Friday 1 January 2016

Timothy Eaton: Department Store Genius

"There is hardly a name in Canada, with the possible exception of the Prime Minister, so well know to the people at large as that of Mr. Timothy Eaton." (The Globe, 1905)

As I research for a new picture book that I am writing about Toronto of the 1940's, I realize what an institution Eaton's was in Canada at the time.  Growing up in Toronto, my dad said that my grandma used to buy everything at Eaton's.  It seems like every Torontonian either shopped there or worked there.  I borrowed a copy of my parents' book Eatonians to delve deeper into the department store which touched Canadians for over a century and a quarter. 

First, let's examine the man who started it all, Timothy Eaton, an immigrant from Ireland who came to Canada around the mid 1800's.  He settled in Kirkton, Ontario, where he briefly ran a small business with his brother, James. 

Timothy befriended my great-great grandfather Thomas Tufts, who provided the merchant with horses to transport his goods.  Timothy and Thomas used to make runs together from Kirkton to St. Mary's where Timothy opened his second business, this one a dry goods store. 

By 1869, Timothy set out for the big city of Toronto, which at the time only had 70,000 inhabitants.  It was there that Timothy, along with a staff of four, set up a dry goods store and haberdashery at 178 Yonge Street. 

The dry goods store faired well enough that Timothy opened his first department store at 190 Yonge Street in 1883.  The three-floor store, which included 35 departments, featured a series of firsts including:  the first electric lights in a Canadian business, the first telephone in 1885 and the first elevator in 1886. 

Timothy was the first merchant to offer satisfaction guaranteed or your money refunded.  Shoppers knew that they could trust Eaton's for quality products and service.  Their workers, known as Eatonians, went out of their way to serve their customers courteously and efficiently.  Quality and service kept the customers coming back.

The Eaton's catalogue, also the brainchild of Timothy, allowed Canadians from the rural parts of the country to order goods, those who would not normally have access to an Eaton's store.  Timothy was ahead of his time with his advertising techniques used in the catalogue (

Another first for Timothy was the Santa Claus Parade in 1905, well ahead of its time.  Timothy pulled out all the stops having Santa arrive by helicopter one year and by real reindeer another year. My dad remembers attending the parade every year with my granddad, followed by a visit with Santa at Eaton's Toyland.  Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, which didn't debut until 1925, took a page from the Toronto Eaton's Santa Claus Parade. 

In 1905, the Toronto Globe announced:  "There is hardly a name in Canada, with the possible exception of the Prime Minister, so well know to the people at large as that of Mr. Timothy Eaton." Sadly, the founder passed away in 1906.  However, his son son John Craig continued the practices started by his father and the company flourished. 

By 1911, Toronto had grown to about 250,000 inhabitants and Eaton's had 17,500 employees.  By 1919, Timothy's Queen Street store had over 60 acres of floor space.  His large plexiglass window, innovative for the time period, featured displays which attracted window shoppers from the Queen Street West pedestrian crosswalk, one of the busiest in Canada.  The window displays became even more extravagant as Timothy tried to outdo his competitor, Robert Simpson, whose department store was located across the street. 

The 1920's and 1930's saw Eaton's expand across Canada ushering in the Golden Age of the Department Store.  In Toronto, shoppers could dine in the fine restaurant on the 7th floor.  They could be entertained in the auditorium.  Or they could purchase their own entertainment by buying one of the grand pianos from the store.  My dad remembers a visit to the Queen Street Store where, at the tender age of four, he wandered off to the music department.  After several minutes, my horrified grandma discovered him there, tinkering at the keys of a baby grand.

By the 1940's, Toronto's population had risen to almost 1 million people.  The decade saw wartime shortages, but Eaton's still managed to turn a profit.  By the 1960's, Eaton's spread to the suburbs with a new store opening at Yorkdale Shopping Mall.  In the 1970's and 1980's, I remember my granddad purchasing my grandma's favourite perfume each Christmas at Eaton's.

Eaton's started to pull away from the traditions started by its founder, Timothy.  The first sign of trouble was in 1976 when Eaton's launched its last catalogue.  Six years later, the company pulled out of the Santa Claus Parade.  Finally, in 1999, the company folded. The Canadian institution that our great-great grandparents had shopped at had closed its doors. 

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