Poulin’s: Ottawa’s Store of Satisfaction

2 February 1929

L. N. Poulin, Ltd, known to all as simply Poulin’s, ranked among the finest retail stores in Ottawa during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was known for excellent service, fair dealing, innovative advertising methods, and low prices. During its early years it billed itself as “Ottawa’s most progressive store.” Later, it styled itself as “Ottawa’s store of satisfaction.”

For forty years, the store stood at the corner of Sparks and O’Connor Streets in the heart of the capital’s business district. Then, out of the blue, L. N. Poulin, its founder, announced in late 1928 that he was retiring and that the store would close. Within two months, the grand retailer was gone, shutting its doors for the last time on 2 February 1929 after a month-long “Retiring from Business Sale.” Other than his retirement—L. N. Poulin was 70 years of age at the time—no other reason was cited for the closure. Poulin rented his building on a long-term lease to Schulte-United Corporation of 485 Fifth Avenue New York, a thrusting, new firm that was opening “five and dime” stores across North America.

L. N. Poulin Department Store, Topley Studios, Library and Archives Canada, 3318392.

Poulin’s was started in 1889 by Louis Napoleon Poulin and his wife Mary Poulin (née McEvoy). Mme Poulin is given little credit for starting the firm in contemporaneous accounts (not surprisingly given the times) but her obituary noted that she was a considerable businessperson in her own right. L. N. Poulin was born in 1858 in a log home in Addison, Ontario, near Brockville. At age thirteen, he got a taste of retail selling by doing chores and odd jobs at Messrs. Nichols and Parker in the nearby town of Toledo. At sixteen, he took a train to Ottawa to make his fortune. Apparently, he had a return ticket to Brockville in his pocket should things go wrong. He didn’t need it.

In Ottawa, he found employment with Russell, Gardiner & Legatt, one of the largest merchant firms in the capital. He worked there, and at another firm, Stitt & Company, for eleven years before he and his wife struck out on their own in 1889; the couple had married in 1884. Most accounts of Poulin’s early years place his store in a small frame building at the corner of Sparks and O’Connor Streets, a location that he occupied in bigger and bigger establishments for the next 40 years.  However, there are newspaper references to a L.N. Poulin dry goods store at 99 Bank Street through the 1889-90 period. The company ran an advertisement for a “removals sale” in the Ottawa Evening Journal in early April 1890. This suggests that it was about then that the Poulins made the move to their permanent home at the corner of Sparks and O’Connor Streets.

Mr. L. N. Poulin, Ottawa Citizen, 18 June 1923.

Poulin, aided by two assistants, rented 600 square feet on the ground floor of the building from John A. Brouse for $50 per month. The budding dry goods firm only had $4,000 worth of stock. One of his first customers was reportedly Lady Macdonald, the wife of Sir John A. Macdonald.

The firm was a success. In 1892, Poulin bought the Brouse property which also housed the Dymond shirt factory and the YMCA. Two years later, he took over two buildings to the west on Spark Street (the Bush-Bonbright store and National Manufacturing Company) and purchased a milk factory at the rear on O’Connor Street.  In 1902, Poulin bought more property on Spark Street giving him 132 feet of frontage. In 1906, he expanded further, buying the Mills Hotel from the Misses Piggott to the rear of his property which gave him a uniform depth of almost 100 feet. Two years later he acquired the J.M. Garland property on O’Connor Street with a view to future expansion. In 1915, this became the store’s house furnishings annex.

By 1923, the store had more than 73,000 square feet of floor space, with stock valued at close to $500,000. It employed 245 people. That year, the enterprise expanded for the last time, demolishing the old annex and erecting a four-storey extension which added an additional 18,000 square feet of floor space. This new structure was integrated with the original main building. Looking to the future, it was constructed in a fashion that allowed for six more storeys to be added at a later date.

The store was noted for its innovative approach to advertising. One spectacular example of this occurred during the summer of 1904. Poulin’s announced its “Lucky Money Back Sale.” A date during a six-week period was selected at random by Mayor Ellis and place in a sealed envelope in the vault of the Bank of Ottawa. Neither the Mayor, the bank manager, or Mr. Poulin knew the selected date. All sales on that date would be refunded in full. Poulin advised customers to shop at his store every day of the sale to ensure being a winner. At the end of the sale, the sealed enveloped was open and the lucky date revealed—23 August, 1904. All customers on that date were given three days to return to the store with their sales receipts to “receive “the full amount of your checks in NEW, CRISP MONEY.”

Poulin’s Sale, Ottawa Citizen, 9 July 1924.

It was innovations like this, along with every-day good value and courteous service, that made the store an Ottawa landmark. So, imagine the feelings when Poulin announced that he was retiring and the store would close. The Ottawa Citizen described it as the passing of an institution. “It did not seem right nor did it seem natural.” It was not as if the store was unprofitable, or there were no heirs to carry on the family name. Indeed, the Poulins’ four sons, Edmond, Gidias, Fabien and Clement, all worked in the family firm. The closure also meant that almost three hundred employees lost their jobs. At a farewell dinner dance held for his workers a few days after the store’s shut its doors for good, Poulin said that his employees would be able to find new careers if they did their best.

If the rationale for the closure appears somewhat mystifying, Poulin’s timing was impeccable. Less than nine months after the store went out of business, the Great Depression began. The Schulte-United Corporation, which had moved into the former premises of Poulin’s department store, failed two years later, a casualty of the economic catastrophe.

Closing out sale, Ottawa Citizen, 30 January 1929.

Another person who had impeccable timing was Walter P. Zeller of Kitchener, Ontario. In 1928, he had sold his small chain of Zeller’s department stores located mostly in southern Ontario to the Schulte-United Corporation which wanted to expand into Canada. When Schulte-United failed three years later, Walter Zeller bought the Canadian wing of the operations. These comprised his original Zeller’s stores and ten other outlets that Schulte-United had established in the interim, including the former Poulin’s department store location on Sparks Street.

Zeller’s became a fixture on Spark Street for more than seventy years. The very profitable chain of bargain stores was bought by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1978. Growing to roughly 350 stores by the year 2000, the Zeller’s chain began to lose ground to competitors. Profitability declined. In 2011, the U.S. department store chain Target bought the leases of most Zellers stores for $1.825 billion in its ill-fated effort to break into the Canadian retail market. It promised to run them under the Zeller’s brand for a “period of time.” The larger Zeller’s branches were eventually remodelled and converted into Target outlets. Smaller ones, like the elderly store on Spark Street, did not fit the Target style. It closed its doors in 2013. Two years later, Target closed all of its 133 Canadian stores after a disastrous foray into Canada.

The distinctive building once owned by L. N. Poulin was almost demolished in the early 1980s as part of a high-rise development plan. Notwithstanding a demolition permit granted by Ottawa’s City Council, the building was saved at the last minute, in part by a campaign orchestrated by Heritage Ottawa. It was sympathetically renovated by its then owners, the Hudson Bay Company.  Consistent with its long heritage as a discount retail store, the edifice that was once Poulin’s Department Store, and later Zeller’s, now houses a Winners outlet.

As for the Poulins, after their retirement, the couple moved to a home at cottage community of Britannia. Louis Napoleon Poulin stayed active in Ottawa’s commercial life as a director of the electric and gas companies. He died at the age of 85 in 1941. His wife, Mary Poulin, died in 1949.

Sources:

Heritage Ottawa, 2017. Poulin’s Dry Good Store| Zellers Department Store, https://heritageottawa.org/50years/poulins-dry-goods-zellers-department-store.

Ottawa Citizen, 1904. “Thousands of Dollars in Cash Refunded to Our Customers,” 11 July.

——————, 1904. “Your Money Back,” 2 September.

——————-, 1923. “Rebuilding of L.N. Poulin, Limited, Store To Add Another Chapter To Fascinating Story of Expansion Of An Ottawa Firm,” 19 June.

——————, 1928. “L.N. Poulin Is Retiring After Splendid Career,” 29 December.

——————, 1929. “Schulte-United Will Have a Fine Store in Capital,” 2 March.

——————, 1931. “Walter P. Zeller Heads Zellers Ltd, Formerly Schulte-United,” 7 November.

—————–, 1941. “Late L. N. Poulin, Noted Figure In Commercial Life,” 9 July.

Ottawa Journal, 1890. “No Bankrupt Stock,” 3 April.

——————-, 1924. “Mr. L.N. Poulin Host to His Employes (sic),” 10 January.

——————-, 1928. “Retiring after Forty Years of Business Here,” 29 December.

——————-, 1939. “7,000 Members of Poulin Families Join in Unique Celebration,” 19 August.

——————-, 1949. ‘Mrs. L.N. Poulin Dies,” 4 June.

Reuters, 2011. Target to enter Canada with Zellers deal, own plans, 13 January, https://www.reuters.com/article/target-canada/update-2-target-to-enter-canada-with-zellers-deal-own-plans-idUSN1326316220110113.

The Earl Grey Musical and Dramatic Trophy

2 February 1907 and 29 February 1908

Each November, thousands of rabid Canadian football fans huddle in the freezing cold, or more typically settle back on their chesterfields, to watch the Grey Cup game that pits the Canadian Football League’s Western Division Champions against the Eastern Division Champions in the quest for bragging rights as Canada’s best football team. The trophy was first given by Lord Grey, Canada’s Governor General, in 1909 as the top prize in Canadian amateur rugby football. The first Grey Cup champions were the University of Toronto Varsity Blues.

Lord Grey
Earl Grey, Governor General of Canada, 1904-1911

During his term as Governor General from 1904 to 1911, Lord Grey handed out trophies for all sorts of events, including skating, horse racing, and even for the best dog in show at the Ottawa Kennel Club championships. Not to be outdone, Lady Grey had her own award for best Ottawa garden. Of all these prizes, the Grey Cup is probably the only one that has survived. However, for a few years, the Grey Trophy, properly known as the Earl Grey Musical and Dramatic Trophy, was likely the best known of all of Lord Grey’s awards, and was highly coveted across the country.

Government House announced the trophy in late 1906 as means of promoting the performing arts in Canada and Newfoundland, then a separate dominion. Very early on, it was decided to offer two trophies, one for the country’s top amateur musical or choral group, and another for the best amateur theatrical company. Entrants were initially limited to provincial capitals, including St. John’s, and cities with a population of more than 50,000. Multiple city entries were permitted though it was expected that provincial government houses would limit the numbers to about fourteen, enough for two shows per evening during a week-long musical and dramatic extravaganza. Colonel J. Hanbury-Williams, the Governor General’s secretary, who was also a friend of Rudyard Kipling, took charge of the event, with the help of at least eight committees that dealt with such things as transportation, finance, entertainment, and the press. There was also a special committee for women. Provincial chairmen were also appointed.

The competition was open to amateurs, defined as persons who had not “lived by the profession” within the previous five years. However, the rule was not intended to exclude those that had been paid a nominal amount for performing in a choir or with a dramatic organization. The performances of each company would be limited to ninety minutes, and no company could have more than 50 members.

The first competition was held in Ottawa from 28 January to 2 February 1907 at the Russell Theatre. Sixteen companies—eight musical and eight dramatic—entered the competition from Winnipeg, Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, Halifax and St. John’s. To ensure impartiality, the judges for the competition were American. George Chadwick, the director of the New England Conservatory in Boston judged the musical entries. Kate Douglas Wiggin, the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and Langdon Mitchell, a Broadway playwright, judged the dramatic productions.

Earl Grey Trophy ii
Earl Grey Musical and Dramatic Trophy. The trophy was designed and executed by Louis Philippe Hébert from suggestions of Lord Grey. The woman holding the mask symbolizes drama while the man holding the lyre symbolizes music. The fence between the two figures indicates that music and drama have their own territories. Each figure has a foot on the lowest rail to indicate a willingness to cross onto the other side. See Souvenir Programme, the Earl Grey Musical and Dramatic Competition, Ottawa 1912.

Competitors had to pay their own way to Ottawa but the transportation committee organized discount fares on the railways. Group rates were also provided by area hotels, though the main venue hotel was the Victoria Hotel in Alymer which was completely booked for the event. In downtown Ottawa, a Reception Committee organized a city “rendezvous” spot at the Racket Club at 153 Metcalfe Street where a dancing hall was converted into a large, temporary drawing room complete with settees, comfortable arm chairs, and other amenities. There, performers, who were made honorary members for the competition, could relax, write letters, use the telephone, or read newspapers. It was staffed throughout the week with volunteers. Social events were organized for contestants, including a skating and toboggan party at Rideau Hall hosted by Lord and Lady Grey. There was also a tea at the Wright’s Greenhouse, a seven-acre, glass-covered conservatory, in Aylmer.

Two shows were held each evening through the week at the Russell Theatre—one musical and one dramatic—with ticket prices of up to $1. Ottawa led off the competition on the first evening with the D.F.P. Minstrels in the musical event. Shockingly racist, the minstrel show, in which its performers wore “black face,” was warmly received by the Ottawa audience. The finale of the show was “a medley of plantation songs and Southern war ballads.” Later that same evening, the Ottawa Dramatic Company put on Gringoire, a short comedy by Théodore de Banville about a poet forced to play in front of Louis XI of France. The play was performed in English despite it being written in French and all the actors, francophone.

The finale of the event was held on Saturday, 2 February in front of the largest and “most fashionable” audience. After the last two performances of the week, the judges announced the winners of the competition. The winner for best dramatic performance was Winnipeg’s The Release of Allan Danvers. The play had been expressly written for the Earl Grey competition by three amateur Winnipeg authors, Messrs. Beaufort, Devine and Blue, two of whom acted in the show while the third was the stage manager. According to the Ottawa Citizen, it was the first time a Canadian-written play had debuted in Canada. It was a three-act play with a very heavy plot line. Danvers, afflicted with locomotor ataxia, a muscle disorder, falls in love. Although his love is reciprocated, Danvers refrains from declaring his affections to his lady love since he is dying. Before running off to England to hide from her, his lady indicates her affection for him, but Danvers falls dead at her feet—hence, his “release.”

Based on criteria which included stage setting and the company acting as a unit, individual excellence in grace, diction, make-up and dress, and the power to impersonate and express a range of emotions, the Winnipeg Dramatic Club was selected as the competition winner with a total of 49 out of 50 marks. The Ottawa Dramatic Company managed 41 points for its Gringoire.

Overall, the two drama judges were impressed by the high quality of all the theatrical performances. They added that amateur theatre was typically “a crucifixion of the soul,” but that wasn’t the case over the week-long competition. They opined that Lord Grey’s competition should have a positive impact on both the amateur and professional stage. They hoped that it would help address the lack of a standard spoken English which was a deficiency of North America.

The Quebec Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1904 and led by its conductor, Joseph Vezina won the musical trophy. It had presented a classical programme but one of its best numbers, Valse de Concert, was written by Vezina himself. According to the Citizen, it was hard to believe that the orchestra consisted of amateurs, so good was the playing. Spontaneous applause broke out on several occasions during their performance. In scoring the competition, the judge gave the Quebec orchestra 27 out of a possible 40 points in four categories—attack, precision, and accuracy; intonation (singing/playing in tune); technical proficiency; and expression and interpretation. Ottawa’s minstrels received 16 points.

So successful was the week-long competition, Colonel Hanbury-Williams announced on the last night of the performances that Lord Grey was making the competition an annual event.

The following year, thirteen teams competed in the second annual Lord Grey Musical and Dramatic Competition. The competition was again held at the Russell Theatre in Ottawa. Subscription tickets for the full six nights of the competition cost $5. Again, the judges were American to avoid the appearance of bias.  Although competition rules had been eased for 1908 to allow any musical or theatrical group from a town or city of any size to compete, all the competing groups came from major eastern cities. Six of the contestants came from Ottawa, with the remaining participants coming from Quebec City (2), Toronto (2) and Montreal (3).

Again, the week-long series of musical and theatrical performances were judged a great success. Ottawa fared particularly well. On 29 February, 1908, Colonel Hanbury-Williams announced that Ottawa teams had won both the musical and dramatic events. The musical trophy went to the Canadian Conservatory of Music, conducted by Donald Heins. The Quebec Symphony Orchestra, the 1907 winner, and Ottawa’s Orpheus Glee Club came in tied for second place. The Canadian Conservatory of Music’s entry was essentially a string orchestra consisting of thirty violins, violas, violincellos and basses plus a grand piano. Its classical programme included Grieg’s Elegiac Melody, Minuet by Motzart, and La Dernier Sommeil by de la Vierge.

On the theatrical side, Ottawa’s Thespian Club won the Earl Grey Trophy for its two short productions of Food and Folly, a two-act “gastronomic” farce and A Light From St. Agnes, a one-act Broadway tragedy. Although the eventual winner of the competition, the Citizen’s reviewer was not terribly impressed by the Thespians’ farce. He described the play as “impossible,” thin on humour, with dialogue that tended to drag. He had much kinder words for A Light From St. Agnes. He thought the climax of the play was “admirably acted” with both the leading man and leading woman putting on strong performances.

Earl Grey Trophy
Souvenir Programme for the last Early Grey Musical and Dramatic Trophy Competition held in Ottawa in 1912, City of Ottawa Archives.

The Early Grey Musical and Dramatic Competition continued to be held for the next four years, moving to Montreal in 1909, Toronto in 1910, Winnipeg in 1911, and back to Ottawa in 1912. The 1912, and ultimately the final winners of the Lord Grey Trophy, were the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra (for the fourth time) and Winnipeg’s Dramatic Society.

In late 1912, Colonel Lowther, the military secretary to HRH the Duke of Connaught who had succeeded Lord Grey as Governor General the previous year, said that the 1913 Competition would be dropped for “various reasons.”  It is possible that the new Governor General had other priorities, and didn’t see the point of adding to the lustre of his predecessor’s reputation. Organizing the competition must also have been a considerable challenge. Given its scale and the huge number of volunteers needed to organize and run it, the necessary logistics may have been too onerous to sustain.

Did the competition succeed in its mission in encouraging amateur music and drama? It’s difficult to say, not knowing the counterfactual. However, in 1913, just months after the cancellation of the Earl Grey Competition, the Canadian Federation of University Women launched the Ottawa Drama League (ODL), later known as the Ottawa Little Theatre. Over time, “little theatres” were also established in other Canadian cities. The ODL presented its first production at the Russell Theatre in 1914. In 1933, the Earl of Bessborough launched the Dominion Drama Festival in co-operation with the ODL at its Little Theatre on King Edward Avenue.

As for the Earl Grey trophies themselves, they seem to have disappeared.[1] An Earl Grey Trophy continues to be awarded at the Winnipeg Music Festival for the best school chorus. But it only dates back to 1923, six years after Lord Grey’s death. It is likely named for the “Earl Grey School,” the first winner of the cup-like trophy.

Sources:

Earl Grey Musical and Dramatic Trophy Competition, 1912, Programme, City of Ottawa Archives.

Manitoba Free Press, 1907. “Through Milady’s Lorgnette,” 12 January.

Montreal Gazette, 1906. “Earl Grey’s Contest,” 21 December.

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1908. “Ability Shown by Ottawans,” 29 February.

Ottawa Citizen, 1906. “The Musical Competition,” 27 October.

——————-, 1907. “Judges For The Competition,” 18 January.

——————-, 1907. “Today Opens Competition,” 28 January.

——————-, 1907. “Last Night’s Performances,” 30 January.

——————-, 1907. “Winnipeg Dramatic Club and Quebec Orchestra,” 4 February.

——————-, 1907. “Earl Grey Competitions,” 4 March.

——————-, 1907. “Arranging For A 2nd Competition,” 26 March.

——————-, 1908. “Earl Grey Trophy,” 14 February.

——————-, 1908. “Not In Ottawa,” 18 March.

——————-, 1908.  “Earl Grey Musical and Dramatic Competitions and Competitors,” 19 February.

——————-, 1912. “No Earl Grey Competition,” 16 November.

Ottawa Little Theatre, 2019. History, http://www.ottawalittletheatre.com/history/.

Winnipeg Music Festival, 2019. Trophies, https://www.winnipegmusicfestival.org/earl-grey-trophy/

[1] If you are aware of the location of a trophy please send me an email.