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Setting the Stage of Modernity

Freiman's Department Store and the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress World Fair

Anna Stevenson, Author

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              The twentieth century department store monopolized the retail
market in Canada. In 1930 department stores captured 14 percent of retail
dollars spent in Canada and almost ninety percent of these shares were captured
by three department store giants: Eaton’s, Simpson’s, and the Hudson’s Bay
Company (Belisle 2011, 40). Unlike in Canada, in the United States it took
seventeen American department stores to realize 34 percent of their nation’s
department store business (Belisle 2011, 14). Eaton’s was the leader of these
three; half of the retail workforce in Canada belonged to Eaton’s in 1930 and
by World War II Eaton’s had become the third largest employer, succeed only by
the federal government and the railroads (Belisle 2011, 40).  In the prosperity of the early 1920’s Eaton’s
experienced their highest expansion rate with department stores springing up in
small and large cities across the country ranging from Moncton, New Brunswick
to Moose Jaw, Alberta. By 1929 Eaton’s had forty-seven retail stores and one
hundred mail order offices (Belisle 2011, 14). In 1928 Eaton’s bought the
Ontario small town department store chain, Canadian Department Stores Limited
(CDS), which included a store in Ottawa (Kopytek 2014, 111). CDS stores adopted
Eaton’s buying and marketing structure but they operated under their own name. However,
despite Eaton’s national success and capitalization of the market, it was not
until 1973 that Eaton’s would enter Ottawa’s retail market (Kopytek 2014, 134).
Canada’s capital city proved a challenge to Eaton’s expansion which author
Bruce Allen Kopytek, in his comprehensive book on Canada’s greatest commercial department
store, “Eaton’s: The Trans-Canada Store”, calls, “…an oddity for a company that
saw itself as Canada’s premier department store” (2014, 112).  

                This “oddity” was a result of A.J. Freiman Limited –a local department store
situated in the heart of Ottawa’s downtown on 73 Rideau Street. By 1929
Freiman’s was the largest department store in Ottawa and by the 1960’s the
store expanded to peripheral cities and also created multiple discount stores
(Freiman 1978, 66). The immense success of Freiman’s was due to its desire to
be modern, which was found in its following and disseminating of popular
culture and international trends. While the top three department store giants
were focused on the national, particularly with Canadian nationalism, Freiman’s
sought the international. From an early stage Freiman’s looked to the
international scene to get ahead of competitors and inspire the public. Their
motto which appeared on the bottom of all of their newspaper advertisements,
“A.J. Freiman’s - the store that sets the pace!” appropriately defined their
goal and their desire. Freiman’s aimed to bring Ottawans the experience of the
modern international to the local. Despite looking to the international they
still followed the same typical Canadian department store schema of selling to
the class diversity of bourgeoisie and the working class populations to capture
the largest proportion of the retail market. The most prominent and direct
example highlighting Freiman’s use of international themes is their
appropriation of the Chicago’s Century of Progress World Fair in 1933. An architectural
model of the 1933 fair was created for the store’s corner display window for
the month of October 1933. They specifically use the ideology and visual
symbols embedded in the fair’s operations, mandates, and activities to appeal
to the social climate of the period. The 1933 Century of Progress Fair was
marketed as a beacon of hope based on modern developments in science,
technology, and industry during the darkness of the Great Depression (Schrenk
2007, 1). Modernity and modernization was the key to achieving a brighter
future. The success of the Fair in instilling hope of a better future through
modernity was realized through corporate capitalism as a modernizing agency, a
logic which Freiman’s applied to their store (Rydel 1993, 115). Freiman’s offered
people the escape from harsh realities of Depression life through the
participation in a centre of modernity. Freiman’s design sets and advertising
techniques reflect the fair’s ideology which symbolized modernity and progress.
The Century of Progress Fair, and its logic of consumption, was literally
brought to Ottawa by Freiman’s to associate themselves as Ottawa’s centre of modernity
and therefore the premier place to shop.


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