A look back at the ‘catalogue houses’ era

Sod was the material employed by homesteaders for their first dwellings and for the housing of their livestock.


Sod was the material employed by homesteaders for their first dwellings and for the housing of their livestock.

The material was provided by each furrow turned to prepare land for cropping.

Those who homesteaded near a reliable source of timber could construct log dwellings but lumber was costly with none available in Central Alberta until Tom Cummings developed his sawmill on the shore of Gull Lake in 1898.

One early carpenter mentioned was homesteader Robert McNaughton who was engaged circa 1895 by G.A. Reid to build Lacombe’s first hardware store from lumber imported by ox-powered wagon train.

This building, located on Barnett Ave., was moved by G.G. Mobley in 1908 to 51 Ave. and 48 St. to serve as Lacombe’s first hospital.

This same man, George Gale Mobley, was the pioneer carpenter and builder mentioned most frequently in the early Lacombe newspapers.

Then came Timothy Eaton with his mail order catalogue providing every necessity for the pioneer family from horse harness to farm equipment, from household utensils to houses.

Mail order houses? Really?

You’ve got to be kidding! No.

They were a fact of life in pioneer days.

If in doubt simply Google ‘Catalogue Houses, Eatons’ and others’ by Les Henry. In this book Henry quotes from the 1910 Timothy Eaton’s mail order catalogue “An eight-room house with a two-story gable-end design, full veranda and back porch for $945.”

Included in the package were the doors and the hardware required, even hardwood flooring if desired.

Hot water tanks, windows, water pumps for deep or shallow wells, heating and plumbing accessories could also be included.

Every cost was stated and did not change during delivery so the buyer knew exactly what he had to pay. Purchase was a cash deal with lumber from various mills delivered by train to the town nearest the buyer.

These were not pre-fab houses and the lumber was not pre-cut.

Buyers simply chose a plan from Eaton’s two dollar plan book — or could submit their own plan — and Eaton’s supplied more than ample lumber with detailed instruction as to the construction procedure. Eaton’s did not pioneer the concept of mail-order homes. As documented by Henry, the earliest Canadian proponent of pre-fab houses may have been BCMills with headquarters in Vancouver and New Westminster.

This firm was in operation before the Trans Canada railroad was opened in June 1886.

Their catalogue of plans could well have served as the prototype for the plan books that would follow from Eaton’s and others including the University of Saskatchewan, the United Grain Growers, and the Western Retail Lumbermen’s Association. However, it was Timothy Eaton who exploited the field of catalogue houses in western Canada.

East of the Great Lakes there was Sovereign (brothers W.J. and O.E.) with lumber pre-cut and labeled ready for assembly to fit each plan in their plan book.

Sovereign was taken over by the American company Aladdin in1914 and thus that year would have marked the advent of true pre-fab houses in western Canada.

However, as documented by Henry, Sears Roebuck & Co. was marketing precut catalogue houses in the United States by 1908 and certain design features of their products did bear a singular resemblance to items featured in the catalogues available from competing firms.

Then, as now, there was no way to maintain an absolute monopoly on good ideas.

Aladdin with their true pre-fab houses (thanks to the Sovereign take-over) was the only company to seriously challenge Eaton’s.

But times change, and all of these companies had faded from the scene by 1970.

Even Eaton’s, once the undisputed master of the retail field, bowed to financial duress and terminated its catalogue.

When viewing ‘elderly’ houses within a community it may be tempting to speculate that similarities in appearance reflect catalogue ‘ancestry’.

Keep in mind, however, that such similarities are more likely to identify a common builder, an individual who understood the basics involved in erecting walls and placing a roof over them.

Nothing complicated was involved. It was a relatively simple process for anyone capable of handling a saw, square and hammer.

Indeed, such individuals were fully capable of copying design features that appealed to them, or designing their own without recourse to actual blueprints.

Thus, unless proof is available in the form of documents preserved by the original occupants, the researcher must rely on comparisons of the external appearance with illustrations portrayed in mail order catalogues of the pioneer era.

Even this is fraught with uncertainty.

Eaton’s, for example, invited prospective customers to submit sketches of designs they preferred.

As Henry says in his book, “The fact that Eaton’s would draft plans and blueprints for a house specific to an individual buyer is important when determining the origin of a house.”

In Lacombe County, however, the Ken Atsinger farm does provide two pristine examples of the catalogue house era.

These are the elegant house erected in 1914 and the grand barn erected in 1916. Both may be viewed one-half mile to the northwest as you top the overpass on Hwy. 2A between Lacombe and Blackfalds. The house was listed as the Earlsfield #68 in Eaton’s 1912-13 house plan book.

It measured 24’x28’ with kitchen, pantry, living room and parlour on the main floor and four bedrooms and bath up stairs. Its distinguishing feature was the double gambrel roof design.

For information on other genuine catalogue houses in Lacombe County contact Joan Fredeen or Mae Thompson.