Join historian Bruce Allen Kopytek in this history of The T. Eaton Co., Limited, a beloved and impactful Canadian institution for well over a century.
Eaton’s wasn’t just Canada’s largest and most well-known department Store— it was an icon of Canadian culture. From the day of its founding in 1869, through its famed catalogue to its large stores which spread from coast to coast across Canada, Eaton’s offered something for everyone, and did it in grand style. Relive the days when this remarkable store was a fixture in every Canadian province, and served its customers with a distinctive personality and unique character which has all but vanished from the Canadian retail scene.
A Mari usque ad Mare
Eaton’s, too was firmly and consistently Canadian from the day of its inception, just two years after Confederation created a nation where once only colonies existed. In many ways, the company’s growth mirrored that of Canada itself. In 1937, Eaton’s announced a huge, 2-day sale in Toronto, naming it the “Trans-Canada Sale,” but it wasn’t until 1955, after it had achieved the distinction of having retail stores in every province, that the sale took on a deeper meaning, and reflected the true nature of the T. Eaton Co. as the Trans-Canada Store. Venerable competitor The Hudson’s Bay Company may have been older, but for much of its history it operated primarily in Western Canada, and didn’t really operate as a true department store organization until the late 1800s. The Robert Simpson Co., Limited may have been a glamorous and worthy competitor, but it was small in comparison to Eaton’s.
Most large Canadian cities boasted an Eaton’s store in the centre of their downtown shopping core, and if it didn’t, there was the ever-present Eaton’s Catalogue. In many cases, the stores were notable buildings designed by fine Canadian architects on behalf of the retailer, and they fit Canada’s interesting and historic urban areas to a “T.” From the grand railway terminals in big cities like Toronto and Vancouver, to the historic and welcoming hotels that were ambassadors of Canadian hospitality, could be added the great representative stores of Eaton’s, whether they were the classic variety such as the Montréal store on St. Catherine Street, or the one-of-a-kind art deco masterpiece that was the 1930 Eaton’s – College Street.
If it wasn’t the stores themselves, it was the merchandise, or more specifically, the confidence in stylish, fine quality stocks backed by the “Satisfaction Guaranteed or Money Refunded” guarantee that was the hallmark of any Eaton shopping excursion. Add to that the experience itself: not just shopping, but an opportunity to purchase almost anything under one roof (especially mind-boggling in the big stores) and to enjoy a myriad of in-house services, crowned by fine restaurants which were often Canadian landmarks in themselves. It has been said often, and likely wouldn’t need repeating, if it didn’t set the tone for the story so well: Eaton’s was more than a store.
To this day, those who remember it still mourn its passing as if an old friend had died. June Sagness wrote about her experiences fourteen years after Eaton’s disappeared from Canada:
I remember going to Eaton’s Queen Street Store with my older sister & my mom at Christmas. We went downtown to see Santa and then went for a ride on the train that went all around Toy Land, at the end of the ride we got a Punkinhead Book and a present (usually a book, game or puzzle). My mother used to say that T. Eaton Company had the biggest selection of dolls in Toronto (my sister and I always got a doll for Christmas); I still have some of them. It was always a treat to go to the Annex and have soft chocolate ice cream or an ice cream sandwich and watch the ladies making the waffles. It was such fun to go shopping and hide from my mom in amongst the clothes. It wasn’t fun for her to find two kids amongst the clothes, but later I used to take my little boys down so they could enjoy the store like I did as a child. Such things can never be forgotten.
It wasn’t just customers, though. Eaton’s staff was truly the human element which made the store come alive. Eaton’s retail executives and those that worked under them created its public image and the store staff was truly the company’s ambassador to the Canadians, and visitors, who took Eaton’s to their own hearts. Eaton’s was, for many years, Canada’s largest commercial employer, and those on its payroll styled themselves as “Eatonians.” As such, they were loyal employees, and fulfilled an ideal of customer service outlined by Timothy Eaton himself. June Rysinski, of Thunder Bay, Ontario, remembers her dad as an example of the quintessential Eatonian:
My father, Victor Tuomi, worked for 29 years specializing in men’s suits. He retired at age 65 in 1983. The place where he worked was near and dear to his heart. Eaton’s became his second home and family. All I could think of were memories of him running around the department with his measuring tape around his neck, and flashy ties – always ready to suit up one of his customers. No matter how bad a suit looked on you when you tried it on, Vic would measure it up to fit like a glove! When they wanted to look their best, customers knew to see Vic. He had a huge clientele and cared dearly about his customers. My father was a true professional. It wasn’t just a job for him…it was his vocation. He put his heart and soul into everything he did for his customers and was a loyal, dedicated employee of Eaton’s.
June’s memories of Eaton’s and of her father’s employment are many and varied, but among her favourites are going to the store to see her father Vic dressed in a vintage costume, along with his colleagues in the Port Arthur store, celebrating Canada’s 1967 Centennial in style. When Vic achieved 25 years with Eaton’s, becoming a member of the “Quarter-Century Club,” he was treated like a celebrity and received a diamond ring for his service to Eaton’s. “He wore that ring with such pride and never took it off. He even wore it while gardening. Even though his hands got covered in mud, I can still see the image of that diamond shining through all the dirt!”
Perhaps Lori Stiles-Thurrott, who began working at Highfield Square in Moncton, New Brunswick, in 1983, summed it up best, saying, “with 17 years there I will always consider myself an Eatonian.”
Not only was it a nationwide staple of Canadian commerce, it offered a richly unique experience to Canadians. No other store featured a world-class performing arts venue in its home town. No other store was operated by the founding family for so long. No other store grew up alongside, and became associated with Canada like Eaton’s, and no other store boasted a Knight Bachelor as its president, aided by his wife, Lady Eaton. Eaton’s, undeniably, was an inseparable part of what made Canada the uncommon nation that it is.
This book tells the story of the T. Eaton Co. and how it grew to become the Trans-Canada Store. As an author, I am loathe to devote space to writing in the first person, but find it necessary, because inevitably, readers will want to know why the subject matter inspired such a text, especially when the author is a foreigner, and at first glance appears unrelated. The question as to why an American would take such an interest in a Canadian topic will surely arise as readers turn these pages. The answer is succinct: I grew up on the shores of the Great Lakes, and my family considered Canada and Canadians to be our good neighbours. It was always clear that we loved it a great deal. Canada was, for us, as a family, an opportunity to escape from our routine and enter a world where things were just a little different. Niagara Falls was a favoured and nearby destination, and traveling to Montréal to visit Expo 67 was the proverbial “icing on the cake” for a family with such an inquisitive nature, especially in regards to a fascination with out-of-the-way and exotic places.
The language of Canada’s citizens was different, and the influence of the old cultures on the other side of Atlantic was more that much more tangible. The natural beauty of Canada needs no recommendation; for a family who loved to travel in North America, Canada was the ultimate destination. Growing up, it seemed that these journeys were not so much long automobile rides, but an unfolding of a stunning scenic and cultural wonderland right before our very eyes. Our parents’ desire to give us a first-hand learning experience took us to the Maritimes, to Ottawa, Montréal and to Toronto. Riding the great Comet roller coaster at Ontario’s Crystal Beach was as frequent a pastime as if the place were nearby; we didn’t just “see the world” at Expo ’67, but we visited the shrine of Ste-Anne de Beaupré to pray and worship together, and experienced the natural beauty that Canada offered at every turn. The varied scenes of my mother trying to order us (in English) a snack of patates frites at a roadside stand in Québec, or of my parents so happily dancing one summer evening to the silky sounds of Guy Lombardo tunes, on the shores of Lake Ontario at the Canadian National Exhibition, have been indelibly etched into my memory for years.
Eaton’s played a role in these vacations because of my mother’s love of shopping and my dad’s desire to explore new places. As a result, I was privileged to experience the venerable Queen Street store in Toronto before it was replaced by the contemporary Eaton Centre; the enormous Montréal store likewise was a favourite. Eaton’s became a household name in our home in the United States as well, and when, in the 1980s brought Eaton’s to nearby Sarnia, Ontario, I acquired two snappy wool suits from the store as I embarked on my career as an architect. My affection for Eaton’s built up over many years and many experiences, all of them positive.
In the charmed life with which I have been blessed, I have, like others, known tragedy as well. Often, when at a loss for words, simple consolations have always proven by experience to be the best, and when a dear relative or friend has passed on, I have been frequently reminded that the world seems very tangibly poorer and just a little less humane without the one whose loss hurts so much. Canada is a beautiful nation with an astounding history, and so much to recommend it, but a Canada without Eaton’s will never seem completely whole to those who knew this superlative institution and how it played a pivotal role in the lives of Canadians – and even this American as well.
The history of Eaton’s, then, might be read as an epitaph; yet, because of the store’s icon status, it must be so much more. The tale is fueled by remembrance, and as such should evoke great nostalgia in all those who experienced the store, whether they were customers or employees. To everyone else, let it be an inspiration to the value of thoughtful and creative ideas, and their practical application as shown by Timothy Eaton’s worthy and uplifting example: Eaton’s: The Trans-Canada Store.
Overview & Preview
484 Pages – 6″ X 9″ X 3/4″
PUBLISHED BY THE HISTORY PRESS
Prologue: A Mari Usque ad Mare
Chapter 1 Ballymena
Chapter 2 Toronto the Good
Chapter 3 The Book of Timothy
Chapter 4 Go West, Yonge Man
Chapter 5 Sir John and the Lady
Chapter 6 Regency Style
Chapter 7 Chez Eaton au Québec
Chapter 8 Plains and Mountains
Chapter 9 Ocean Limited
Chapter 10 Steel Away
Chapter 11 The Old College Try
Chapter 12 All in the Family
Chapter 13 Pacific Heights
Chapter 14 I Love a Parade!
Chapter 15 Where All the Lights are Bright
Chapter 16 Plus ça Change . . .
Chapter 17 The Fall of the House of Eaton
About the Author
“Trust in the Lord and do good and verily thou shalt be fed.”
It was a wonderful moment for me when Jack’s name was called. He walked up, knelt in front of the Duke of Connaught who touched him on each shoulder with his sword and uttered the ancient command beginning “Arise, Sir Knight . . .” I felt shivers up and down my spine and I could hardly restrain my tears – but they were tears of pride and happiness.
"Amid tall ferns and roses, and to the strains of music from the orchestra balcony, the Georgian Room . . . was formally opened yesterday morning at 11 o’clock. Tall oval windows, extending two stories, curtained in blue and gold, provided but one of the distinctive features of the large cream-panelled room, with its classic pillars, Italian stone floor, Wedgwood blue rugs and oxidized bronze crystal chandeliers. Patrons are met at the door by one of the captains-in-charge, and conducted to charmingly-set walnut tables and chairs upholstered in blue, where they are quickly and quietly served by trim waitresses in tan uniforms. Each table is attractively set with cream and blue china, Georgian silver service, and black bud vases, each containing a beautiful rose. Cooking is done by a European chef."
The Toronto Globe
Signed by the Author