David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Two Sides of News 100 Years Ago: War and Shopping

Brandon Sun, December 14, 2015 - David McConkey

“It is one vast wonderland and pleasureland of toys and gift goods of every description.” Looks like a great place to do your Christmas shopping, eh? That’s what Brandon Daily Sun readers thought 100 years ago when they read that sentence in an ad from the department store Doig, Rankin & Robertson. Some things – like holiday shopping – never seem to change. Other things – well, they change a lot. To glimpse that reality, read a newspaper from 100 years ago.

Back in those days, Brandon shoppers headed downtown: especially along the south side of Rosser Ave. from Seventh to 10th. As well as smaller shops, there were two big department stores: Doig, Rankin & Robertson at 702 Rosser and Nation & Shewan at 808 Rosser. According to the newspaper ad, shoppers found Doig, Rankin & Robertson “brighter and better than ever, glowing, alive, and the atmosphere charged with the merry, cheery spirit of Christmas.”

But life wasn’t only about joyful shopping. The world was at war. And danger lurked close to home, too. In just a few weeks, two disasters would hit Brandon. A train wreck would kill 19 workers – Brandon’s deadliest tragedy. And a fire at Doig, Rankin & Robertson would kill four employees – Brandon’s deadliest fire.

What is news? Media observers like Marshall McLuhan have pointed out that there are two kinds of news. One is “bad news” – what we usually refer to simply as “the news.” But there is also “good news” – you know, the ads! And of course, we can’t have just the bad news. We need the good news of the ads to bring us all the news.
A century ago, those two sides of the news were especially dramatic. The bad news was really bad – world war. And the good news was really good – Christmas shopping!

A side note: during the First World War, the news was censored and massaged – now we call it propaganda. The Canadian public was not to know how poorly the Great War was going. Every story – even about a Allied setback – had a positive “spin.” For example, the Dec. 14, 1915 top front-page headline in the Sun read: “Allied Armies in Balkans Harried but Safe.”
But back to shopping: especially women’s fashion shopping. Look at the elaborate women’s attire in pictures from 100 years ago. Look at the hats! When Brandon stores revealed their fall headwear, it was front-page news.

“Millinery Openings at City Stores,” a September 1915 headline in the Sun read. “Fall Creations Run Gamut from Extreme to Simple – Sailor Hats in Many Widely Different Forms Predominate.” The story reviewed the offerings at the two department stores and the four millinery shops. (Imagine that: Brandon had four stores just for women’s hats!)
Much effort went into securing the best hats for the women of Brandon and surrounding area. At Doig, Rankin & Robertson, Miss McLeod was in charge of millinery and she travelled to Eastern Canada to procure the best and latest fashions.

“We invite all those who appreciate really artistic hats to visit our advance showing of the new fall styles,” a September 1915 Doig, Rankin & Robertson ad said. “Miss McLeod has just returned from the East, where she has spent the last six weeks in selecting what appears to us as the smartest collection of models it has ever been our good fortune to possess.”

The bad news of war rarely mixed with the good news of shopping. For example, there was only the odd mention of the war slowing the bounty of consumer products flowing into Brandon. Probably citizens preferred to forget about the war, anyway, and just be shoppers. Now we call it “retail therapy.”

“What will the styles be for fall, 1915?” That question was asked in a Nation & Shewan ad announcing the Brandon arrival of “the new fall styles as decreed by the foremost designers of Paris and New York.” The war occasionally made an appearance. Many designs, the ad noted, were “inspired by the heroic deeds of today.”

But mix the war with Christmas shopping? Yes, sometimes. In a December 1915 ad, among many gift ideas, this unusual item was listed by Doig, Rankin & Robertson: “soldiers’ mirrors.”

These mirrors, “made of polished steel,” were “indispensable for soldiers in the trenches,” the ad said. “A suitable and inexpensive gift. Each: 50 cents.”

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See also:  

“A Gloom Over the City”

The Medium is the Message?

Discovering Historic Downtown Brandon

Manitoba History – A Citizen Appreciation

Reflections on the Great War



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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