For all the munchies, the biggest selection was to be had at Cowichan Merchants, Ltd., the largest store in town, whose line of goods ranged from foods to furniture. (Andrea Rondeau/Citizen)

T.W. Paterson column: Is Christmas shopping déjà vu for Island merchants?

For all the munchies, the biggest selection was to be had at Cowichan Merchants, Ltd.

For all the munchies, the biggest selection was to be had at Cowichan Merchants, Ltd., the largest store in town, whose line of goods ranged from foods to furniture.

Don’t think history repeats itself? Try this.

Until the arrival of the E&N Railway in 1884, there was no Duncan. Almost all serious shopping was done in Victoria, the goods, ordered by mail, being delivered by weekly steamships to Maple and Cowichan Bays.

Then came the railway and Alderlea-Duncan’s Crossing-Duncan, which, right from the start, became the Valley’s commercial hub as various merchants offered their wares and services.

But the E&N brought something else — competition.

Victoria, and to a lesser degree, Nanaimo, offered a much wider range of goods and services. Because Duncan didn’t have its own newspaper, many Valley residents subscribed to either of the two Victoria dailies or the Nanaimo weekly.

Needless to say, these newspapers were filled with ads, including those of large department stores such as Eaton’s and the Hudson’s Bay Co., which also published their own mail order catalogues.

Who needed to shop locally?

And here we are, just over a century later, with Duncan — Cowichan — merchants, the so-called bricks-and-mortar merchants, facing an even greater opponent — online shopping.

See what I mean about history repeating itself?

Obviously, the merchants of old survived the Big City competition, and I’m sure that today’s merchants will weather this storm. After all, personalized service, that alchemy of humanity is the secret ingredient of long-term successful marketing. Just try returning something online. Or, as a Victoria newspaper columnist facetiously suggested, phone Seattle when you want 911. He was reminding his readers that local business people pay the bulk of municipal and city taxes as well as hire locally.

I was reminded of this new and growing challenge to the commercial sector by editor Andrea Rondeau’s editorial on shopping locally — another example of history repeating itself. When, finally, Duncan did have it own newspaper, the Cowichan Leader, it repeatedly editorialized on, of all things, shopping locally.

Speaking of editorializing, that’s it for me for today. Let’s turn back the clock to 1919 and see what local merchants were offering for the Christmas season…

A century ago, some things were much better when done locally. Such as ordering your Christmas turkey from a local meat market who bought it from a local farmer. (Another theme that’s repeating itself these days.)

For all the munchies, the biggest selection was to be had at Cowichan Merchants, Ltd., the largest store in town, whose line of goods ranged from foods to furniture. Raisins, seedless and sultana, sold for 20-30 cents per pound, currants and dates for 30 cents per pound. Mixed nuts (no peanuts) cost 45 cents per pound, but nuts and peanuts, mixed, were cheaper by 5 cents; Brazils, almonds, filberts, walnuts, chestnuts ranged from40-45 cents per pound, but the price almost doubled if they were shelled.

Figs were 50 cents a package, “crystalized” cherries all of 1.50 per pound — three hours’ pay for many a working man in 1919!

Cranberries and plum puddings also sold by the pound, for 25 cents per, as did mincemeat, and mixed peel, and ginger cost almost twice as much, with mixed candies and name-brand chocolates as much as 75 cents. A bottle of Imperial port wine or O.T. Cordial cost 75 cents, a bottle of Kennedy’s port or ginger wine just 15 cents more.

Consumers were warned that the prices of tea and coffee were likely to rise, so grab a pound of Empress tea or Malkin’s Best while they could for 65 cents, or a pound of Deekajulie tea for another dime. Slightly higher priced were Braid’s Best, Ridgeway’s Old Country and Blue Ribbon. Coffee prices were somewhat lower, at an average of 60 cents per pound.

Oh, and don’t forget “Jap” [sic] oranges for the kiddies, just $1 a box (weight unspecified but likely five pounds).

For the ladies, “holeproof” silk stockings $1 a pair and an assortment of fine handkerchiefs.

So much for the ladies! Just the two items, stockings and handkerchiefs, although the Merchants pointed out that Pyrex cooking ware was also “an ideal gift” for you-know-who. Contrarily, the store carried more than 60 items sure to please the man or the boy in the family. These ranged from handkerchiefs, two for 25 cents, to men’s sweater coats at $15.

Other than for children, most gift giving was practical in that harsh age of living on the frontier, so it’s no surprise that the merchants also promoted a line of “cold weather necessities”. These included Mackinaw coats, plain and checked, ranging from $13.50-$18, boys’ for $10, and Indian sweaters and socks, any style, for $12. An intriguing item is the proffered “splendid showing of men’s negligee shirts,” with a wide range of patterns and fabrics to choose from. Cutlery with French ivory handles was quite costly: up to $17 for a set that included dessert knives.

At the Maple Leaf store, the emphasis was on children’s gifts, including a come-on of a free ice cream cone to any youngster who brought along a parent. Suggested gifts for parents included a pipe for Dad and chocolates — Neilson’s, of course — for Mom.

White, the Rexall druggist, took out an almost full-page ad to promote himself as the Christmas Store, with everything from men’s personals (razors, pipes and cigars) to ebony hair brushes for both genders, to expensive Grafanolas (gramophones) and more modest Kodak cameras. An allusion to the woman of the house was exquisite soaps, $1-$5.50 a box, size not specified.

To accommodate last-minute shoppers, White’s would remain open until 10 p.m. every day but Christmas.

Jeweller David Switzer didn’t forget the ladies with an offering of gold brooches, earrings, pendants, etc. For the gentlemen: pocket and wrist watches, cuff links, tie pins, watch fobs, cigarette cases, etc.; for the home: mantle clocks, silverware, cut glass, Doulton tea sets.

Switzer’s selection was so varied that he couldn’t “begin to tell” the public “all the nice things we have for Christmas presents, but we will be pleased to show you them and help you in your selection”. (See? Personalized service!)

OK, you’ve seen some tempting prices here a la 1919. So let’s do a post-inflation reality check. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics consumer price index, prices in 2018 [the most recent figures] are 1,351.48 per cent higher than average prices throughout 1919. The dollar experienced an average inflation rate of 2.74 per cent per year during this period, meaning the real value of a dollar decreased over the years.

Another source tells us that the average work hourly pay for a 45.6 hour work-week in the U.S. a century ago was 56.1 cents, or $25.61 per week.

Now look at some of those ‘bargain’ prices again and calculate how many hours it would take to work to pay for them. Don’t forget to factor in the brand-new “temporary” income tax!

I should add that there was very little credit in those days, mostly cash-and-carry. How many of today’s shoppers could even begin to shop without plastic or debit?

Merry Christmas.

www.twpaterson.com

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