MAIL ORDER HOMES
There was something about the idea of mail order homes that intrigued me. I had heard of this phenomenon, but didn’t know much about it. That’s how I began this article, with a few questions:
What’s the story of the mail order home industry in Western Canada?
Are there any mail order homes in Calgary?
Could there possibly be any mail order homes in Sunalta?
My search for answers began online. And this is what I learned...
During the early 20th century, settlers arrived on the Canadian prairies, and since lumber was scarce here, the mail order home business flourished. Some of the mail order companies also offered kits for barns, garages and schools. Several companies were in operation in Canada in the 1910’s and 20’s, including BC Mills and United Grain Growers, among others, but the main players were Eaton’s and The Canadian Aladdin Company.
In the early 1900’s the Eaton’s catalogue supplied families with everything they needed: clothing, furnishings, tools, etc. Complete house packages first appeared in the Winnipeg edition of the catalogue in 1910. By the mid-teens Eaton’s published a Plan Book which offered up to 40 different house plans, with an artist’s sketch, floor plan, and information on lumber, doors, windows, flooring, and hardware. The most common style of Eaton’s house, a one-and-one-half-storey model, sold in 1912 for $696.50, plus $150 for indoor plumbing. Delivered to the nearest rail station, a customer would receive everything they needed to build their home – including the blueprints, lumber, furnace, nails, and paint. The lumber itself was superior, guaranteed without knots, from Douglas fir trees seven feet in diameter that would not be cut today. Eaton’s remained in the mail order home business until the early 1930’s.
The Canadian Aladdin Company, originated from an American firm, and was in operation in Canada from 1905 to 1952. Their head office was in the CPR building in Toronto. Unlike Eaton’s, Aladdin offered a Readi-cut system, which meant that all pieces were pre-cut, marked and numbered, allowing for ease of construction, as stated in their catalogue: “Manufactured in our mills in Ontario, New Brunswick and British Columbia, according to the most approved methods of modern construction, shipped complete, knocked-down flat, ready for construction…anyone can put them up.” The Canadian Aladdin company remained in business until 1952. An amazing collection of Aladdin catalogues can be found here.
So what about mail order homes and Calgary? As I researched I got the feeling that the mail order home market was more the rural farming population, although here and there I could find references to mail order homes in cities. A great book recommended to me was Catalogue Houses Eaton’s and Others by Les Henry, available at the library. Les Henry grew up in an Eaton’s home in rural Saskatchewan and became interested in their stories. He traveled around the prairies, primarily in rural Saskatchewan, documenting mail order houses still standing. I did find a Calgary Herald article from February 2007, focused on one known Calgary Eaton’s home, located in Tuxedo, a neighbourhood in the northeast. In the article, Les Henry states that there are fourteen known mail order houses still standing in Alberta, and just that one in Calgary.
I did find several sources that indicated it isn’t always easy to document a mail order house, particularly in the city where homes typically change hands many times, and you lose oral histories. Also, the house may not appear as it does in the catalogue, as the original floor plans may have been changed or reversed, and additions or renovations may further alter the look of a house. However clues can be found scattered among personal documents, legal papers, or the house itself. Below are suggestions for finding out if your home is a mail order house.
Look for numbers or words stamped on beams, joists, rafters or any other exposed wood structures in the attic or cellar.
Look for blueprints or other paperwork tucked away in the attic or a closet.
Check building permits, mortgages, deeds, or other public records that could indicate a connection with a mail order company.
Look at catalogues (online or other) to compare your house with catalogue houses. Look for similarities in the roof line, floor plan, or location and spacing of doors, windows, or chimney.
>> return to HISTORICAL ARTICLES