Remembering the T. Eaton Company on August 20: Snapshots in History
Timothy Eaton and his son John Craig Eaton, Eaton's department store, Toronto, Canada, 1899.
Credit: Archives of Ontario, Item Reference Code F 229-308-0-2209
Eaton's store façade, 190 Yonge Street, Toronto, Canada, 1918.
Credit: Archives of Ontario, Item Reference Code F 229-308-0-1700
On August 20 and beyond, take a moment to remember the passing of a Canadian business institution, the T. Eaton Company, which filed for bankruptcy protection on the evening of August 20, 1999, 130 years after it had been founded in 1869 in Toronto by Timothy Eaton (1834-1907). Eaton introduced the then-revolutionary practice of cash sales at one fixed price rather than the traditional credit, bargain and barter method. Many Canadians and Torontonians grew up with the famed Eaton’s catalogue. Introduced in 1884 with a mail-order process to facilitate access by rural and farming communities as well to a wide range of products, the Eaton’s catalogue remained a mainstay of the T. Eaton Company until it was discontinued in 1976.
Upon Timothy Eaton’s death in 1907, Eaton’s third son, John Craig Eaton (1876-1922) became president of the company. Knighted in 1915 for philanthropy, it was under Sir J.C. Eaton’s stewardship that Eaton’s employees on active war service received full pay, as well as establishing Saturday holidays and 5:00 p.m. evening closures at Eaton’s stores, mail-order offices, and factories in 1919. Additionally, the Eaton Boys and Girls clubs offered recreational and educational facilities for Eaton’s employees and their families. Following J.C. Eaton’s death, his cousin Robert Young Eaton assumed the company presidency, followed by J.C. Eaton’s son, John David Eaton, in 1942. Under the presidency of J.D. Eaton, the T. Eaton Company expanded into northern and western Canada as well as introducing a contributory medical insurance plan and a retirement plan for employees. J.D. Eaton personally contributed $50 million to the retirement plan in 1948. During the Second World War, Eaton’s was the first Canadian company to pay employees who joined the armed forces. Son John Craig Eaton ll became Chairman of the Board of the T. Eaton Company in 1969. Another son, Fredrik Stefan Eaton, served as Chairman, President and CEO of the company from 1977 to 1988. George Ross Eaton, the youngest son of J.D. Eaton, was the last member of the Eaton family to assume the presidency of the T. Eaton Company until June 1997.
The T. Eaton Company had some ups and downs. It established the Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade in Toronto in 1905 and continued its sponsorship until August 1982, when it pulled out citing increasing costs. Other sponsors came in to sustain the annual parade which continues to this day as the Toronto Santa Claus Parade. The company had resisted attempts of some employees to unionize during the days of Timothy Eaton, during the early 1950s, and even during the mid-1980s when some stores were unionized but an unsuccessful strike resulted in a decertification vote. The company had tried to broaden its position in the Canadian retail universe in the 1970s by establishing a discount chain called Horizon which was closed in 1978. The company also had to deal with stiff competition from the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), Sears Canada, Zellers, and Walmart Canada and the trend towards big-box retailing stores. Eaton’s attempts to compete included hiring HBC’s chief executive officer George Kosich in 1997 as president to develop a higher-end retailing strategy similar to that used at HBC. This initiative resulted in legal wrangling between Eaton’s and HBC. Kosich resigned in 1998 and was replaced by then-chairman Brent Ballantyne. Ballantyne took the company public and shares were sold for the first time in the company’s history with the Eaton family retaining a 51% controlling interest.
Following the declaration of bankruptcy in 1999, Sears Canada purchased Eaton’s corporate assets (name, trademarks, brands etc.) for $50 million and attempted to launch Eaton as a brand name under its auspices. However, the attempted juxtaposition of the then-Sears Canada with its lower prices and merchandise quality with that of the higher-end Eaton’s ultimately ended with the retirement of the Eaton’s name in 2002.
A landmark symbolic of Eaton’s, the Toronto Eaton Centre shopping mall which opened in 1977, continues to be one of the City of Toronto’s top tourist attractions.
Consider the following titles for borrowing and review from Toronto Public Library collections:
Fall and Winter Catalogue 1920-21
Spring & Summer Catalogue No. 122 1917
Eaton's Spring and Summer Catalogue 1907
Fall and Winter Catalogue No. 43 1899-1900
Spring and Summer Catalogue No. 27, 1894
Eaton, T., Company, shop, Yonge St., w. side, between Queen & Albert Sts., 1923.
Lifting a Seven-Ton Motor - Credit: Baldwin Collection, Toronto Reference Library
Eaton, T., Company, shop, Yonge St., w. side, between Queen & Albert Sts., 1910?
- Credit: Baldwin Collection, Toronto Reference Library
Eaton, T., Company, Louisa St., n.e. cor. Downey's Lane; Interior., 1909?
Cutting Men’s Clothing - Credit: Baldwin Collection, Toronto Reference Library
Eaton, T., Company, Louisa St., n.e. cor. Downey's Lane; Interior, 1909?
Designing and Cutting Room - Credit: Baldwin Collection, Toronto Reference Library
Eaton, T., Co., warehouse, Louisa St.?, 1910? - Credit: Baldwin Collection, Toronto Reference Library
7 yr. old bay mare, T. Eaton Co., Toronto, November 24, 1910.
- Credit: Baldwin Collection, Toronto Reference Library
(Credit: Reginald Symonds Timmis)
Highway 427, looking n. from n. of Bloor St. W., during construction, showing T. Eaton Co. farm at left., 1953 - Credit: Baldwin Collection, Toronto Reference Library
(Credit: James Victor Salmon)