When We Shopped By Catalogue

For people like us, living far from towns during the 1930-40’s the Mail Order Catalogues played a very important role in our lives. We eagerly awaited their twice yearly appearance. Some firms sent out a special Christmas issue as well, which was to we children, the most exciting one of all. I remember when there were seven Sydney stores using the catalogue system as a means of catering for our needs, supplying everything from blankets, crockery and hardware to clothing and footwear. The Sydney firms were, Marcus Clarkes, Grace Bros., Winns, Hordern Bros. Rueben Brasch, Farmers and David Jones: the latter two being the ultimate in size and production… and usually too expensive for the working man’s pocket.

In Victoria the Myer Emporium, as it was known then, was a popular and very efficient Melbourne Mail Order Firm and one of the first to issue Customer Identification Cards which was metal and called a Credit plate.

Wakes, which were situated at the top end of Swanston Street and specialised in women’s clothing.

There were shoe catalogues, too. Fosters of Sydney always had photos of the current film stars like Alice Faye, Irene Dunne and Norma Shearer, whilst our favourites, Gloria Jean and Deanna Durbin graced the Teenage style pages. Wittners was also a reputable firm. Recently someone showed me one of it’s. old catalogues, dated 1933 in which prices were being ‘slashed’ by 3/2d. (32 cents). That must have been a bargain when the current price of ladies’ shoes then, was 10/9d, ($1,10) and mens’
working boots were 13s 9d, ($1,40,), No nylon stockings in those days but ladies could buy the silk variety for 1/9d. With every five pound ($10.) order, one could receive a free suitcase. What persuasive advertising!

When we children needed shoes, Dad would stand us on the kitchen table in our socks, then placing a piece of paper under our feet, he would with a pencil, outline each foot. It would be sent off to the shoe store but with return postage so expensive them, we would often keep the shoes, wearing them despite blisters, if they were too tight, or with thick socks -if they were too big, til we grew into them. The term, “shoes swallowing your socks” must have been “coined” in the 1930’s. Tight shoes
were stuffed with wet paper to ‘stretch’ them or worn in the wet dew and left on, being leather this often worked.

We children were fascinated with the strips of coloured ‘real’ wool samples, mostly 2,3, ,and 4 ply (there were no thick wools for bulky knits in those days), which were included in the Autumn/Winter catalogues along with the pinked-edged, postage stamp-Sized “feelers” of woollen, serge and velvet materials. In the spring/summer issue they were replaced by samples of linens, cottons, voiles and crepe de chines. (There were no synthetic fabrics then). Little did we know that in a few year’s time, WWII would mean the end of those beautiful cotton materials for a long, long time.

Christmas orders had to be sent away weeks beforehand, in case of delays. Parcels from Sydney would come by rail as far as Nowra then down the coast by bus to Eden, then bus to Genoa and again bus to Mallacoota. Interstate parcel postage was expensive so Mum came up with the bright idea to have our address ‘Mallacoota, via Eden, NSW’ and mostly it worked!

Sometimes mail was delayed along the way and I remember one Christmas morning when our parents were as disappointed as we were at the small surprises that Santa Claus had
left us. A few days later, by coincidence, after the floods had receded, Dad discovered quite a few more presents in the fireplace that had been apparently been dropped by Father Christmas when he came down the chimney. Our faith in Santa Claus was restored, as no doubt was that of our parents, in the Mail Order System.

There were jewellery catalogues, too. Sydney’s Angus & Coote sent them regularly and how we would gloat over the pictures of necklaces, brooches, rings and watches. Enclosed was a page of stiff cardboard with graduated finger-sized holes. To order a ring, one had only to quote the number of the hole that fitted your finger. Many a country romance was sealed with an engagement ring selected in this way, followed later by a wedding ring purchased for the Big Day.

As we girls approached our teen years we juggled with clothing coupons during the war years to buy a pretty dress with colourful embroidery or applique, the vogue at that time and largely featured in Wake’s catalogues.

Those Mail Order Catalogues were an integral part of our lives, showing us the latest in household goods and giving us a glimpse of world fashions. They were shop windows in our isolated life!

Leone Pheeny

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