Christmas Shopping in the Past and Present

As November draws to a close, there is a good chance you are beginning to feel that North American Christmas “spirit” of mass consumption take hold of your being, and your local shopping mall.  With economic times being what they are, and with many readers of this blog being indentured servants graduate students, there is also a good chance you are trying to find budget gifts for friends.  But if origami swans, macaroni artwork, or toilet-paper-roll-dolls just won’t cut it (again), you may want to consider a timeless and inexpensive option:  a book.

When I was ten my parents bought me The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for Christmas and it consumed my entire break.   Since then I have been a strong advocate for giving (and receiving) books on any gift-giving occasion.  Since this is a blog about digital history, let’s  explore the purchase of books, both historically and digitally.

Historic Shopping

If you wanted to purchase a book in 1913 as a gift, one common option (aside from the local book store) would be to order it through the Eaton’s Catalogue.  As one of Canada’s largest retailers, Eton’s provided a seasonal catalogue to meet the needs of rural Canadians who were unable  to visit the stores in town due to geographic isolation.

Digital Shopping

Interestingly, one century later and the principle of “shopping from a distance,” remains as millions of people make book purchases online, through services such as Amazon.  Unlike shopping from the Eaton’s Catalogue however, online shopping is faster, provides infinitely more products, and (at least in the case of Amazon) assesses your purchasing habits in order to recommend products you may not have considered.

History, meet Digital

Although Eaton’s filed for bankruptcy in the 90’s, the catalogues are now available online, as historic artifacts.  In the 1913-14 Fall and Winter Eaton’s Catalogue, there are a number of books that would still make valuable stocking stuffers.  Yet, you may not need to purchase these works because many full versions are now available online.  What follows is a selection of SIX books from the 1913-14 Eaton’s Catalogue (for History lovers) with directions to full online versions (for Digital junkies).

1. Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Harriet Beecher Stowe

Description:  Published in 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin remains an American classic.  Describing the institution of slavery, the novel sparked a large debate in the United States. There is a rumor that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe he remarked, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.”  (One of my personal favorites).

1913-14 Price: $0. 25*  2011 Price:  $0.03

Availability Online: Yes.

Full version on Project Gutenberg:  Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Also, a number of different versions are available on the Internet Archive.

2. The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin – Beatrix Potter

Description:  Illustrated and written by Beatrix Potter in 1903, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin is part of the Peter Rabbit series.  A classic for children.  And a classic nickname for people who resemble squirrels.

1913-14 Price:  $0.25     2011 Price: $0.01

Availability Online: Yes. 

A full version of is found on the Internet Archive:  The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin.  A limited, yet illustrated, version is on Amazon:  The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin

3. The [Wonderful] Wizard of Oz – Frank Baum

Description:  This classic work of Frank Baum sold over 21,000 copies in 1900.  The story of a Kansas girl Dorothy and her dog Toto being swept up in a tornado and brought to Oz, has entertained Americans for over 100 years.  (Also, in Gr. 2 I landed the part of a munchkin in the school musical.  It went well, but I retired shortly after to pursue dodgeball)

1913-14 Price: $1.00        2011 Price: $0.01

Availability Online: Yes.

Full text available on Internet Archive:  The Wizard of Oz.  Also Google Books Advanced Search contains an illustrated, but limited copy of the work.

4. Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe

Description: Published in 1719, Defoe’s tale of a man stranded on a desert island continues to inspire writers.  To (sadly?) quote Wikipedia: “Although inspired by a real life event, it was the first notable work of literature where the story was independent of mythology, history, legends, or previous literature.”

1913-14 Price: $0.25    2011 Price:  $0.01

Availability Online: Yes.

A full version is available through Haithi Trust Digital Library here: Robinson Crusoe.  A full text is also available through Project Gutenberg.

5. Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

Description: Swift’s penchant for satire permeates this 1726 fiction.  Gulliver’s Travels is more than one man’s outrageous journey.  It is also Swift’s critique of English society, and literature including Defoe’s depiction of individual capability in Robinson Crusoe.

1913-14 Price: $0.25    2011 Price: $0.01

Availability Online: Yes.

A full Version available through Google Books:  Gulliver’s Travels.  A full text also available through the Internet Archive.

6. Magner’s Standard Horse and Stock Book 

Magner's Standard Horse and Stock Book 1893Description: (From Eaton’s) “A 1200 page book with 1765 illustrations on the symptoms, diseases and treatment of animals.  Explains how to control, break or train vicious horses.  Full description of various breeds of cattle sheep, hogs, etc.  Useful information on feeding.  Deals with poultry, dogs, bees, insects, grafting and much other useful information.  Weight 48 ounces.”

1913-14 Price: $1.50       2011 Price:  $6.50 – $14.00

Availability Online:  Surprisingly….yes!

A full text and illustrations viewable through the Internet Archive- Horse and Stock Book.  Full text with illustrations also available through the Haithi Trust Digital Library.  (This last find really surprised me.  As it will surprise your parents when you get it for them for Christmas).

Christmas Shopping and Online Searching

Reading through the old Eaton’s Catalogue and locating online versions came with some surprises.  The fact that an entire scanned version of Magner’s Horse and Stock book exists online is shocking.  I imagine the time spent creating that work and today it is only click away from being available for perusal.  However, this is good news should anyone happen to come across a “vicious horse” on their way to school.  Aside from Magner’s Horse Lessons, each book on the list above is on my shelf at home, and is something I bought from a book store, both used and new.  Although I appreciate that these works are available to anyone with an internet connection, nothing can replace a mug of tea, a recliner and a good book.

So, in this spirit, let this list inspire you to pick up a book for a friend this Christmas.  If you noticed, all of these books can be purchased for under $5.00 from Amazon.  And if that is still too steep, you now know that all of these books are free, online.  If you need too, take a piece of paper, write down the url to some of these free books, wrap it up in a box, and put that under the tree.  But don’t be surprised if you get the same gift next year.

*Throughout this list, I indicate the price of books in terms of a 1913 currency.  Most books fall within the range of a dime to a dollar, and the most expensive set in the Catalogue contains the collected works of Dickens, cloth bound and gilt tops, for $10.00.  In order to get my head around what this cost in today’s currency, I found an online inflation calculator and discovered that $0.10 = $2.29, $1.00 = $22.87 and $10.00 = $228.71 in 1913.  (Although this is US currency, it provides a good indication of costs in Canada).  This is interesting, when one considers that Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was selling for $1.00 still in 1913, when most books, classics and new fiction, were half or a quarter the price.


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