Timothy Eaton

It is really hard to compete with Hudson Bay Company but an Irishman gave it a try and the business became the most successful private company in Canada. A visionary, he defined what Canadian retail should be.  I am pleased to introduce Timothy Eaton.

Timothy was born in March 1834 in Clogher, in County Tyrone in Northern Ireland. His father, John Eaton was a well-to-do tenant farmer from Scotland.  John died 30 January 1834.  Timothy, the 9th child to the couple was born 2 months later.  His mom was Margaret Craig.

Timothy was a quiet lad who kept to himself.  As he was growing up, he began to demonstrate a strong character.  He would attend the local National School although he was not a great scholar.  Upon his completion, he did a small stint in an academy in Ballymena.  At age 13, he was urged to begin an apprenticeship.  He withdrew from the academy.

His apprenticeship began with Mr. Smith, a relative who owned a prosperous general store in Port Glenone.  Eaton’s mother put up the 100 pounds bond needed for Timothy to apprentice. The bond was for 5 years.  Mr. Smith was a hard master and Timothy would garner a strong work ethic from this. The hours were long and grueling. Many times he slept under the counter at night.  He hated the job but stuck it through.

His mother died the following year. Timothy now found himself alone.  Most of his siblings had immigrated to Canada.

In 1852, Timothy completed his apprenticeship and got his bond of 100 pounds back.  He would briefly work for another merchant.  With the bond and his income, he was able to save enough for a passage to Canada.  It was 1854 when Timothy embarked on his journey.  He was light on money but heavy on ambition.  The ship he travelled was named Dominion. He would be welcomed to Canada by 2 brothers, 3 sisters, an aunt and uncle and cousins.

When he arrived in Canada, he would stay with his sister Margaret in Georgetown, Ontario. Georgetown is 60 km from the city of Toronto.  Timothy would work on the farm to help out while he began to establish himself.  He shortly moves to Glen Williams and finds a position with Mr. Frazier as a junior bookkeeper in a dry goods store.

With the Grand Trunk Railway being brought through the area, Timothy and his brother James opened a small general store in Kirkton, Ontario.  The building was a log cabin that sat on the Fish Creek. The brothers remained there for 4 years.  It was at this time that the brothers decided to join forces with their brother Robert in St. Mary’s, Ontario.

With help from his brothers, Timothy opened the T. Eaton bakery in St. Mary’s.  The venture did not survive but it gave Timothy the chance to develop his retailing skills.

Love came to Timothy while he was in St. Mary’s.  He met a lady by the name of Margaret Wilson Beattie.  The two married on May 28, 1862.  The couple would have 8 children; Josephine (1865-1943), Margaret (1868-?), Kathleen (1869-1870), Edward (1871-1900), Timothy (1872-1873), William (1875-1935), John Craig (1876-1922) and George (1882-1884).

Eaton’s parents were strict Presbyterians.  Religion played a part in his life. Timothy even taught Sunday school.  In 1868, Timothy attended an open air sermon and heard a preacher.  This preacher was Methodist.  After the sermon, Timothy went to a barn and contemplated.  Upon his return from the barn, he had decided to join the Methodist Church.  He would become very involved with the Methodist church so much as to donate five dollars a week to the collection plate on Sundays.  He also gave heavily to the Trinity Church.

At the urging from his wife, Timothy would move his family to Toronto in 1869. He rented a three-storey house at 12 Gloucester Street.  Timothy spent $6,500 to buy the stock from William Jennings and moved into his store at 178 Yonge Street in Toronto.  The little dry goods store promoted new selling tactics.  He had fixed the prices of his products and accepted cash only.  Most store keepers still were of the system to haggle or purchase on credit. Many thought the business would fail but it did not.  He won the trust from his customers and before long, the business was thriving. Also, the store was far from the elite area on King Street which made it possible for the middle class to shop there at a fair price.  Things were so prosperous that the store was one of the first to have electricity.

By 1876, the family lived on Orde Street in the fashionable area near the Parliament Buildings.  In the 1880’s, Timothy and his family would vacation at Windemere House on Rosseau Lake in Muskoka.

Business grew and eventually the little store was not big enough to hold the inventory.  Eaton would purchase the businesses from 190 to 196 Yonge Street in January of 1883.  He would tear down the existing buildings and put up one building with 1.6 hectares of space.  At 4pm on August 21, 1883 Eaton closed the doors at 178 Yonge Street and the next morning at 9 am, he opened his new department store.  The building held 35 departments for the shopping consumer. Business rival Robert Simpson wanted to get a hold of 178 Yonge Street so he may expand his business, but Eaton rode out the lease for the building.

Employees were treated well.  When Timothy was starting out, he did not like the long hours.  He made it a mission to implement a shorter working day by allowing employees to leave a 6 pm.  He would also grant holidays to them.

Timothy Eaton was a marketing genius.  In 1884, he produced a 32 page booklet that he distrusted at the Industrial Exhibition (later called the Canadian National Exhibition or CNE).  This would become the first mail order catalogue.  His main objective was to target three type of consumer.  First, the residents of Toronto.  Secondly, to women.  He made a lounge in the store for women to rest after their journey into Toronto.  Finally, he wanted to target the people beyond the city limits.  This gave access to the store from miles away and a consumer could purchase anything from prefabricated houses to appliances to outdoor gear. Three things that you could not find in the catalogue were playing cards, liquor and tobacco.  Many times the catalogue was a learning tool for children, teaching English and Arithmetic.   Another use for the catalogue was in the privy of many homes.

Fashion was a part of the store’s inventory.  Eaton wanted to guarantee that the fashions were of top quality and sold at a fair price.  Eaton would make trips to London, eventually having a buying office there in 1882.  Six years later, Eaton would have an office in Paris.  This way, customers had access to the latest fashions without travelling to Europe or New York.  In 1889, Timothy Eaton opened his own factory where he could create fashions and goods on premises.

In 1887, Timothy has a mausoleum built at Mount Pleasant Cemetery.  The mausoleum was grand at the time boasting two lions guarding the entrance.

During the 1890’s, Eaton had moved his family to the mansion on 182 Lowther Avenue.  Eaton enjoyed the luxuries that came.  In 1891, Eaton had his company incorporated with Timothy himself as President.  The company was now worth over a million dollars. In 1892, Eaton would purchase a dairy farm in Islington, near Toronto. This would supply the cream to use in ice cream and at the restaurant located at the business.   In 1894, Timothy would purchase a yacht and called her Wapenao.  In 1898, Eaton purchased a larger yacht named Wanda.

Eaton enjoyed some of the luxuries that he deserved.  He really enjoyed horses and rode often.  He had a stable of 10 carriage horses.  Coming home one night from the dairy in 1899, his team of horses got startled and became spooked.  The horses pulled Timothy by the reins and dragged him across the ground.  Timothy would sustain injuries, hurting his shoulder and breaking his hip.  From that day on, Timothy had to walk with crutches and eventually became wheelchair dependant.

By the turn of the century, Eaton had in his employ over 700 people.  At the department store, he had employees that would create clothing.  This would allow Timothy the quality control that he demanded.  He had also purchased his own plant and printing company in 1901.  His catalogue was now 400 pages and printed twice yearly.  The following year his catalogue was in colour.

Even as a child, Timothy was never comfortable to be in the spotlight.  He preferred to remain in the background.  He did not enjoy being a public figure.  Eaton had angered other businesses by his selling tactics causing protests and political pressure. Timothy refused to consider entering politics.

Early in the new century, Timothy knew that he could not run the business and turned the reins over to his son John Craig in 1901.  Timothy still was quite involved with the business he just was not at the office every day.  John Craig had dreams of expanding the company westward.  He finally convinced his Dad to open a store in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

On July 15, 1905, the family travelled to Winnipeg for the opening of the store.  It was an immediate success.

On December 2, 1905, Eaton sponsored the first Santa Claus parade in Toronto.  It had one float.  Santa was picked up at Union Station and taken to the Eaton store.  The parade becomes an annual event. The parade would be continued to be sponsored by Eaton’s until 1982.

Around the 21st of January, 1907, Timothy caught a cold.  Timothy was of good health so no one suspected anything of the cold.  But, the cold turned in to pneumonia very quickly on Wednesday January 30.  This is when Timothy slipped into unconsciousness at 2 pm.  Timothy’s wife and son had traveled to Ottawa to see a play prior to him getting very ill and the only one with Timothy is his daughter-in-law.  At 10:20 am the next morning, Timothy passed away.

The sudden death of Eaton surprised almost everyone.  Within hours, store employees had heard.  The stores closed for 4 days in mourning.  A funeral was held at Eaton’s home on Saturday February 2nd. A very large procession of 100 carriages, motor cars and thousands of people lined the streets in the rain to Mount Pleasant Cemetery.   At the mausoleum, Timothy Eaton was given his last rites and entombed.

A man of great determination, Eaton worked hard to build an empire that grew to be the largest private company in Canada.  He was known for being generous and stern.  He demanded hard work from his employees but the employees saw great benefits while in his employ.  The company reached its peak during WWII with over 70,000 people working there.  In 1919, the employees purchased two statues of Timothy Eaton, one for Toronto and one for Winnipeg. Other honours came.   The year 1914 saw the erection of the Timothy Eaton Memorial Church.  A school was later named after him in Toronto.

The company was run by descendants of Eaton.  Sadly, the company is no longer in business having declared bankruptcy in 1999.   By 2002, the Eaton’s brand was no more.  Although not the first department store nor the first to offer satisfaction or money back, Timothy Eaton revolutionized the retail business for Canada.






One comment

  1. Marion Houston · · Reply

    I think you meant to say distributed rather than distrusted.

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