Listen to this podcast episode on my podcast Canadian History Ehx
Canadians of a certain age will remember a department store that existed across the country and was part of the fabric Canada. It was a store that existed throughout the 20thcentury, which revolutionized many things about the retail experience.
That store was Eaton’s.
While today it is gone, and has been for 20 years, it was a big part of the lives of many Canadians.
To understand the history of Eaton’s, we have to first look at the man who built the company, Timothy Eaton.
Timothy Eaton was born in Ireland in March of 1834 to two Scottish Protestant parents. When he was 20, he was working as an apprentice shopkeeper and made the decision to come to Canada to settle in southern Ontario with family.
His first business was a bakery at St. Mary’s, which folded a few months later in 1861. He then told his customers that the business was switching from bread to dry goods, boots and medicines. Eventually, he Eaton tired of St. Mary’s and at the age of 35 he moved to Toronto.
In 1869, the year he moved, Eaton purchased a dry-goods and haberdashery business with his wife Margaret for $6,500 in Toronto. In order to promote his business, he came upon two revolutionary ideas. First, he made it standard that all goods had one price, and there would be no haggling and no credit. Second, he allowed all purchases to come with a money-back guarantee. Eaton would die of pneumonia on Jan. 31, 1907, and is buried in Toronto. He would be honoured with Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, built in 1914, and the town of Eatonia in Saskatchewan is named for him.
The very first Eaton’s store was only 24 feet by 60 feet, with two large shop windows that overlooked the street. Four people worked in the store and the expectation of everyone was that the store was not going to succeed due to the no-credit and no-haggling policy.
As it turned out, the store began to prosper and in 1883, Eaton moved his store to 190 Yonge Street. The store was innovative for several reasons. First, it had the largest plate-glass windows in Toronto, and the first electric lights ever installed in a Canadian store. In the three floors of retail space, there were 35 departments.
Two years after the store opened, it would receive its first telephone with the number 370. In 1886, the store had the first elevator in a retail establishment in Toronto installed. The elevator actually helped with sales because only shoppers going up could use the elevator, and they needed to walk past several store displays before getting to the elevator. Already very aware of his competition, Eaton made sure he kept the lease on his former store until 1884 to delay the expansion plans of Robert Simpson, who owned Simpson’s, the main competition for Eaton.
By the turn of the century, Eaton’s was calling itself “Canada’s Greatest Store” and the store would continue to increase in size and new buildings would be constructed to handle the growing mail order division, as well as the factories.
By 1911, 17,500 people were employed by Eatons and eight years later the Eaton’s buildings in Toronto contained a floor space that covered 60 acres.
One of the biggest changes for the company would come from Western Canada as it began to expand as more people moved out west. The western provinces were major drivers of the mail order catalogue aspect of the business. In order to accommodate this growing demand, Eaton’s looked at Winnipeg, Manitoba as the spot for a mail order warehouse that would serve its customers in the west.
By this point, John Craig Eaton, the son of Timothy, was looking at building a store and mail order operation in the city. Timothy was hesitating to build the store so far from Toronto but his son was able to convince him and a city block was bought on Portage Avenue. On July 15, 1905, a five-storey Eaton’s store was opened. The opening was a huge event, with thousands of people coming out. The Winnipeg Daily Tribune would comment that “The Canadian Napoleon of Retail Commerce Reaches The Capital – Views His Great Store For First Time – Well Pleased”
The store was made of red brick and would be known as the Big Store to those in Winnipeg. Initially having a staff of 750, that grew to 1,200 in only a few weeks. The business in Winnipeg would continue to grow and by 1910 three-storeys were built onto the store. By 1919, the Winnipeg store would cover 21 acres and employ 8,000 people.
The incredible success of the store was not lost on others and it was felt it was the most successful department store in the world. Eventually, by the 1960s, it was estimated by Canadian Magazine that Winnipeg residents spent 50 cents of every shopping dollar at Eaton’s. On a busy day, one out of 10 Winnipeg residents would visit the store.
The Winnipeg store would operate until Oct. 17, 1999 when it closed with 36 other stores. We will talk more about the collapse of Eaton’s later.
Eaton’s was notable because of how it revolutionized the department store across the continent. American retailers would come to the Toronto and Winnipeg stores to see why the locations were so successful and how they too could replicate that success. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Eaton’s would call itself the largest retail organization in the British Empire, thanks in no small part to the success it was having in Toronto and Winnipeg.
In 1905, the reach of Eaton’s was so wide that it was believed by The Globe that apart from the Prime Minister, no name was as known by the people of Canada as that of Timothy Eaton.
Timothy would pass away in 1907, having built his empire, and his son John Craig Eaton would take over as the president of the company. Upon his death from pneumonia, Eaton was worth $5.25 million in 1907 funds. During his funeral procession, 200 carriages and thousands of mourners followed the horse to Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
John Craig would continue the expansion he had pushed his father to do with Winnipeg. From 1916 to 1920, he would open new mail order and distribution centres in Saskatoon, Regina and Moncton.
Throughout the First World War, he worked hard in the war effort of Canada and was knighted for it, becoming Sir John Craig Eaton. Under his guidance, Eaton’s employees on active war service still received their full pay. In addition, he also created the Eaton Boys and Girls clubs that offered recreational and educational facilities for employees and their families. The company also purchased a series of armoured cars for a division of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces during the war. Of the 3,000 men who were employed by Eaton’s that went to fight overseas, 1,300 returned the company after the war. Unfortunately, he would pass away at the young age of only 45 in 1922. Upon his death, it left his wife Lady Eaton to raise their six children. A controversial figure even in her time, she once said of Women’s Suffrage that it was a nuisance because it is not restricted to intelligent women. She would be Eaton’s Vice President until 1942 when her son took over.
John Craig’s cousin Robert Eaton would take over the company until John’s son John David took over the president position in 1942.
Under Robert, the company would see heavy expansion in its department store division. New stores would open in Red Deer, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Prince Albert, Port Arthur, Hamilton and Halifax.
In 1925, the Goodwin’s store in Montreal was purchased by the company and within two years it would be a six-storey store on Saint Catherine Street. It would expand to nine storeys in 1930.
Expansion would continue under John David Eaton with more expansion into British Columbia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. This would give Eaton’s the distinction of having a department store in every Canadian province.
No talk of Eaton’s would be complete without talking about the catalogue. The catalogue became a part of Canadiana and it was felt that every home in Canada had a copy of the Bible and the Eaton’s catalogue. The first catalogue was introduced in 1884 and was a 32-page booklet published in Toronto.
In that first catalogue, Timothy Eaton would write, “This catalogue is destined to go wherever the maple leaf grows, throughout the vast Dominion. We have the facilities for filling mail orders satisfactory, no matter how far the letter has to come and the goods have to go.”
As the company grew, so too did the catalogue. More and more people were ordering from the catalogue and by 1920, mail order warehouses were present in Toronto, Winnipeg and Moncton. In the 1920s, the booklet would be 500-pages in length. The first catalogue order office would be established in Oakville, Ontario in 1916 and quickly spread across the country.
The catalogue was so successful because at the time of its introduction and for several years after the population of Canada was mostly rural. The catalogue gave people the ability to order items that were once only available in the bigger cities of the country. Everything from clothing to farm machinery could be ordered. In addition, homes could be purchased in the form of a small prefabricated house and many of those original houses ordered through the mail still exist in Canada today. Customers could choose from the Eatoncourt, Eastbourne, Easton, Eager, Earlswood or Earlscourt house models. A typical home in the 1910s would cost $900 from the catalogue.
Beginning in 1934, the catalogue also began to sell NHL-branded sweaters, something that was extremely rare in sports at the time. Interestingly enough, hockey sweaters were not worn by adults in public and Conn Smythe would walk around the Maple Leaf Gardens stands to ensure that no adult wore a jersey. Children were the only ones seen wearing jerseys in public. Back in those days, an adult sweater would cost $2.10, or $37 in today’s funds.
The catalogue went beyond just being something people ordered from. First, it was an excellent way for new settlers to learn English and, in a very Canadian use, the catalogue served as simple goalie pads for budding hockey players. The impact on hockey culture by the Eaton’s catalogue would be seen in its finest example in The Hockey Sweater, written by Roch Carrier. The story involves a young Quebec boy who asks his mother for the Montreal Canadians sweater to honour his hero Maurice The Rocket Richard. Unfortunately, he receives a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater.
In the story, the narrator says:
“She started to leaf through the catalogue the Eaton company sent us in the mail every year. My
mother was proud. She didn’t want to buy our clothes at the general store. The only things that were good enough for us were the latest styles from the Eaton’s catalogue.”
As has been seen with the hockey sweaters, makeshift hockey pads and the iconic Canadian book, the history of NHL hockey owes a lot to the Eaton’s catalogue.
The catalogue ensured that children could get the equipment they needed to play the game they love. The 1912-13 catalogue had an entire page devoted to hockey, including the first visual representation of protective equipment. Throughout the 1910s, the company would offer everything from sweaters and socks to nets and referee whistles.
The growing rail system of Canada would help get the shipments of Eaton’s to many customers and eventually the company offered free freight on all orders over $25.
The catalogue would continue to operate for several decades but as the population of Canada became more urban, the catalogue dropped in use. By the mid-1970s, 60 per cent of suburban customers were within 30 minutes of an Eaton’s store.
On Jan. 14, 1976, it was announced that the 1976 spring-summer catalogue would be the last ever. This would put 9,000 mail order employees out of work.
The Eaton’s company would have a big impact on the traditions of Toronto as well. One such impact was the Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade, which they first held on Dec. 2, 1905. The parade would eventually grow to become the largest in North America by the 1950s and would be broadcast not only in Canada, but in the United States as well. The event was never a small affair. In the 1913 parade for example, Eaton’s brought in actual reindeer to pull Santa’s sleigh.
The 1952 parade would be the first one broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on television, and the first broadcast in colour television would be in 1970.
Due to the rising costs of the parade, Eaton’s announced it would no longer fund the parade in 1982. A Save Our Parade campaign began and the parade would continue on as the Toronto Santa Claus Parade.
What about the workers at Eaton’s? For many, it was a double-edged sword working for the company. On the one hand, the company kept a strict policy of being open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., ensuring workers had reasonable work hours. While that was good, the company resisted unionization heavily and would use strike breakers on several occasions. In 1919, hundreds of women employed by the Winnipeg store took part in the Winnipeg General Strike as a show of support for the strikers. Many of them would lose their job at Eaton’s. During The Great Depression, when the company was at its height, the Eaton family enjoyed huge returns on their business, while many in the country and their own workers were dealing with financial woes.
Henry Herbert Stevens, who headed the Royal Commission on Price Spreads, it was discovered that Eaton’s pressured manufacturers to sell them low-cost goods and they would undercut smaller retail competitors. In addition, an examination of the Eaton’s books it was found that the company was cutting jobs and wages of its employees, while the directors were making millions in wages, bonuses and pensions.
In 1948, the Canadian Congress of Labour looked to unionize the 12,000 Toronto employees, which resulted in a four-year long struggle with the company. The Eaton’s family resisted the campaign through actions against the union and by expanding company benefits. Eventually, Eaton’s employees voted against joining the union.
In addition, women who worked at Eaton’s were often paid less than men.
All of this is not to say that Eaton’s treated its employees horribly. The company would introduce a contributory medical insurance plan and retirement plan for its employees. In 1948, J.D. Eaton himself put $50 million into the retirement plan fund. As with the First World War, all Eaton’s employees who had joined the armed forces also received their full pay with the company.
John Craig Eaton II would become the chairman of the board of the company in 1969, followed by his son Fredrick Stefan Eaton from 1977 to 1988. Fred would have a quotation from Chairman Mao on his wall at the Eaton’s Centre which read, “parasites who depend on imperialism soon find out that their bosses are not reliable. The whole situation will change when the tree falls and the monkeys scatter.”
His son, J.D. Eaton, would run the company from that point until 1997.
As can be seen through the various things begun by the company, like the parade and the catalogue, that were both ended due to rising costs, the company was not doing well from the 1980s onward. In 1977, the company would open the Toronto Eaton in downtown Toronto to replace the downtown Eaton’s stores. Construction had begun in 1974 after a failed attempt by the company to demolish Toronto’s old city hall. The structure had 200 stores in it, including a nine-storey Eaton’s store. This would be the last bright spot for the company in a two decade decline that was about to being.
Throughout the 1970s, the company would establish chains of discount stores called Horizon, but these stores did not last past 1978.
Growing competition from suburban retailers like Sears, Zellers and Hudson’s Bay would begin to take a bite out of the market share of Eaton’s. By the 1990s, Walmart had showed up and was expanding heavily into Canada. With these big box stores showing up, the writing was on the wall for the company and by the late-1990s, Eaton’s was nearing its end.
Poor management by the Eaton family did not help matters either. The last two generations of the Eaton family in management did not renovate older stores that served as landmarks in their community, and by the 1960s the older stores were indistinguishable from other stores, further reducing the ability of the company to stand out.
As was seen with the catalogue and the Santa Claus parade, Eaton’s lost its Canadiana feel through the 1970s and a new generation grew up without seeing the company for what it had been for Canadians.
The demise of Eaton’s was incredible and unbelievable for many who grew up with the company. In 1930, 60 per cent of all department store sales in Canada were through Eaton’s. By 1997, that number had been reduced to 10.6 percent. The company would rank behind The Bay, Sears, Zellers and Wal-Mart for sales. That same year, the company filed for bankruptcy protection and it was planned to close 31 of the company’s 90 stores. This included two-thirds of the stores in Alberta.
George Eaton, the last of the family to run the company, would resign in 1997.
The company officially folded in 1999, after operating in Canada for 130 years. Sears would acquire the assets of Eaton’s for $50 million.
While the store brand no longer exists, the Toronto Eaton Centre and Montreal Eaton Centre still exist and retain the original name of the company. The Toronto Eaton Centre attracts one million visitors a week and is a tourist attraction for the city.
Many of the original Eaton’s stores in major cities would slowly be converted to other retail companies and locations.
As for the iconic Winnipeg store, it would be emptied in 1999 and while there would be various alternate uses for the building, it would be demolished in 2002 to make way for the MTS Centre, where the Winnipeg Jets play. The red bricks of the original store were built into the arena façade to honour the Eaton’s store at that location.
Two statues of Timothy Eaton were donated by Eaton’s employees in 1919 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the company. One statue went to the Toronto store, and now sits at the Royal Ontario Museum, while the Winnipeg statue went to Winnipeg store. The Winnipeg statue would actually move around a bit after the closure of Eaton’s. It would be at the Polo Park Mall for a few years until the Hudson’s Bay Company opened a Bay store at the location and wanted the statue removed. The Eaton family refused and the Manitoba government came in and declared the statue a provincial heritage object. It is now at the Bell MTS Place, one floor up from where it was originally at the Eaton’s store. It has now become a bit of a good luck charm to rub the left shoe of the statue.
Information for this podcast episode comes from Wikipedia, the Canadian Encyclopedia, CBC, Toronto Public Library, Virtual Museum, the Museum of Toronto,