Object Lessons: Domestic Interiors on Display at Eaton's Toronto Department Stores

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Haight, Susan




During the interwar years the T. Eaton Company constructed a number of life-sized model houses and period rooms in their Toronto department stores as a means of marketing furniture and house furnishings. This thesis argues that Eaton's used these domestic displays in a program of public pedagogy intended to sell Torontonians specific ideas about middle class values as well as tables and chairs, carpets and wallpaper. Advertising, most notably in the Toronto Globe, complemented these object lessons in modern middlebrow domesticity. Starting in the late nineteenth century many furniture retailers in Europe and North America had deployed such displays as marketing tools. Situating this commercial practice in a particular time and place enables a deeper understanding of its cultural meaning. Eaton's interwar displays reflected corporate imaginings of the local market: Thrift House (1926-1950) was designed to appeal to budget-conscious homeowners, while the Ideal Ontario House (1930-1936) encouraged more affluent Torontonians to buy Canadian made furnishings. The House of To-day (1929) targeted those willing to experiment with innovative art moderne designs. Period interiors featuring English and French historical styles remained a constant, reflecting the popularity of tradition during these decades. Mid level employees, such as interior designers René Cera and Phyllis Stagg, and innovative copywriter Edith Macdonald (known as 'The Scribe'), used their talents to teach shoppers about the aesthetics of interior design, financial literacy, and the impact of consumer choices on the national economy: a syllabus that reinforced a definition of appropriate middle class consumerism as disciplined desire. As a site of display, Eaton's was linked to more obviously authoritative institutions of public pedagogy in Toronto, such as the Royal Ontario Museum. Through its focus on domesticity and its embrace of public pedagogy as a key marketing technique, the store cultivated an image as a civic benefactor, undercutting contemporary critiques of mass merchandising as essentially deceptive and corrupt. Case studies of the store's interwar domestic displays reveal successes and failures of Eaton's bid for cultural authority in a city of homes.


Canadian History
Design and Decorative Arts




Carleton University

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