presentation feb 12
Preserving and Promoting local history for the former Rideau Township
Log Fence

Eaton's. Founded by Timothy Eaton in 1869, the company went on to become an iconic success story. By the time Eaton's ceased operations in 1999, most Canadians were familiar with shopping at an Eaton's store or ordering from the catalog. (Depending on brand loyalty, some would only shop at Eaton's.)

  Timothy Eaton & Eaton's stamp

For our February meeting, three speakers fleshed out that 130-year-long saga before an appreciative audience of about 40 members and guests. Coral Lindsay summarized company's history and influence, supplemented with an extensive display of Eaton's related memorabilia, supplied by Lindsay and others. (By the way, Eaton's still owes Lindsay 27 cents in refund credits, but it would appear the debt stands as forgiven.) Brian Earl and Pat Grainger shared their distinct high school experiences as Eaton's representatives. Earl recalled that working there was akin to being “part of a very great family”. Grainger counted her experience there as a “wonderful privilege”.

Timothy Eaton was born in Northern Ireland, the youngest of nine children in a Protestant Scottish  farm family. Timothy's father died just before his birth in 1834. The young Eaton left school by age 13. He was apprenticed to a relative on his mother's side who was a storekeeper and shipper. It was hard work and long hours but even then Eaton found ways to invent labour-saving efficiencies, a harbinger of things to come.

By the time his apprenticeship was successfully completed, his mother had died and many of his  siblings had gone to Canada. Eaton decided to try his fortune there as well, arriving in 1854, at age twenty. Various moves, business ventures, conversion to Methodism and marriage (in 1862) followed.

Timothy Eaton and Margaret Beattie (1841-1933) had eight children, five of whom attained adulthood. In another connection of historical interest, one daughter, Josephine Burnside, and a granddaughter, Iris Burnside, were aboard the Lusitania when that ship was torpedoed by Germany off the Irish coast in 1915. (Josephine survived. Iris perished.)  

   Coral Lindsay presenting

Coral Lindsay presenting

The store that made the Eaton family fortune opened on Toronto's Yonge Street, in 1869. It represented a bold move, away from the established shopping districts of the day.

Eaton's did not invent all the innovations they deployed, but over time the company popularized  amenities later taken for granted. At Eaton's there was no bartering. Merchandise had one fixed price and was not sold on credit. Hard cash had been scarce in earlier settlement days. But Eaton's rise paralleled a broad transition to paid labour and increased urbanization. A large segment of the workforce now had regular cash wages. And a growing middle class wanted consumer products that reflected their new social standing.

Customers felt assured by the company's warranty "Goods Satisfactory or Money Refunded" and appreciated that stores were kept well-stocked. Eaton's was one of the first stores to offer a waiting room and washroom facilities for the public's comfort. Stores came to include a grill/lunchroom, and were early to use elevators and escalators, electric lights, telephones and offer the convenience of home delivery. Eaton's was a leader in reducing the work week to 5.5 days. Eaton's featured memorable window displays (draped over on Sundays) and sponsored much-loved Santa Claus parades for many, many decades, before costs forced the company to end that relationship. (The first being held in Toronto and Winnipeg in 1905, Montreal's began in 1925.)

Eaton's first mail-order catalog came out in 1884. It was of enormous benefit to a population that was still mostly rural, far-flung and otherwise unable to access the range (or more competitive prices) of goods available to city dwellers. The catalog sold almost everything – from clothes, books and toys. Eaton product lines came to include sporting equipment, musical instruments, groceries, drugs, furniture, farm equipment and even prefabricated houses. Broad as that sweep was, Eaton's intentionally eschewed selling liquor or tobacco.

When Timothy Eaton died of pneumonia at age 73 in 1907, he was widely mourned as a genius who had revolutionized the retail business in Canada. His son, John Craig Eaton, proved a very able successor. Even before taking over after his father's death, J.C. Eaton was largely responsible for establishing the massive Eaton's store in Winnipeg, which opened in 1905. John C. Eaton went on to be knighted for his considerable war efforts and community service, before an untimely death in 1922 at age 45 (also of pneumonia).  

A note about labour relations: The family-owned company tried to create an environment where employees would not wish to unionize. What emerged was mix of unique benefits, and strong sense of camaraderie – alongside modest wages. Men were paid more than women, though that was hardly unusual. Some 'sweat-shop' conditions among Eaton's suppliers generated criticism. Lindsay reports that Eaton's was black-listed by unions in the 1930's for the company's anti-union stance. How this issue is judged probably depends on the observer's opinion of unionization. Obviously, Eaton's fell short of utopia. Yet it the management style of its founders seems well-intended – even generous – in many ways.  

Timothy Eaton and the T. Eaton Company

Presenters:  Coral Lindsay, Brian Earl and Pat Grainger

Article by Lucy Martin

Eaton's best leaders were its founding father and the son who followed. The company remained in family hands for several more generations, growing in size and complexity. But a combination of changes in the retail landscape and less-effective leadership contributed to the company's ultimate closure in 1999.

Along the way, Eaton's established a rather clever program: Junior Council (for young women) and Junior Executive (for young men). The few chosen from each area high school experienced an intriguing mixture of career training, public promotion and ordinary retail work. As described by co-speakers Brian Earl and Pat Grainger, participants might expect custom-tailored wool blazers which they got to keep, studio portraits printed in local newspapers and participation in parades and group meals with interesting guest speakers.  

Overall, it sounded like a money-losing proposition for Eaton's! On the other hand, it made being part of Eaton's 'cool' and desirable. Eaton's could also access what we now call focus-group feedback from actual teens – all of which helped market the company as “The Store for Young Canada”. It also produced a prospective pool of well-trained employees, for those who wanted that option.  

   Brian Earl presenting

Brian Earl presenting

Brian Earl is a former Eaton's Junior Executive in Winnipeg, a retired artillery officer and an active volunteer at the Canadian War Museum. So Earl made a point of paying tribute to Eaton's unusually supportive policies for employees who went to war.

Earl reports that four employees served in the Boer War and the company kept them on the payroll. In WW I, over 3,000 male Eatonians enlisted. Married men who volunteered continued to receive their full private-sector pay (in addition to their army wages). Single men got half-pay. At war's end previous jobs were restored or something equivalent was created. Eaton's did their best to employ returning amputees and disabled veterans too.

If that much financial support sounds unsustainable, by WW II it was. Still, Eaton's 'topped off' the difference between what a married employee had earned before going into uniform, in an effort to spare families financial hardship for a breadwinner's war-time service. Single employees were toped off at two-thirds of their peacetime wages.

Earl listed other Eaton's wartime outreach efforts. Company newsletters were produced and distributed. Photos of employees in uniform were displayed where they worked. Eaton's European offices served as overseas banks for Eaton service personnel and the Swiss office ensured that monthly care packages were delivered to Eatonians held in POW camps. Stores held events for returning veterans and paid tribute to those killed on company plaques in Toronto and Winnipeg. (The Toronto plaque is at the War Museum.)

In World War I John Eaton donated the family yacht to the war effort. Asked to assist the army modernize, he helped establish and largely funded an entire machine gun battery. (As mentioned earlier, J.C. Eaton's contributions were so notable that he was knighted.) In World War II John David Eaton donated the company's airplane to the war effort. In both world wars, Eaton's returned profits on war contracts to the government. All in all, a commendable record of exceptional support for military service and shared national endeavor.

Pat Grainger was a Toronto area Eaton's Representative for Georges Vanier Secondary School from 1968-1969 and she still has the studio portrait to prove it! Grainger vividly remembers marching in a lengthy November Santa's Parade as a 'Martian' and nearly freezing in her thin costume. She was also coached to model in a fashion show. After the hairdresser and make-up artists were through, her own mother couldn't pick her out on the runway! Grainger and her fellow high school models got to keep the featured clothing too. She reports very happy memories and being treated in a way that was generous, even lavish.

Brian Earl says he didn't get the individual studio portrait, but he was selected from Winnipeg's Churchill High School as a Junior Executive 1957-58. Earl has a nice newspaper ad that pictures him as a Senior Executive the following year – an honour granted to just one young man from the previous year's crop. Saturday mornings were spend on training and various tours, afternoons were spent working as sales help. (Eaton's was, of course, closed on Sundays.)  Lloyd Axworthy was one of the young men Earl worked with in '58-'59.

Lindsay concluded her talk with a list of alternative uses for Eaton's catalogs: cut up as paper dolls; used as a colouring book or to practice drawing; tied on as hockey pads; heated and used as a bed warmer; soaked in salt water, rolled, dried and burned as a Yule log; decorative doorstop; fire-starting paper; outhouse material for reading and toilet paper. 

Immigrants used the handy combination of images and text to learn Canada's official languages. Last but not least, Queen Mary is said to have used Eaton's catalogs to teach the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret about Canada.  

   Pat Grainger presenting

Pat Grainger presenting

The Eaton's story is long and interesting. To learn more I recommend articles found in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. Our thanks to everyone who contributed to a most enjoyable evening of information and displays.