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Winnipeg's Original Christmas Headquarters: The Imperial Dry Goods Store

Before Winnipeg had Eaton’s, it had the Imperial Dry Goods Store. Built in 1899 by wholesale merchant Robert Jones Whitla, the Imperial Dry Goods Block was one of many buildings under Whitla’s control. Whitla, Irish-born, arrived in Manitoba in 1878 where he began selling dry goods out of a store on Main Street. Four years later, in 1882, Whitla partnered with Dawson Kerr Elliot to create R.J. Whitla & Company. Together, Kerr and Whitla supplied wholesale clothing, fabrics, and furs to the rapidly developing Canadian west. By all accounts, the company was a success and between 1884-1899 R.J. Whitla & Co constructed three new warehouses throughout the Exchange District to store their goods.

However, until 1899, Whitla & Co didn’t cater directly to the Winnipeg market.

This all changed when ground broke on Whitla’s newest project: The Imperial Dry Goods Department Store; a brand-new retail wholesaler that was located right in the heart of downtown Winnipeg. The store’s grand entrance stepped out at 460 Main Street, but the building extended all the way to a back alley loading zone on Albert Street. The Imperial’s Main Street eccentric brick facade was four stories tall and lined with large windows. After all, what better way display the myriad of merchandise inside? 

The Imperial Dry Goods Department Store.
The store’s interior was a labyrinth of trinkets and houseware. Though the Imperial was much smaller than Winnipeg’s later department stores, they crammed a great deal of merchandise into the space available. Anything you were in want of, you could likely find within the Imperial’s walls. Though it is also fair to say they cornered the market on women’s clothing. Their front window displayed high-end women’s gowns, complete with whale-bone corsets (a material that was growing more expensive by the day in 1901), and inside you would find everything from undergarments to hats. Their Millinery (women's hats) section opened in 1903, managed by a Miss Baldwin, and claimed to stock some of the finest hats you’d see in North America. Prior to working for the Imperial, Baldwin had traveled around Canada and the US visiting some of the largest millinery emporiums and knew what looked best. The press in Winnipeg often highly regarded Baldwin’s millinery displays.[1]

Women's clothing section of the Imperial.

From the Winnipeg Tribune, December 23, 1901.

Beyond all this, though, there were housewares - including the ever useful slop jars. One could also purchase tea pots, fancy china, and plain crockery. 

From the Winnipeg Tribune, July 15, 1903.

 And of course, we shouldn’t forget the little ones. During the holiday season, the Imperial Dry Goods store claimed to be the Santa Claus headquarters for toys and dolls. Inside the Imperial’s toy department, you could find gifts for just about any child. For the adventurous, there were skates and sleds and footballs. For the quieter child, board games like crokinole worked instead.  Initially, the toy department was located in the building’s basement but by 1904 it had made the move up to the third floor.

From the Winnipeg Tribune, December 15, 1900.

From the Winnipeg Tribune, December 17, 1900.

The toys weren’t just relegated to the inside of the building, over Christmas select toys were chosen for the Imperial’s front windows – something the store took very seriously. Their 1903 window display of Christmas toys was apparently so stunning the Winnipeg Tribune didn’t even try to describe it, instead insisting “the most detailed accounts would fail to convey even a remote idea of the beauty of the plan”.[2] And, in 1901, the Imperial displayed a “Giant Doll”, part of a Christmas contest the store was hosting. Any customer would be allowed to guess at the doll’s weight – the closest guess would be allowed to take it home![3]

Understandably, The Imperial Dry Goods Store was a hit for many years. They had frequent seasonal sales and regularly took out large ads in local papers like the Winnipeg Tribune. Though, however much success the store had garnered between over it’s years, it couldn’t do much against the behemoth of department stores that was Eaton’s. The five-storey Eaton’s store opened, amidst much fanfare, in 1905 and grew rapidly. Upon opening, Eaton’s employed just 750 people, but that number jumped to 1200 within weeks. By 1910, the Eaton’s company had made enough money to expand the store by three storeys and add additional buildings throughout Winnipeg. As Eaton’s grew, attention began to shift away from the Imperial Dry Goods Store and the Imperial was closed by 1907.

From the Winnipeg Morning Telegram, December 4, 1902.

Then, in 1908, the property was purchased by the Royal Bank of Canada and the building essentially divided in half. By 1911, the front two-thirds of the Imperial Dry Goods Store were gone - replaced, instead, by the Royal Bank of Canada’s new downtown headquarters.  Like many banks at the time, no expense was spared in the elaborate Italian Renaissance style facade. The bank remains on main street today, with many of its interior details still intact - functioning now as Ted Motyka’s Dance Studio and rental offices.

The Royal Bank of Canada building that replaced the Imperial Dry Goods building.

The bank kept the remaining portion of the Imperial Dry Goods Block on Albert Street to use as warehouse space. To fit its new purpose, the building underwent extensive renovations; a new door and window were added to the back entrance and the interior altered to allow rental offices and warehouse space. Once renovations were completed, the warehouse was rented to Tookes Brothers Men’s Furnishings, a company that manufactured men’s shirts, while the upper floors were rented out as office spaces to various companies.  

More recently, 91 Albert Street was home to Mondragon Cafe: one of the first, and longest-running vegan cafes in Winnipeg. Mondragon, as an anarchist bookstore, was frequented by a number of public figures including David Suzuki and Naomi Klein.

Little is left of the original Imperial Dry Goods building, having been altered and adapted for re-use many times over the years, but if nothing else many other stores in Winnipeg have taken on the mantel of the Imperial’s holiday spirit. Eaton’s, too, designed whimsical holiday scenes for their window displays – a tradition that lives on, even today and despite Eaton’s closure. At the Children’s Museum, Fifteen of Eaton’s Fairy-tale Vignette’s are fully restored and on display until January 9th.

Guest post by Sabrina Janke, Exchange District BIZ

[1] “Charming Creations” Morning Telegram, 1903-09-19 (3).
[2]  “A Peep in the Store Windows”, Winnipeg Tribune, 1902-12-20 (14)
[3] “The Imperial, Winnipeg’s Popular Store” Winnipeg Tribune 1901-12-14 (4)

SOURCES:
The Winnipeg Tribune
http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people/whitla_rj.shtml
https://www.winnipeg.ca/ppd/Documents/Heritage/ListHistoricalResources/Albert-91-long.pdf

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