What if you could go online and order your new house — pick out the layout and all the fixtures, the styles of doors and windows, and then have it delivered? A century ago you could, through the magic of the Eatons catalogue.

A History — Eaton’s Houses

This was the pioneer equivalent of buying online. You could buy just about anything out of the Eaton’s catalogue, from farm equipment to children’s toys. You simply checked off your order, mailed it in, then picked it up down at the railway station. Buying a house by mail was no different, albeit a bit trickier than ordering a sewing machine or a suit. For one thing, what they sent you was essentially a big pile of wood and some nails, so a certain amount of assembly was required.

How much assembly depended on from whom you were buying. Although we tend to refer to catalogue houses generally as «Eaton’s houses,» Eaton’s wasn’t the only game in town. Some companies, such as Aladdin (an American company which moved into Canada in 1908) sold kits with all the lumber pre-cut, marked and numbered, making assembly simply a matter of following the instruction book. «If you can swing a hammer» Aladdin claimed, «you can build a house» Eaton’s, however, sent you a blueprint along with a carload of uncut lumber and the necessary millwork and hardware, meaning you needed a competent builder to put it all together.

Most catalogue houses were bought by customers on farms or in small towns. They are rarer in the cities, where there were plenty of lumberyards and lots of builders to choose from. Out in the country, where options were more limited, Eaton’s did a booming business. This doesn’t mean there aren’t catalogue houses in Saskatoon, but they can be hard to pick out.

A customer buying an Eaton’s home would choose from a list of house styles, then pick from among the various selections of doors, window, mouldings, stair rails and posts, flooring, wallboard and other requirements. Plumbing was extra, as was the «Red Hot» wood-and-coal-burning furnace. Eaton’s bragged of the weather-tightness of its walls, which had two dead air spaces — an outer one between the studs, and an inner one, formed by inch-thick vertical strips nailed over the inner sheathing, on to which the lath and plaster were laid

— making, so they claimed, «an exceptionally warm house in Winter and the coolest in Summer.» In practice, Eaton’s houses could be quite draughty. Luckily, the balloon-style construction, where studs extended the full height of the house without any interruption between floors, meant that it was easy to blow insulation into them later.

One advantage of an Eaton’s home over the pre-cuts was that homeowners could more easily tweak the plans to their own preferences, with the result that the final product could be quite different from the picture in the catalogue. Eaton’s would also create custom packages from sketches sent in by the buyer, which would not have appeared in any catalogue or plan book. peaked in 1917-1918, before tapering off as the market be¬came saturated. Eaton’s got out of the business entirely after 1932.

(For more information about catalogue homes on the prairies, see the very excellent book Catalogue Houses: Eatons’ and Others by Les Henry)

Back To Saskatoon — The Painted Lady

It’s bright. It’s bold. People slow down as they drive by, or loop around for another look. Sometimes they even knock on the door and ask if they can have their pictures taken in front of it. Someone once left a note in the mailbox thanking the owners for painting their house such a «bright, uplifting and inspiring colour» It is Simone Clayton and Cam Forman’s «House of Many Colours» and it really catches your eye.

Built around 1910 during Saskatoon’s pre-First World War real estate boom, the house at 916 Victoria Avenue (it was 918 before that, until they had it re-numbered) was originally one of a row of three identical houses, two of which still stand. An Eaton’s catalogue house, according to the realtor who sold it to them, it first shows up in the 1910 city directory under the name of Robert G. Armstrong, an insurance inspector. He was followed by John Speers, of J. H. Speers and Co., who lived there during the First World War. A great many families came and went over the years after that, including Albert and Fern Stratemeyer, who between them (he passed away in the 1960s) lived there for nearly a half century, from about 1936 until the early 1980s. In 2009, Simone and Cam became the latest owners.

The main floor is bright and airy. The living room, dining room and front entrance hall connect to each other through wide arch- ways.There is a bow window in the dining room, and at some point a large opening was cut in the wall between it and the kitchen, adding to the feeling of spaciousness. Upstairs are three bedrooms (there is evidence that the two smaller ones were once connected) and a bathroom with a beautiful claw-foot tub. It’s 1040 square feet if you include the verandah, which makes it a smaller house by today’s standards. But with the light streaming in through the bow window and a cup of coffee steaming on the dining room table, it is a bright and friendly space in which to sit and discuss the history of houses in Western Canada.

As is to be expected, the house has undergone many changes over the years. Early photographs suggest that the front verandah was originally open. If so, it has long since been glassed-in. More recently, the doors and hardwood flooring have been re-finished, with new crown moulding on the main floor, and other changes.The kitchen cupboards appear to date from about the 1980s, and the curvy track lighting in the kitchen exudes a late ’90s vibe. Downstairs, the original wood-and-coal-burning stove is long gone, and the basement itself — nowadays a combination storage area and computer room — is a far cry from the gloomy, dirt-floored root cellar it would have been in 1910. All in all, the house has been well looked after over the years, and maintains a clear connection with its historic roots.

But the new owners found the exterior to be a bit drab. «It was… pinkish,» Simone said. Probably the man at the paint store had called it «Dusty Rose» or something similar, but if so, by the time Simone and Cam moved in, it had wilted considerably. Clearly, the house needed paint.

Originally, they went hunting for the kinds of colours that would have been popular in 1912. This turned out to be a disappointment. The palette favoured by our pioneer forebears appears to have tended towards white, beige and off-white, which wasn’t Cam and Simone’s style at all. «We knew we wanted three colours,» Simone said, discussing the quite remarkable colour scheme they finally hit on, «and I absolutely knew I wanted a red door.»

They were inspired by the «Painted Ladies» of San Francisco, a group of brightly-painted, multi-coloured, Edwardian- and Victorian- era houses. Cam had also once seen something much like it while wind-surfing in Oregon, and had painted his cabin at the lake in a similar style. So they had some experience with this kind of mixing and matching.

They ended up with five colours: two pinks (one of which is nearly red), two purples, and a green. The door is indeed red (or rather, very dark pink), while the accents are green and hot pink. The scalloped shingles on the front gable end and dormers alternate between the pinks and the purple, and the scrollwork around the dormer windows are the same colour as the door.

The painting was done by a company called 3 Sisters Painting, who adopted the project enthusiastically and, indeed, contributed to the final arrangement of colours. But in many ways it was a leap of faith. «We really didn’t know how it would look in the end,» Simone admitted. The actual painting was done while they were away and, as she says, the final product was «a bit of a surprise to all of us»

But a beautiful surprise it turned out to be. Probably, you couldn’t get away with this kind of colour scheme in Briarwood or Stonebridge, but in Nutana, that most eclectic of neighbourhoods, Saskatoon’s own «Painted Lady» truly does shine.

But Is It an Eaton’s Home?

When Simone and Cam bought the house in 2009, the realtor told them it was an Eaton’s house. But was it?

Comparing old tax rolls and directories in the city’s archives with photographs from the Saskatoon Public Library’s Local History Room, we determined that the house would have been built either in the late summer of 1909 or in the spring of 1910. Unfortunately, while a date of 1910 is pretty early for an Eaton’s house, it is not beyond the realm of possibility, so we were left where we started.

When we showed photographs of the house to Les Henry, author of the book, Catalogue Houses: Eaton’s and Others, he was unequivocal that it didn’t match any Eaton’s plan of which he was aware. But he also pointed out that, «Just because you can’t find it in a plan book doesn’t mean it isn’t an Ea ton’s house» There are several reasons why a house might not look like the ones in the catalogues but still have come from Eaton’s. And of course, it could have come from another company and simply been passed off genetically as an Eaton’s house.

One way to be sure might be to open up an exterior wall and look for the «double dead air space» construction which appears to have been distinctively an Eaton’s trait.

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