Les Henry: Catalogue houses of the past. Who were the actors?

Many houses thought to be Eaton’s have turned out to be from some other company

Yesterday’s version of online shopping was the catalogue. In Canada, the T. Eaton Company Ltd. catalogues were most common. Many Santa Claus lists were fulfilled via Canada Post from the T. Eaton catalogue. For Western Canada, the Eaton’s catalogue came from Winnipeg.

The range of goods available was extensive — all the way from clothing, toys, dishes and housewares of all kinds — and, yes, even the house itself. I was raised in a large, two-and-a-half-storey house, and curiosity about its origins led to my book Catalogues Houses; Eatons’ and Others.

T. Eaton was the most popular mail order house in the Canadian West, but there were many other actors in the business. On the bald prairie, where many of us were raised, there were no trees to cut down for lumber, so much of it came from lower mainland British Columbia by train, hauled to the farm by team and wagon.

More on catalogue houses below:

Eaton’s is to catalogue houses as Kleenex is to facial tissue. Many houses thought to be Eaton’s have turned out to be some other company. Much is known about Eaton’s, so this piece will let readers know who some of the other actors were.

B.C Mills Timber and Trading Company

First to the game was B.C Mills Timber and Trading Company (BCMT&T) located at False Creek in Vancouver. The company started in the late 1800s and was out of the business by 1914. It was the only company that made prefab houses. Walls were shipped complete and bolted together on-site.

BCMT&T houses had a unique design and are easily recognized. In the Prairie provinces, they are located in towns and were often the house for the bank manager. They even had prefab banks, notably the Canadian Bank of Commerce buildings were built in 1906 in Weyburn and Humboldt, Sask.

The Aladdin Company

Aladdin was huge in the mail order house business. The houses were precut in the factory but not prefab. Aladdin’s sales pitch included, “Hang your saw on a nail all day.” The headquarters was in Bay City, Mich., but the company had offices and mills all over the United States.

Canadian Aladdin Co. Ltd. had offices and mills all across Canada, so it was not just a Western enterprise like T. Eaton houses. Aladdin had very nice plan books in full color and the company stated it would pay you $1 for every knot you found in the lumber it shipped.

There are many Aladdin houses on farms and a few in towns across Canada. Some company towns have dozens of houses all from Aladdin. If readers want to check out their houses to see if they might be Aladdin, go to https://www.cmich.edu/library/clarke/ResearchResources/Michigan_Material_Local/Bay_City_Aladdin_Co/Pages/default.aspx.

That site has almost all of the Aladdin plan books. All are U.S. plan books with the exception of 1920, which is Canadian Aladdin. The houses were much the same, but often with different names.

United Grain Growers

United Grain Growers (UGG), a farmer-owned grain company, was the founder of Grainews. In the late 1910s and early 1920s, UGG was also in the mail order house business. We have located many of these homes through testimonials in later plan books. If your town had a UGG elevator, there is a good chance there are some UGG houses on the farms.

Western Retail Lumber Association

The Western Retail Lumber Association (WRLA) was founded in the 1890s and exists to this day. They have an annual meeting right here in Saskatoon. In the mid-1910s, the WRLA joined the plan book business, and I do have a few plan books that show its houses. Many of the association’s two-storey houses had distinctive double dormers and are easy to pick out.

Sears, Roebuck and Company

Sears was huge in the United States and to my knowledge did not do business in Canada. A few houses may have snuck across the border, but they did not have business offices. I have several books dealing with Sears houses in the United States.

Sears sold 50,000-plus mail order houses; however, it all ended abruptly when the 1930s hit. The company was also involved in financing and unpaid mortgages ended that game.

Radford Architectural Company

Radford, based in Chicago, Ill., was not in the mail order house business, but was dominant in the house plan business. I have a few hardcover books showing 100 plans from the early 1900s. My 1910 book was originally sold for $1 and blueprints were Radford’s revenue stream.

Radford plans, sometimes with modifications, did find their way into other companies’ plan books. T. Eaton made up blueprints for a house design called No. 766, but its plan books showed no such number. That house is in my book and I have seen the blueprints stamped T. Eaton Co. Ltd. Many years after the book was published, I stumbled on that exact house plan on page 88 of the 1910 Radford book.

In recent years, much Radford information is available online. Just Google Radford Architectural Company and all sorts pop up. I find the HathiTrust Digital Library site very good.

A Radford House: A recent example

A few months ago, I received an email from Jeremy Schrag, photographer extraordinaire from Eastend Sask. He had stumbled on a Grainews piece of mine about catalogue houses.

Jeremy has many stunning photos of a long-abandoned, but very unique, farmhouse in that area. He sent me photos and asked for help with the origins of the house. It did not look like anything I had seen before so I decided to thumb through the 1910 Radford book. The unique pointed dormer was a clue to go to Radford.

Imagine the excitement when I came to design No. 105 on page 98 of the 1910 Radford book. Jeremy’s reply was, “Looks like a 100 per cent perfect match to me.”

Jeremy Schrag’s photo of the Eastend-area house, complete with supermoon. The veranda and balcony are missing; however, Jeremy has an old photo showing those in place. To see more of Jeremy’s work, visit theweatherwolf.zenfolio.com.
photo: Supplied

The photos show it all. Jeremy also told me about examples of the same house in Moose Jaw, Sask., and another at Claresholm, Alta.

If readers have a house they want to identify, I will help if I can. Mail or email photos of the house from at least two sides and include a description or sketch of the original floor plan. I often learn something new from such inquiries.

My mail and email address are below beside my photo. Fair warning — not all find a match, but many do, and that is a big thrill for both of us.

About the author

Columnist

Les Henry

J.L.(Les) Henry is a former professor and extension specialist at the University of Saskatchewan. He farms at Dundurn, Sask. He recently finished a second printing of “Henry’s Handbook of Soil and Water,” a book that mixes the basics and practical aspects of soil, fertilizer and farming. Les will cover the shipping and GST for “Grainews” readers. Simply send a cheque for $50 to Henry Perspectives, 143 Tucker Cres., Saskatoon, Sask., S7H 3H7, and he will dispatch a signed book.

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