EATON'S: The History and Legacy of a Canadian Institution

Eaton's catalogue from 1884On December 8, 1869, just two years after Confederation, an advertisment appeared in The Globe newspaper in Toronto announcing the opening of T. Eaton & Co. a dry goods store and haberdashery with “sound goods, good styles and good value”. This first store, located at 178 Yonge Street, was only 7.3 by 18.3 metres in size (24 by 60 feet) with two shop windows and a small staff of two men, a woman, and a boy.

Statue of Timothy EatonTimothy Eaton had made his first foray into the retail business that was to earn him a place as one of Canada's greatest businessmen, and earn his company a place in the history of the nation. Mr Eaton was born in 1834 in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, of Protestant Scottish ancestry. He sailed to Canada at the age of 20 and settled in southern Ontario. After several unsucessful business ventures, he bought the store in Toronto in 1869 and never looked back.

The Eaton's store in 1920Eaton's store prospered and grew rapidly in the ensuing decades. Eaton’s company soon outgrew its orginal location, so in August 1883 Eaton moved the business one block north into much larger premises at 190 Yonge Street. The new store had three full floors of retail space featuring 35 departments. It had the largest plate-glass windows in Toronto, the first electric lights in any Canadian store, and in 1886, the first elevator in a retail establishment in Toronto was installed.

Eaton's Catalogue 1961In 1884, Timothy Eaton introduced his mail-order catalogue to Canada. This type of retailing was eminently suitable for the vast expanse that was Canada, which remained a largely rural country until later in the 20th century. The catalogue offered everything from clothing and furniture to farming equipment and even pre-fabricated houses. In the rural settlements, isolated communities and small towns that dotted the Canadian landscape, the arrival of Eaton's catalogue was a major event and allowed people to avail themselves of the opportunity to purchase an array of products that were otherwise unattainable.

The Eaton's store in WinnepegJohn Craig Eaton, the son and eventual heir of Timothy Eaton, was largely responsible for expanding the Eaton’s business from its Toronto birthplace and the of building a combined store and mail order operation in Winnipeg in 1907. The landmark red brick store, known as “the Big Store” to Winnipegers, became an overwhelming success almost overnight. Within a few weeks of the store’s opening, the staff grew from 750 to 1200. By 1919, the Eaton’s complex in Winnipeg covered 21 acres and employed 8000 people. For many years, the Winnipeg Eaton’s store was considered the most successful department store in the world. It was a true forerunner of modern mega-shopping malls, and the deparment store could boast its own hospital clinic, fire department, water supply, library, and restaurants. “As late as the 1960s, Canadian Magazine estimated that Winnipegers spent more than 50 cents of every shopping dollar (excluding groceries) at Eaton’s, and that on a busy day, one out of every ten Winnipegers would visit the Portage Avenue store.”

In 1911, Saturday Night magazine declared: “Never before in the history of the world has it been possible for a store to be run on this humanitarian basis of beauty, use and efficiency. All of Canada is proud of Eaton’s; and Canada should be, for here we find a store that has set the world a pace in modern merchandising.” In the same year, the Illustrated London News stated: “The T. Eaton Co. of Toronto can claim their stores are the greatest in the British Empire.”

Toronto Eaton Centre interior looking southIn the mid-1960s, Eaton's announced plans for a massive office and shopping complex that would occupy several city blocks in Toronto. Initial plans for the centre called for the demolition of both Old City Hall (except for the clock tower and cenotaph) and the Church of the Holy Trinity. Due to various historical preservation campaigns, the Eaton Centre plans were eventually revised to save both buildings and the first phase of the complex opened in 1977. It was a nine-storey, 100 000 square metre (1,000,000 square foot) Eaton's store. The south half of the development, which replaced the old Eaton's store at Yonge and Queen, was opened in 1979, along with a Cineplex cinema (now closed) that boasted 18 screens, at the time the largest multiplex in the world. There are currently about 330 stores in the complex, covering about 150 000 m²(1,600,000 square feet), making it possibly the largest downtown shopping centre in North America. It is one of the top tourist attractions in Toronto, with an estimated 1 000 000 visitors a week. One of the most celebrated sights in the Eaton Centre is a sculpture featuring a group of fibre glass Canada Geese hanging from the ceiling. The sculpture, called Flight Stop, the work of artist Michael Snow. A further expansion of the Eaton Centre, set to open in 2006, is underway in the northwest corner of the property that will include more retail space, a new parking garage, and the new School of Business for Ryerson University. With the demise of the Eaton's company in 1999, the location once held by Eaton’s store is now occupied by Sears Canada. However, the complex retains the Eaton Centre name, a tribute to Timothy Eaton and the small shop he once opened at this location.