Sunday Shopping

7 June 1992

Millennials and post-Millennials may be astounded to learn that as little as a generation ago shopping on Sundays was not permitted except under very limited circumstances. Service stations could remain open as could corner stores, and shops in designated tourist zones, such as Ottawa’s Byward Market. However, shopping malls and grocery stores were required to be closed. And people didn’t even dream of buying alcohol on a Sunday. The reason was the Lord’s Day Act which forbade shopping on Sunday, a.k.a. the Sabbath.

Codex

The Codex Theodosianus, which was compiled by the Roman Emperor Theodosius II, was a collection of ancient Roman laws, Wikipedia.

A prohibition on Sunday business has a very old pedigree, dating back to 321 A.D. to the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine. All city residents and tradesmen were required to rest on Sunday. There were exceptions where a cessation of work was not practical such as in agriculture. The interesting thing is that this first Sunday shopping ban occurred during pagan times. In 386 A.D., shortly after Christianity had become the state religion of the Roman Empire, the first reference to the “Lord’s Day” appears. Contained in the Codex Theodosianus, the law stated that “on the day of the sun, properly called the Lord’s Day, by our ancestors, let there be a cessation of lawsuits, business and indictments.”

Similar laws were promulgated in England during Saxon times and after the Norman Conquest in 1066. There were, however, slippages in practices during the fourteenth and fifteen centuries when Sunday increasingly became a market day and taverns remained open, much to the displeasure of the Church. In 1448, the Sunday Fairs Act was passed banning all fairs and markets on a Sunday, except for necessary “victuals” and four harvest Sundays. In the seventeenth century, amidst growing Puritanism, three more Sunday Observance Acts were passed tightening restrictions, including a ban on recreation and travelling. Church service attendance was, of course, mandatory.

After the conquest of Quebec in 1763, the four English Sunday observance laws applied to what was to become Canada, as did the 1780 English Act for Preventing Certain Abuses and Profanations on the Lord’s Day, called Sunday. In 1845, under pressure from Methodist and Presbyterian churches, the legislature of the Province of Canada passed its own strict Sunday observance act for Upper Canada called “An Act to Prevent the Profanation of the Lord’s Day, commonly called Sunday. Prohibited were all “worldly labour, business or work” as well as tippling, public political meetings, skittles, ball, football, racket, or any other noisy game, gambling, foot races, horse races, swimming, fishing, hunting, or shooting. In other words, anything that was fun was forbidden. There were exceptions. If you were attacked by a wolf, you could shoot it. Also, conveying travellers and Her Majesty’s mail, selling drugs or medicine, works of charity and “other such works of necessity” were permitted.

The rationale for this law was to ensure that everybody spent Sunday in prayer or doing godly things rather than anything that might be considered worldly or pleasurable. Note for the religiously strict even laughing was frowned upon as there is no reference to Christ laughing in the Bible.

The Bytown City Council passed its own Sunday By-law in 1847 to prevent “nuisances.” Such nuisances including anybody who kept open a grocery or eating house on the Sabbath-day within the limits of the Town. The penalty was up to 25 shillings.

For the most part, the Sunday Observance Acts were effective in shutting down virtually all business. The one major exception—the transmission of the mail on Sundays—was very controversial. Church groups protested.  In 1850, Bytown inhabitants also complained, sending a memorial to the Governor General noting “with deep regret the extensive and legalized system of Sabbath desecration caused by the transmission of Her Majesty’s mail, the opening of Post Offices, and the delivery of letter and papers on the Lord’s Day.” The government resisted such entreaties, and the mail continued.

Lord's Day Act

Article that appeared in the Ottawa Daily Citizen, 12 June 1876

Of course, not everybody obeyed the law. Certain industries in remote areas, such as forestry and mining, were serial offenders. As well, those in domestic service didn’t seem to qualify for a day of rest.

Many complained about boys playing ball or cricket in Ottawa’s streets and on vacant lots on Sundays. Some took umbrage at kids fishing on the Sabbath in the Rideau River at Hogsback, especially when they openly carried fishing poles and fish past the residences of “respectable” people. “Unless they drop their evil practices they will be summarily brought to justice.”  On one occasion, five “delinquents” were fined $1 each plus court costs for fishing and bathing on the Sabbath.

In 1866-67, there was an extensive debate in the Daily Citizen on whether skating on a Sunday was legal.  Writing under the pseudonym “Christian Liberty,” one citizen maintained that “there was no statute, Imperial or Provincial, which made Sunday skating illegal. “Ruris” wrote that “whether or not there be such a law…, [he] was not prepared to skate” and that “there is an enactment of the statute of the Book of the King of kings which says remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” “Anti-Cant” called Sabbatarians (people who believe in a literal reading of the of the fourth Commandment such as Ruris), “a set of humbugs and hypocrites.” He added “You big boys and little, who, after close confinement for six days, want to stretch your legs and enjoy the fresh, invigorating air of Heaven on the seventh, slide and skate away, and get roses in your cheeks, and don’t be afraid of the police.”

The definition of a “work of necessity” was also unclear. In July 1877, Chief Langrell of the Ottawa Police instructed his men to tell all milk dealers that they must observe the Sabbath or face the consequences—a fine of up to $50. This injunction set off a wave of protest. Ottawa police were called the “milk inquisition” and that the Chief was “elevating public morality through the medium of the milk pail.” After it was pointed out that milk, especially at the height of an Ottawa summer, was a perishable product and that children needed to drink fresh not sour milk, Chief Langrell relented. However, a few years later, five barbers were less successful. They received summons for shaving customers on the Sabbath. One irate citizen wrote that “it certainly seems ridiculous that bathing or shaving or any other toilet operation should be a crime on Sunday.”

Sunday laws

Sunday Laws in Ontario, early 20th century, Source: Seventh Day Adventist Church

In 1888, Sabbatarian churches formed the Ontario Lord’s Day Alliance to fight an emerging new unholy threat to Sabbath observance—the Sunday operation of streetcars in Ontario. After legal challenges, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that the Lord’s Day Act did not apply to streetcars, railways, telegraph, canal, and steamship companies that operated under a Dominion charter. Appealed again, the case went to the Privy Council in London. In a shocking move to Sabbatarians, the Privy Council ruled in 1903 that the entire Ontario Lord’s Day Act was ultra vires, since criminal law was a Dominion responsibility under the British North America Act.

The Dominion Lord’s Day Alliance fought back with its members launching a campaign to pressure the Laurier Government to pass a federal Lord’s Day Act. In 1905 two members of the Alliance came to Ottawa to address church groups. At Erksine Presbyterian Church, they argued that “our national well-being required that the sacredness of the Sabbath be preserved.”

In 1906, the Federal Government complied, passing the Act over the opposition of other religious groups, including Seventh-Day Adventists and Jews, who worship on Saturdays. Sunday business, including sports, was sharply circumscribed. There was, however, a list of exclusions, including work of domestic servants and health care workers, bakers after 4pm, fishermen after 6pm and newspaper operators after 8pm. Telegraphs, telephones, the postal service, electrical works, animal husbandry, and certain industrial repairs were also permitted. Maple syrup production was also deemed a work of necessity.

During the Second World War, Sunday restrictions eased slightly. Cinemas in some cities opened on Sundays to provide entertainment for the troops. However, war didn’t stop the Lord’s Day Alliance from trying to stop market gardeners from tending their gardens on Sundays in 1943.

In 1950, Ontario passed the Lord’s Day (Ontario) Act, which complemented the federal law but permitted municipalities to decide for themselves whether to permit sporting events on Sunday afternoons. Here in Ottawa, it took three public votes on the issue before the Ottawa Rough Riders were finally allowed to play football on Sundays starting in 1965.

To reinforce the provincial Lord’s Day Act, the Ontario government passed the Retail Business Holidays Act in 1975 which prohibited most retail stores from operating on a Sunday. The cited reason was to give workers a common day of pause. Now there was two Ontario laws banning Sunday shopping, one religious and one ostensibly secular.

But by the 1980s, popular opinion was beginning to shift in favour of Sunday shopping. In 1985, the Supreme Court ruled in R. v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd that the Lord’s Day Act was unconstitutional under section 2b (freedom of thought, belief opinion and expression) of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Expecting the Retail Business Holiday Act to also be found unconstitutional, stores in Ontario began to open illegally on Sundays. However, the Supreme Court surprised everybody by ruling in the government’s favour. Stores again closed their doors.

Pressure for change shifted to the political front. Libertarian groups, such as the Freedom Party of Ontario, and the Committee for Fair Shopping, a coalition of grocery store chains, lobbied for freedom of choice. Border communities also lobbied for change as U.S. shops were open on Sundays and attracted Canadian customers. In 1989, the Ontario government dumped the issue into the laps of municipalities by introducing the “local option,” where municipalities could decide whether stores in their jurisdictions could open on Sundays. This satisfied nobody.

Sunday shopping

Government Announcement regarding Sunday Shopping, Ottawa Citizen, 8 June 1992.

In June 1990, an Ontario High Court judge ruled the Retail Business Holiday Act unconstitutional. Stores in Ontario, including Ottawa, reopened on Sundays. However, eight months later, the Court of Appeal overturned the decision, much to the delight of organized labour and church groups. Subsequently, three Nepean stores, Fresh Fruit Co on Robertson Road, Top Banana on Merivale Road, and Leather Liquidation also on Merivale Road, were charged with illegally doing business on a Sunday.

But the public had a taste of the forbidden fruit and found it delicious. Public opinion polls began to strongly favour Sunday shopping. At the beginning of June 1992, the NDP government of Bob Rae, which had previously insisted on a “common pause day to strengthen the family and community life while protecting small businesses and the rights of workers,” caved under the pressure. Over the protests of labour unions and the complaints of a psychologist who argued that Sunday shopping would do serious psychological harm to families, the Rae government allowed unfettered Sunday shopping.   A few days later, on Sunday, 7 June 1992, malls and grocery stores opened for business across the province, including Ottawa. A new era in retailing had begun.

On that first day of Sunday shopping in Ottawa, “mom and pop” stores apparently took a beating as shoppers flocked to the malls. Small independent fruit stores as well as Byward Market shops also experienced a fall in revenues. The iconic Boushey’s Fruit Market on Elgin Street posted a 25 per cent decline in sales, and worried that it might have to lay off staff.

In the event, a new retail equilibrium emerged over time. Contrary to the fears of some, a 2005 study concluded that stores, on average, did not increase the hours of work of existing employees but instead hired a significant number of new employees to accommodate Sunday shopping. Also contrary to some church fears, Sunday shopping did not lead to social Armageddon, though church attendance continued its decline. As for Boushey’s, the store survived the introduction of Sunday shopping and lasted another 24 years. It closed its doors in 2016. Financial reasons were not a factor.

 

Sources:

CBC. 2016. “Boushey’s Fruit Market on Elgin Street closing after 70 years in business,” 31 May, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/bousheys-grocery-elgin-closing-1.3608630.

Canada, Province of, 1845. An Act to prevent the Profanation of the Lord’s Day, commonly called Sunday, in Upper Canada, https://bnald.lib.unb.ca/sites/default/files/UnC.1845.ch%2045.pdf.

Canada, 1906, The Lord’s Day Act, http://www.wikiwand.com/en/History_of_Seventh-day_Adventist_freedom_of_religion_in_Canada.

Crocker, Rev. Chris W. 2013. A Worthy Cause: The Lord’s Day in the Baptist Press Amongst Nineteenth-Century, Upper Canadian Regular Baptists,  McMaster Divinity College, https://macsphere.mcmaster.ca/bitstream/11375/16873/1/Crocker%20Chris.pdf.

Freedom Party of Ontario, 2012. Sunday Shopping in Ontario: The 85 year Ban and its Defeat, http://www.freedomparty.on.ca/sundayshopping/.

Garner, Hugh 1956. “How Canada’s ‘blue-law’ busybodies boss you on Sunday,” Liberty, November, http://www.freedomparty.on.ca/sundayshopping/1955-11-xx.Liberty-Magazine.blue-law-busibodies.pdf.

Ontario Law Reform Committee, 1970. Report on Sunday Observance Legislation, Department of Justice, http://www.ontla.on.ca/library/repository/mon/27010/22192.pdf.

Ottawa Citizen, 1861. “Fall Assizes,” 25 October.

—————–, 1869. “Vigilant,” 13 July.

——————, 1865. “Sabbath Breakers,” 20 June.

——————, 1876. “Disgraceful,” 12 June.

——————, 1877. “Sabbath Desecration,” 9 July.

——————, 1877. “No title,” 24 July.

——————, 1877. “Not title,” 27 July.

——————, 1903. “Lord’s Day Act,” 15 July.

——————. 1992. “Its Been Brutal,” 8 June.

——————, 1883. “Sunday Shaving,” 3 July.

——————, 1990. “Attention, Sunday Shoppers,” 6 July.

——————, 1991. “NDP can’t keep its promises,” 12 February.

——————, 1991. “Sunday Shopping,” 21 March.

——————, 1991.  “Sunday Shopping,” 30 June.

——————, 1991. “Bill Allows 4 Weeks of Sunday Shopping,” 26 November.

——————. 1992. “Bedeviled!” 30 May.

——————. 1992. “Stores open Sunday,” 4 June.

——————, 1992. “It’s Been Brutal,” 8 June.

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1905. “Preserving The Sabbath,” 8 May.

Packet, 1847. “By-Law to prevent Nuisances,” 4 December.

——–, 1850 “Sabbath Desecration,” 26 January.

——–, 1850. “Memorial of the Inhabitants of Bytown and its Vicinity,” 20 July.

Skuterud, Mikal, 2005. “The impact of Sunday shopping one employment and hours of work in the retail industry: evidence from Canada,” European Economic Review, Vol. 49, Issue 8, November, pp. 1953-1978.

Wikiwand, 2019. History of Seventh-Day Adventist freedom of religion in Canada, http://www.wikiwand.com/en/History_of_Seventh-day_Adventist_freedom_of_religion_in_Canada.

 

Freiman’s becomes The Bay

24 November 1971

The A. J. Freiman Department Store was an Ottawa retailing institution that dated back to the end of the nineteenth century. Its founder was Archibald (Archie) Jacob Freiman who had immigrated to Canada as a child with his family in the late 19th century from Lithuania. Coming to Ottawa from Hamilton in 1899, the nineteen-year old Freiman and his partner Moses Cramer started the Canadian Home Furnishing Company at 223 Rideau Street close to Cumberland Street. The company sold carpets, oilcloth and other types of household furnishings. The following year, the firm expanded, moving into next door 221 Rideau as well. In 1902, the firm moved into still larger quarters at 73 Rideau Street.

Freiman logo 1911-10-23 TOJ

Freiman’s logo after Archie Freiman bought out his father’s interest in the company, 23 October 1911, The Ottawa Journal

Despite the company’s success, the Freiman-Cramer partnership foundered when Freiman announced his intention of opening a credit department which would permit customers to purchase goods on installment. This was just too risky for the conservative-minded Cramer. Fortunately, Frieman’s father, Hersh, stepped in, becoming young Archie’s partner. In 1911, Archie was ready to go it alone, and he bought out his father’s share of the business. Over time, the name of the store morphed from The Canadian Home Furnishing Company, A.J. Freiman, Proprietor, to A. J. Freiman Ltd. Ottawa residents knew it simply as Frieman’s. In part, the change in name reflected the shift in the nature of the firm’s business. In a 1925 interview, Freiman said that he had always been interested in the possibilities of a general store.

Freiman 1920-11-12 TOJ

Freiman’s logo, 12 November 1920, The Ottawa Journal

Consequently, he added a men’s and women’s clothing to his line of products, thus setting the stage for the development of a department store. He also indicated that beyond hard work, the secret of his success was advertising.

In 1944, Archie died suddenly after he had unveiled a plaque in the Adath Jeshurun Synagogue on King Edward Street in honour of his friend, the synagogue’s cantor. Archie’s son, Lawrence, took over the family business.

Freimans 1939royalvisitMikkan4169781

Freiman’s Department Store, Rideau Street, decorated for the 1939 Royal Visit, Library and Archives Canada, Mikkan 4169781.

Under Lawrence Freiman’s direction, the retail company continued to thrive and expand, always keeping up with the times. Freiman’s was one of the first Ottawa stores to have an escalator, and as markets moved and changed, the company moved and changed with them. When people began settling in the suburbs after World War II, Freiman’s followed, opening a branch store in Ottawa’s first mall, the Westgate Shopping Centre on Carling Avenue in 1955. Freiman’s was also quick to introduce basement discount outlets for the budget conscious and in-house boutiques for the fashion minded. As well, it offered a phone-in service called Freiman’s Buy-Line. With its Charge-a-Plate, customers could also put things “on their account.”

Freimans1946fashionshowOffice National du Film du CanadaLACMikkan4310145

Freiman’s first fashion shop after the War, April 1946, National Film Board of Canada/Library and Archives Canada, Mikkan 4310145.

However, by the late 1960s, it was increasingly difficult for the firm to compete successfully. Lawrence Freiman’s health began to fail. He starting spending several months each year in Palm Springs, California or Palm Beach, Florida; his doctors felt the warm weather would do him good. He also had other interests. He was a two-term President of the Zionist Organization of Canada and was the Chairman of the Board of the new National Arts Centre. Of necessity, the direction of the company passed to the next generation—A. J. Freiman II and son-in-law Gordon Roston. While the two were capable young men, the company lacked depth. Lawrence feared that Freiman’s didn’t have the calibre of senior management necessary for both the present and the future.

Freimans 1946-10-05 TOJ

Freiman’s art deco logo from the 1940s, 5 Ocotber 1946, The Ottawa Journal

Family-owned, quality department stores also found it difficult to attract the talent needed to compete with the larger, nation-wide chain stores that offered better career possibilities. Expansion also required vast sums of money that family-owned business, like Freiman’s, simply didn’t have.

As well, the Ottawa market was becoming increasingly competitive with no less than eight new department stores under construction or under consideration during the summer of 1971 says Lawrence Freiman in his autobiography. Simpson-Sears had gone into Carlingwood Mall when it opened in the late 1950s, and had moved into the St. Laurent Shopping Centre in 1967 and was about to take over the former Murphy-Gamble store on Sparks Street. Eaton’s was also entering the Ottawa market with an anchor store in the new Bayshore Shopping Centre scheduled to open in 1973. The Hudson’s Bay Company of Winnipeg was also eager to have an Ottawa presence. In August 1971, the firm approached Lawrence Freiman about a friendly take-over.

Freimans logo 1965-04-02 TOJ

Freiman’s logo, early 1960s, 2 April 1965, The Ottawa Journal

It was an opportunity that the ailing Lawrence couldn’t refuse. Although he had hoped to leave Freiman’s to the next generation, neither his son nor his son-in-law were interested in running the company as they would not have a controlling interest. With the family’s shareholding becoming increasingly dispersed over time, they would be at the mercy of people with no direct involvement in the firm’s operations. As Lawrence said in his autobiography, his son and son-in-law wanted to be “their own people.” The clincher of the deal was the Bay’s promise to honour Freiman’s pension commitments to staff. Lawrence himself was to receive an annual pension of $35,000.

Freimans logo 1967-03-22

Freiman’s logo, late 1960s, 22 March 1967, The Ottawa Journal

On 24 November 1971, the news broke in both Ottawa and Winnipeg: The Hudson Bay Company was to buy Freiman’s Department Store on Rideau Street, its two branch stores located in the Westgate Shopping Centre and on St. Laurent Boulevard and its two discount “Freimart” outlets. It was virtually a “done deal.” The Freiman family had already agreed to sell their 70 per cent share of the publicly–traded company for $6 per share, a mark-up of $1.25 over the last trading price on the Toronto Stock Exchange. The deal valued the company at $4.59 million.

That day, staff crowded into Lawrence Freiman’s office on Rideau Street to hear the news. Also present was Don McGiverin, the Managing Director of the Bay’s 200 retail outlets across Canada. Freiman and McGiverin reassured employees that their futures in the company was secure and that their pension rights had been preserved. McGiverin added that Freiman staff could “aspire” to any position in the Canada-wide company.

The investment dealer community was surprised by the comparatively low price put on Freiman’s shares. Even though the company’s profitability had slipped somewhat during the first half of 1971 to $86,626 from $101,274 over the same period the previous year on sales of almost $14 million, the company was in sound financial shape. According to one broker, Freiman’s book value was greater than $9 per share—but still down from the $9.75 per share price the company had been valued at when it had gone public roughly ten years earlier. The company’s shares had traded as high as $13 some months earlier, but their value had fallen in tandem with a broad sell-off in the Canadian stock market. Another dealer thought the $6 price was deceptive. As the Freiman’s pension plan was unfunded, the Bay’s all-included cost of purchasing the company was roughly $8 per share if one included the cost of the Bay assuming the firm’s pension liabilities.

News of the take-over was greeted with sorrow and concern in some quarters. The company had a reputation of being a good employer. A letter to the Editor of the Ottawa Citizen appeared shortly after the announcement. Written by Mansab Ali Khan, the letter read: “The magnanimity and generosity [of Freiman’s] toward colored people is very well known. Any qualified person from Asia or Africa who applied for a job in that company was never refused employment because of color or nationality.” Mr. Ali Khan hoped that the new owners would “follow in the footsteps of A.J. Freiman.” The Citizen opined that it was “not a surprise to see Freiman’s go,” but Ottawa “won’t be quite the same.”

Freimans Bayman26-6-73 TOC

The Arrival of “Bayman,” 26 June 1973, The Ottawa Citizen

The Bay officially took control of Freiman’s shortly before Christmas 1971 and began operating under the name Freiman-Hudson Bay Company. Freiman’s shareholders received one last dividend of 5 cents per share, payable in mid-January 1972. Gordon Roston, Lawrence Freiman’s son-in-law was appointed Vice-President and General Manager. A senior HBC executive was appointed Assistant General Manager. A.J. Freiman II remained on the company’s Board of Directors.

In June 1973, Freiman’s was subsumed completely within the Bay, and the Freiman name disappeared from Ottawa retailing. To mark the event, there was a one-day celebration at the Rideau Street, Westgate and St. Laurent stores. Models showed fashions worn by people over the Bay’s 300-year history. The store also launched “Bayman,” a superhero who fought inflation with Bay Day flyers “full of top quality merchandise at great savings,”

Lawrence Freiman died in 1986. The eponymous Lawrence Freiman Lane that runs behind the National Arts Centre recognizes Lawrence’s contribution to the arts in Ottawa. An arcade enclosed within the Hudson Bay Company between Rideau Street and George Street is officially known as the Freiman Mall. This passage had previously been known as Freiman Street, and before that as Mosgrove Street. When the Rideau Centre was constructed at the beginning of the 1980s, the City of Ottawa closed the street and leased it to the Bay on the proviso that the company enclosed the space and allowed through access to the Byward Market. A plaque in the Mall unveiled by Mayor Marion Dewer in 1983 honours Freiman’s Department Store and the Freiman family. The pedestrian bridge that links the Rideau Centre to the Hudson Bay Company above Rideau Street is also officially known as the Freiman Bridge.

Sources:

Figler, Bernard, 1959. Lillian and Archie Freiman, Biographies, Northern Printing and Lithography Co.: Montreal.

Freiman, Lawrence, 1978. Don’t Fall Off The Rocking Horse: An Autobiography of Lawrence Freiman, McClellan and Stewart: Toronto.

Ottawa Citizen (The), “Bay buying Freiman’s Company offering $6/shr.” 24 November.

————————-, 1971. “A.J. Freiman Sales Higher,” 8 October.

——————, 1971, “Freiman sale surprises financial community,” 25 November.

——————, 1971. “Freiman terms out,” 9 December.

——————, 1971. “Brocker backs Freiman deal, 10 December.

——————, 1971. “New Freiman top brass includes present hands,” 15 December.

——————, 1971. “Open to all,” 17 December.

——————, 1973. “Big store chains learning capital a strong market,” 21 July.

——————, 2015. “Council approves Freiman bridge deal,” 13 May.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1971. “Hudson’s Bay buying Freiman’s,” 24 November

————————–, 1971. “Enter The Giants,” 25 November.

————————–, 1971. “The Bay takes over Freiman’s Dec. 20,” 15 December.

————————–, 1973. “Freiman’s Becomes The Bay,” 25 June.

Temples of Commerce

12 May 1955

In the years following the end of World War II, North America experienced massive demographic and economic changes. The birth rate, which had fallen during the Great Depression, rebounded with the return home of millions of soldiers, and rising economic prosperity. Private consumption, suppressed by government during the war years due to the demands of a war economy, took off. Factories, which had previously turned out war materiel, began fabricating cars and other durables that were in turn snapped up by eager consumers with money in their pockets. With growing affluence, increasingly mobile families turned their backs on the cramped, downtown, apartment lifestyles of their parents to pursue the middle-class dream of a detached home with a yard in the suburbs.

Businesses followed the migration. The first modern, suburban shopping mall is reputed to be the Bellevue Shopping Square which opened in 1946 in Bellevue, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. But suburban development was often haphazard and ugly. In 1952, Vienna-born architect and urban visionary Victor Gruen co-authored an article in the magazine Progressive Architecture outlining a better, more holistic approach. Gruen, who is widely viewed as the father of the modern shopping mall, sought to replicate in the suburbs the public square found in old European cities. He envisaged the shopping mall as the centre of suburban social and economic life.

Encouraged by favourable tax treatment, developers in the United States enthusiastically embraced the mall concept, constructing shopping centres across the country; many were entirely enclosed and temperature controlled. Americans flocked in droves to these new temples of commerce. Unfortunately, the ensuing reality was often very different from Gruen’s dream. Suburban malls were often encircled by acres of asphalt parking lots, the very antithesis of what he had in mind. They also drew business away from downtown, contributing to the hollowing out of city centres.

Suburban shopping malls also became popular in Canada. The country’s first was the Royal Shopping Centre, located in West Vancouver in 1950. Construction of Ottawa’s first suburban shopping began in mid-1954. Called Westgate Shopping Centre, it was located in an empty field at the corner of Carling Avenue and Merivale Road across the street from a drive-in cinema. Its architects were Eliasoph & Berkowitz of Montreal. The driving force behind the mall was Lawrence Freiman, a member of a prominent Ottawa merchant family. His father, Archibald Freiman, had started A.J. Freiman Ltd, the city’s largest department store on Rideau Street, fifty years earlier. The construction of a large satellite store which anchored the new mall was a major, multi-million dollar gamble. While Ottawa’s post-war population was burgeoning, Carling Avenue was still not much more than a country road during the early 1950s.

Westgate Shopping Centre

Westgate Shopping Centre advertisement, The Citizen, 11 May 1955

Westgate Shopping Centre boasted eighteen stores laid out in an “L” design, with parking for more than 1,100 cars in front. An overflow parking lot for several hundred more cars was located behind the facility. Mall officials proudly noted that the lots would be kept clean by a mechanical sweeper. Although open-air, customers were protected by a twelve foot covered walkway that extended to the curb; the mall was later enclosed. Music was piped in through a concealed speaker system.

Anchoring the western end of the mall was Steinberg’s groceteria. Reputedly, this was the only place in Ottawa where bakery products were stamped with the day they were made. Steinberg’s advertised that once you enter their store you could feel that “gay, wonderful young at heart feeling.” Beside the grocery store was an ultra-modern Royal Bank branch with diffused florescent lighting and oak counters. Also located in the mall was a S.S. Kresge five-and-dime store, and Throop Pharmacy. Throop’s carried a complete range of veterinary instruments, medicines, and books in addition to the customary products found in drug stores. It also had a china department, a lunch counter, and camera department.The shopping centre’s largest outlet was Freiman’s department store which had two floors, connected by escalators, with a beauty salon and a snack bar on the main level, and an up-scale restaurant located on the lower level. The store, situated at the north-east corner, was decorated to the height of modern commercial design; Lawrence Freiman and the store’s manager had toured the United States for ideas that they could use in their new flagship store. Customers could use their store charge-plate (the predecessor of the credit card) at both the Westgate and Rideau Street stores.

There were also a range of smaller, more specialized stores at the mall. Reitman’s offered a full range of women’s fashions, while Tip Top Tailors offered “tailored-to-measure” and “ready-to-wear” suits for men. Two shoe stores offered footwear for the whole family. At Lewis & Sons, patrons could ensure the perfect shoe fit by using the company’s modern X-ray machine. A Handy Andy store offered automobile accessories, hardware, and sporting equipment. There were also a women’s lingerie store, a children’s clothes store, a flower shop, a milk bar, and a candy store. Paul’s Service Store offered “head to foot service” where customers could have their hats cleaned, their shoes re-heeled, and their clothes washed or dry-cleaned. At Miss Westgate restaurant, tired shoppers could enjoy steak and barbecue chicken. For private functions, the “Flamingo Room” was available for up to 45 guests.

When the Westgate Shopping Centre opened on 12 May 1955, it was an instant sensation. Customers arriving by car were greeted by uniformed attendants who directed traffic. At the inaugural breakfast at Freiman’s department store, Mayor Charlotte Whitton congratulated Lawrence Freiman for “this magnificent enterprise,” for his imagination, and his “faith in the west end of Ottawa.” Later, a “cavalcade” of a dozen cars carrying beauty queens made its way to the mall. At the front of the parade were television stars, Dick MacDougal and Elaine Grand. MacDougal was the host of the CBC news program Tabloid, while Grand starred on Living, a news-style programme devoted to women’s issues.  In the second vehicle rode George Murray, a popular Irish tenor and performer of folksongs and ballads, and his wife, singer Shirley Harmer. Both had appeared on a number of CBC television programmes, including the variety show, The Big Revue. After performing for the crowd, the celebrities signed autographs for their adoring fans.

As Lawrence Freiman had hoped, Ottawa quickly grew out to and beyond the mall. Indeed, within two years, Carlingwood Mall was constructed three kilometres further west on Carling Avenue; Westgate was no longer the “western gate” to the capital. Today, roughly 300,000 people live within ten minutes’ drive of Westgate, more than justifying Freiman’s faith in the area. Fifty stores now call the shopping centre home, up from the original eighteen. But time has not been kind to the original mall occupants. All of the department stores as well as the grocery store are long gone; the Royal Bank branch is the sole survivor. The largest mall store is now a Shoppers Drug Mart, located where Steinberg’s used to be. Many of the mall’s tenants are small, service-oriented businesses; healthcare features prominently.

The future of Westgate Shopping Centre, and other suburban malls in Ottawa, is uncertain. Throughout North America, such malls have been steadily losing business to Walmart, big box stores, and on-line shopping, with some experts predicting their ultimate demise. Changing shopping habits and demographics have already claimed Ottawa’s Herongate Mall which was largely bulldozed in 2012. On the other hand, the opening of a huge Tanger Outlet mall in Kanata in October 2014 suggests that the suburban shopping centre has retained its appeal in the Ottawa area, though smaller traditional malls may continue to decline. Should Westgate and other neighbourhood malls disappear, their passing will be felt by many, especially seniors, for whom the malls provide a valued “community space,” where they can meet friends, and socialize, especially during Ottawa’s long winter months.

 

Sources:

Azrielli, David, 1997, The Architect As Creator Of Environments: Victor Gruen, Visionary Pioneer Of Urban Revitalization, Carleton University, April, http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk2/ftp04/mq22107.pdf.

Badger, Emily, 2012. “The Shopping Mall Turns 60 (and Prepares to Retire),” CityLab, 12 July, http://www.citylab.com/design/2012/07/shopping-mall-turns-60-and-prepares-retire/2568/.

Gladwell, Malcolm, 2004. “The Terrazzo Jungle,” The New Yorker, 15 March, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/03/15/the-terrazzo-jungle.

Merrick, Amy, 2014. “Are Malls Over?” 11 March, The New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/are-malls-over.

Ortega, Lauren, 2012. The Rise of the Mall, Columbia University, New York, http://www.film.queensu.ca/cbc/B.html.

Parlette, Vanessa & Cowen, Deborah, 2011. “Dead Mall: Suburban Activism, Local Spaces, Global Logistics,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol. 35, Issue 4, July, http://www.ijurr.org/details/issue/1082215/issue.html.

Queen’s Film and Media, CBC Television Series, 1952-1982, http://www.film.queensu.ca/cbc/B.html.

The Ottawa Citizen, “Eyes of All Ottawa Will Be Focused on Westgate Tomorrow,” 11 May 1955.

———————-, 1955. “Westgate: A Milestone for Ottawa,” 11May.

———————-, 1955. “Opening At Westgate, Adventure In Faith,” 12 May.

———————-, 1955. “Westgate Business ‘Terrific,’ Cash Registers Play Merrily,” 13 May.

———————, 2014. “Tanger outlet opening signals maturation of Ottawa’s retail scene,” 17 October.