of Bannatyne marked the northern limit of the principal retail area. Beyond Ashdown’s, the Union Bank Building, with the Confederation Life Building across the street, marked the gateway to downtown for people coming from the north. The east side of the street was mostly office buildings like the beautiful new Bank of Commerce Building, officially opened in October. Farther up, across from City Hall and north of Pacific all the way to the Royal Alexandra, were many shops and offices and other businesses owned by Jewish businessmen. One of these was a young and ambitious Sam Bronfman who, with his father and brothers, owned the Bell Hotel. Rising above all these small businesses like a beached luxury liner, the Royal Alexandra stood on the corner of Higgins Avenue and Main Street.

Isolated though it may have been, the Royal Alexandra was still the best hotel in the city in December 1912. The Fort Garry was taking shape on Broadway but it did not officially open until the end of 1913. The Royal Alex had the Christmas season all to itself for one last time.

The Old Timer’s Ball was one of the main social events in the hotel every year in December. In 1912, the 10th annual Old Timer’s Ball was on December 18. It was hosted and organized by a slightly different group from those who sponsored most of the notable events at the hotel. The current lieutenant-governor’s wife and the previous one, Mrs. Cameron and Lady McMillan, were involved, as were the wife of the mayor and Lady Roblin, the premier’s wife, giving the ball an official tone. But many of the other women organizers were not from the upper crust. Mrs. J.T. Huggard, for example, was married to a reasonably prosperous lawyer, but the fact that he had come to the city in 1872 was the real basis for her involvement. Mrs. George Black’s husband was the provincial auditor. They lived in a solid middle-class house at 244 Balmoral, not a background that would normally put them into the company of Mrs. Cameron. But Black had come to Manitoba with Garnet Wolseley’s expedition in 1870 and was, therefore, a member of a very select group, one which was honoured and respected not for how much money they had, but because they had made the epic journey through northern Ontario to crush the rebel Riel.

People like James Ashdown and his wife, who were not usually mentioned in the society columns, would nevertheless come to this event because of its broader significance. The Ashdowns were very wealthy but the reason they were present at the ball was that they were true “old timers,” having come to Winnipeg in the early days. The young English immigrant Ashdown, like a sort of prairie Dick Whittington, walked from St. Paul to his adopted home in the 1860s. Like Whittington, he became a wealthy merchant, leading citizen, and mayor of his adopted home. The Ashdowns, strict Methodists, were said to have preferred a quiet evening at home, reading the bible. But for the Old Timer’s Ball, they made an exception.

Edward Drewery, another Englishman, came to Winnipeg in 1877 and his brother Fred followed in 1881. Together, they built the phenomenally successful Red Wood Brewery. The Drewerys were devout Anglicans and devoted family people who seemed to prefer to entertain on a small scale, inviting only their own children and their spouses to their home beside the brewery. However, the Drewerys came to the ball.

The Old Timer’s Ball united people from different social levels in the common activity of commemorating the city’s history, as seen through the eyes of the English Ontarians who had driven Riel out and assumed a dominant role in Manitoba. Everything about the event harkened back to Red River days. Even the invitation always had an old Red River scene engraved on the back. In 1912 the picture showed the old Cathedral of St. Boniface and a verse from Whittier’s The Bells of St. Boniface appeared beside the illustration. The band of the 100th Grenadiers supplied the music for the program of twenty dances that were of a strictly “old time” variety. The evening began with a set of Lancers, an elaborate quadrille, a little like modern square dancing. Then came a mixture of Scottish dancing and local dances — the Red River jig, Highland Schottische, and eight-hand reels.

Events like the ball seemed to make the history of the Red River settlement part of the Ontario immigrants’ own history. By adopting the Scottish Selkirk Settlers as “imaginary ancestors,” as one modern historian has put it, they grafted the Selkirk Settlers to their own histories and created a cultural tradition, just as ambitious New Yorkers constructed pedigrees that linked them with the revolutionary or even older Dutch and English colonial worlds, “to justify their assumption of dominance in the region.”

Dr. George Bryce of Manitoba College, a prolific writer of histories of Manitoba and the West, had produced yet another history in 1912, to celebrate the centennial of the arrival of the Selkirk Settlers. One of the themes Bryce included in many of his works was the triumph of civilization, as represented by the Selkirk Settlers and the later settlers from Ontario, over the wild and savage original people of the prairies. The Old Timer’s Ball, as well as events like the Decoration Day parade in May and the widespread participation in “first footing,” or New Year’s social calls, on New Year’s Day, all tended to support Bryce’s vision and connect the community’s modern leaders with the Selkirk Settlers of Red River days.

There were many other dances and parties in the hotel that December. On Monday, December 23, Mrs. G.J. Bury, the wife of the new western vice-president of the CPR, entertained in the Vice Regal suite of the Royal Alex. Her guest list for what must have been an official CPR Christmas dinner, the first she would have hosted, consisted of most of the upper crust of Winnipeg, including the lieutenant-governor and Mrs. Cameron, and the Honourable Robert and Mrs. Rogers ...

On Christmas Day, Mrs. Jerry Robinson, whose husband owned the department store, entertained her grandchildren at a “Christmas tree” in her home on Wellington Crescent. The children were lucky to have as grandparents the owners of one of the largest department stores in the city, a treasure trove of presents. Two days later Mrs. Nanton had a Christmas tree for her youngest son Augustus and his friends from 4:00 to 6:00, where “A mammoth Christmas tree was laden with gifts for each lad and lassie present, Mr. C.M. Taylor in a Santa Claus disguise presenting the gifts. A number of proud mothers joined the party at the tea hour.”

On Christmas night, many people entertained with dinners and dances. Mrs. George Galt, whose house was often full of people, “entertained a group of 18. A large number of dinner parties ended up there and a jolly dance was enjoyed.” Her neighbour, Mrs. Vere Brown, Mrs. Arthur Rogers, and Mrs. Hugh Sutherland also presided over large Christmas dinners in their beautiful homes. All over the city, families, from the very rich to the very poor, did the same. Winnipeggers in 1912 displayed the same charitableness that they do today at Christmas.

There were a number of different drives to raise money for poor families. The Telegram newspaper had its own Santa Claus, who collected money and then bought presents for children who would not otherwise receive one. The paper printed pictures of poor children in the city to loosen their readers’ purse strings and dispatched a fleet of volunteer drivers in their cars to deliver the gifts. The campaign raised a lot of money. The workers in the CPR shops alone sent in the substantial sum of $249.


(Excerpt from Winnipeg 1912, by Jim Blanchard, University of Manitoba Press, Winnipeg, Manitoba, 2005; more information available at