Vancouver’s David Spencer Department Store

This post is about David Spencer, Ltd.  This was a now-long-gone but once much-loved B.C. department store chain with a store located in downtown Vancouver, which most residents of the city today know as the locations of Harbour Centre tower and Simon Fraser University’s first downtown Vancouver campus.

I make no pretence to present anything approaching a complete history of the store. I’m just ‘noodling around the edges’ of the Spencer’s story in an effort to present a few details that were unknown by me until recently; some of which, perhaps, were unknown to you, too.¹

What’s in a Name?

Spencer’s, as it was typically called, was formally known as “David Spencer, Ltd.” David (1837-1920) was president of the firm when it was established in Vancouver; it had existed in Victoria for several years prior to its 1907 debut in Vancouver. Spencer’s would continue in business until it was bought by T. Eaton Co. in 1948.

Spencer’s was known by a couple of other handles during the years it was in Vancouver. In the 1907 city directory, it called itself “David Spencer’s Dry Goods Merchants and Manufacturers, Home and Hotel Furnishers”. So originally, it didn’t describe itself as a “department store”.

By 1910, it was referring to itself a bit differently. In the city directory of that year it described itself as: “General Merchants, Home and Hotel Furnishers” and also referred to the shop as being a “Departmental Store”. By that year, their property had also grown to include a good deal of the south side of 500-block Cordova St. in addition to the healthy chunk of the north side of Hastings which it had originally bought. They then also owned 516-536 Cordova.

Van Map with 1912 Goads Insurance Map overlaid.

There is a reproduction of this block from Van Map below which shows, overlaid, the 1912 Goad’s Fire Insurance Map. It isn’t completely clear to me whether the Cordova and Hastings properties were connected at that time through some sort of of upper-story bridge, as has been the case over the years with other downtown properties (e.g., the Orpheum Theatre), or whether it was necessary for customers to exit one property and re-enter another (as with the Army & Navy store on East Hastings).

By the time the 1920 city directory was published, the way that Spencer’s referred to itself had changed to simply “Departmental Store”. But as their name became shorter, their appetite for real estate increased. By that year, they had grown to include much of the city block: 507-541 Hastings and 520-530 Cordova.

CVA 789-76 - [Hastings and Richards after heavy snowfall] 1916
(CVA 789-76. Hastings and Richards. 1916.) 500-block of West Hastings.

There was another name associated with Spencer’s of which I was unaware until informed by my friend, Gordon Poppy²: it was also known as the “Diamond S”. I’m unsure of the origin of this name or how/when exactly it came to be applied in reference to the store. But it is clear that it was in use in external communication with customers as early as 1926 (see the first image in the next section of this post). It seems to have been a public relations tool employed by the store to speak of the “diamond” quality standard customers could expect of their wares and service. The cover of the Fall/Winter catalogue, 1928-29, shown immediately below speaks to this.

Spencer's fall and Winter Catalogue 1928-29
Spencer’s 1928-29 Fall/Winter Catalogue. (Courtey: Gordon Poppy).

Re-Development ‘Eyes’ Exceed Capacity?

By 1926, Spencer’s had acquired all of the property it needed to redevelop their several buildings into a single, mammoth ‘new’ building. An artist’s conception of what management had in mind for this new structure appears below on the front cover of the 1926 Spring/Summer catalogue.

spensers spring summer 1926 magazine
Spencer’s 1926 Spring/Summer Catalogue, front cover. (Courtesy: Gordon Poppy). Showing an artistic rendering of the anticipated “new Vancouver store now under construction.” Spencer’s never actually looked as it appears above.

By the time construction of the new building was finished at the end of 1926, the artistic conception of the structure and reality clearly were different. Compare the image above with the one below (a photograph made in the 1930s).

CVA 1495-32 - [David Spencer's Department Store building on Hastings Street] 193-
(CVA 1495-32. 193- ). The actual ‘new’ building on the corner of Hastings and Richards.

Why did the managers of Spencer’s choose to scale down their 1926 ambitions for a full-block Spencer’s emporium? That isn’t clear to me. Gordon Poppy has suggested (and this was my original thought, as well) that it was due to the stock market crash and the consequent Great Depression that followed. The problem with that hypothesis, however, is that the timing doesn’t work. Construction on the new building began in early 1926; it was finished (with a smaller structure than originally planned) by the end of 1926 or (at latest) early 1927. The stock market crash, however, happened in October, 1929; that puts the crash a good two years into the future from when Spencer’s managers had to have decided to go with a smaller building. So it seems safe to rule out the stock market crash as the stimulus for downsizing Spencer’s ambitious 1926 plan.

My best guess is that management decided that the cost of linking all of their properties under a single roof was simply too expensive.

CVA 99-2271 - Taken for Duker and Shaw Billboards Ltd. [Hastings Street looking east from Seymour Street] ca 1926 Stuart Thomson
(CVA 99-2271. ca 1926. Stuart Thomson photo). This is the only image I could find that shows the new Spencer’s building under construction (on north side of Hastings at Richards).

Native Figure ‘Standing’ on Hastings Canopy

The native ‘welcome’ figure shown below was fastened atop the canopy at the Hastings entry to the new building in 1936 (beneath the vertical Spencer’s sign), during Vancouver’s Diamond Jubilee. Today, the figure is part of the collection of the Royal BC Museum (Victoria). At the feet of the figure there is a note that an “Indian Exhibit” was located on the 5th floor of the store in that year.

(Courtesy: Gordon Poppy. Photographer unknown). [1936]. Note the “S” enclosed in a diamond at the bottom of the vertical Spencer’s sign above the arcade canopy on Hastings St. The first “S” in the name (not visible above) was likewise enclosed in a diamond shape. (Note: VPL has a photo that seems to be identical to this one. That photo identifies the photographer as Leonard Frank).

Neo-Roman Speculations

The view shown below is looking at the NE corner of Spencer’s, at Seymour and Hastings. There is a building just beyond the Molson’s/Seymour block which has a neo-Roman appearance.

CVA 586-4015 - Street scene [outside David Spencer Limited - 515 West Hastings Street] Sept 1945 Don Coltman
(CVA 586-4015. Sept 1945. Don Coltman photo). This is a view of the NE corner of Seymour at Hastings (of the Molson’s block of Spencer’s, in the foreground), taken in the days immediately following the end of WW2.

According to the city directory for 1945, there are only two candidates that could then have occupied this building: an ice cream shop or the Spencer’s flower shop. The building looks like too serious a structure to have housed an ice cream shop; so I’m concluding, tentatively, that it was home to Spencer’s floristry department, in this period.

I’ve noticed that this building is just visible in shots made as early as 1906 on VPL’s historical photo site. There are no hints in city directories of that time as to what the building was; this caused me to speculate whether, early in the history of the Molson block, this may have been a Seymour St. entry to Molsons (sort of a back door?)

If anyone can add any facts regarding what the neo-Roman structure was, I’d appreciate hearing from you via a comment to this post.

VPL 5196 - Molson's Bank at NE Seymour & Hastings. 1906. P T Timms photo.
(VPL 5196. Molson’s Bank at NE Seymour & Hastings. 1906. P T Timms photo).
CVA 180-0401 - Spencer's Flower Shop floral display 1932
(CVA 180-0401. Spencer’s Flower Shop floral display at the Pacific National Exhibition (PNE). 1932).

Window Displays

Displays produced by Spencer’s for their windows were, in my opinion, the best around, bar none. (Compare with a window produced by one of their competitors, Hudson’s Bay Co., here, for example). In terms of creativity, material, and time invested, it is difficult, even today, for me to look at Spencer’s windows with anything but awe.

CVA 1495-12 - [Spencer's Department Store ] arcade [window display] 1926 Harry Bullen
(CVA 1495-12. 1926. Harry Bullen photo). The “arcade” below the vertical “Spencer’s” signage on Hastings St. (at the ‘new’ building.

For natural displays, like the Easter scene shown below, “we used real landscaping: grass, flowers, etc.,” said Gordon Poppy. He also noted that their mannequins were wax, eyes were made of glass, and eyebrows were composed of human hair.

CVA 1495-36 - [Spencer's Department Store window display] 193- Dominion Photo
(CVA 1495-36. 193-. Dominion Photo). A view into the short side of the island window.
part 2 garden window
Easter Scene at Spencer’s. Dominion Photo (Colour). n.d. A view through a long side of the island window. Courtesy: Gordon Poppy.



¹For a little more info pertaining (indirectly) to Spencer’s on VAIW, see here and here. For more about Spencer’s from other sources, consider viewing Vancouver Heritage Foundation’s page on the store, this Dunsmuir Street segment of a movie of the 1927(?) Spencer’s Toy Parade, and this concluding segment of the same parade following Santa up Hastings to Spencer’s Hastings Street canopy and entry (in which Santa enters the store by unconventional means that would definitely NOT be applauded by the Worker’s Compensation Board, today).

²Gordon began his working life as a Spencer’s employee. I’ll allow him to tell the story of his early working years: “I started working for David Spencer, Ltd. on July 3rd, 1945 as a summer job. I had been taking a course on display and sign-writing from Frank Vase at the Vancouver School of Display at nights, while I was at high school attending Vancouver Technical School. As Spencer’s had always had the reputation for the best displays in the city, I was glad to get this opportunity to work there. VE Day had just passed, and one of the first windows that I was involved with was the VJ Day displays. I was asked if I would consider staying on in the fall. As I needed two more years of high school, I stayed on at Spencer’s and completed my schooling by attending King Edward School (at Oak and 12th) at night, while working in the daytime. . . .  I continued with David Spencer’s until the chain was bought by the T. Eaton Co. in late 1948. Most of the employees continued on with the new owners. I stayed on until 1991 with Eaton’s.”

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16 Responses to Vancouver’s David Spencer Department Store

  1. Grahame Ware says:

    My father worked at Spencers as a radio technician having done as much in the RCAF during the war. Of course what really did in Spencers was the rise of Woodwards. They had the food angle to draw people in for something other than hard goods. Spencers resisted unionization and there were strikes that adversely affected the bottom line. But the IBEW (Int’l Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) did get into Spensers and Eatons had no choice but to recognize them.
    My father jumped at a chance to get out of the shop and take a job with BC Electric digging ditches as a way of waiting for something better to be posted. It finally came in the form of a groundman job based in Sapperton (New West). This then led to us moving to Surrey and getting acreage and building a new home on a VLA loan.
    Eatons for its part expanded to New West on Columbia Street and continued as the main rival to Woodwards in the Lower mainland although they had no food department.
    Spencers was considered to have the best radios and radio repairs. This was when you’d have these big, honking wood consoles that were really the entertainment centre in the late 40’s and early 50’s before the rise of television starting in the mid 50’s. The Commonwealth Games and CBC’s first live sports coverage stimulated people to get TV’s as the CBC really stepped up their programming.

  2. Ron Hyde says:

    A wonderful story of one of Vancouver’s early retailers. I remember as a child always going to Spencers at Christmas to see their wonderful Christmas displays in their Island showcases at the entrance to the store. They were the best in Vancouver and caught the attention of all ages. Great memories.

  3. Tim Kuepfer says:

    Yes, great post. But what in the world does their slogan/motto (“forward to civvies”) mean?

    • mdm says:

      The war has just ended (it’s 1945); presumably, Spencer’s is celebrating with everyone who is involved in the armed services that army drab is ‘out’ and the variety that comes with ‘civilian clothing’ or ‘civvies’ is ‘in’! 😉

  4. lhhouben says:

    I loved this article! I miss department stores so much. I have the mindset of a department store shopper. lol Spencer’s was before my time but the 1920’s window displays are so beautiful. I miss beauty in shopping….

  5. Elizabeth Rogers says:

    The “Diamond S” was the name of the ranch owned by the Spencer family on the hill just out of Clinton..while I was a nurse at Ashcroft hosp. the matron told me about having to drive up there one night with the local GP to attend someone who had been hurt/ill and what a frightening drive that was going along the edge of the mountain in the dark ! I heard this story in 1954, it had happened several years before then..

  6. J E Spencer says:

    Forwarded to me by a friend, it is a wonderful account of family history. Thank you MDM and Gordon I am descendant of both Winch and Spencer.

  7. Teri Hepplewhite says:

    My dad, Bill Hepplewhite, first worked at Spencer’s and then at Eatons for a total of 40 years. He was Display Manager for a number of those years and worked with Gordon Poppy and have so many wonderful memories of Gordon. I remember as a child going to the closed store at Easter time to help feed the baby animals being ‘in the barnyard’. Have albums full of photos of the Display Dept. windows and special events, and have heard so many stories over the years…takes me back to when I was a kid.

  8. Rachel says:

    I recently found some old records in a box given to us from my husband’s family and it contained a record in a sleeve advertising David Spencer Limited – Radio Parlors in Vancouver. In addition to the record (Red Wing by Stanley and Burr) there was a December 1934″flyer” listing Victor Records list of records for sale. Even lists “Christmas gifts for the children”. It was so interesting to read this article and know my husband’s great grandfather shopped here! Thanks

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