Saturday, July 2, 2011

# 22 ~ The Eaton Family Legacy, Then and Now

I can't believe it's been three months since I updated this thing.  Sorry, if you are a regular reader, and thank you, to the few folks who have written in to comment on previous posts.  Do feel free to send me your comments at

To coincide with the Canada Day long weekend, I thought I'd post an article on a Canadian tradition that some of us are fortunate enough to remember ...

For some of us, it's hard to believe that you have to be about twenty-five years of age, or older, to remember what is was like when the name "Eaton" represented more than just Toronto's major downtown shopping mall.  Sure, the Eaton Centre is, in itself, a pretty notable destination in Toronto.  It is, apparently, the most frequently visited "tourist attraction" in Toronto, drawing more crowds than places like the CN Tower, the Royal Ontario Museum, and the Art Gallery of Ontario.  There's no admission fee, for one, though I'm sure at the end of the day the retailers bag their fair share of tourist dollars.

But Canadian retail history was made in March of 1834 ~ the same month and year that Toronto became a city, in fact ~ when Timothy Eaton was born in the town of Ballymena, Northern Ireland.  He started off simply enough, working as a shopkeeper's assistant, but at the age of 20, he quit the shores of Ulster and arrived in Southern Ontario.  He would go on to build such a legacy for himself that his surname became a household word.  I can still remember my grandmother boasting that she came from the same town in Northern Ireland as the great Timothy Eaton.

THEN : Timothy Eaton, March 1834 to January 1907.

He tried his hands at a few businesses n the 1860s, but they were unsuccessful.  Undaunted, in 1869 he opened a dry goods store at 178 Yonge Street.  This would be the cornerstone for the greatest retail venture that Canada has ever known.  Right from the start, he launched two business practices that shocked early consumers, although today we take them for granted (which, in a way, is a sign of how successfully they took hold).  First, everything was for sale at a fixed price.  There was no haggling, no bartering, and no credit was accepted.  Secondly, to win the trust of the people in this first policy, every single purchase came with a money-back guarantee.  If whatever you bought wasn't good enough, you could bring it back.  Even in the late 20th-century, the familiar Eaton's promise of "Goods Satisfactory or Money Refunded" was a popular household catchphrase.  These two consumer practices soon set Eaton's apart.

THEN : Eaton opened a store at 189 Yonge Street, back in 1869.  The rest was history.  The store is near the foreground  of the photograph.

Another innovation came in 1884, with the introduction of the mail order catalogue.  At a time when Canada was still a very rural, agricultural nation, the mail order catalogue brought Eaton's into homes through thousands of small towns, and offered a wide variety of previously unattainable items.  Clothing, furniture, kitchen gadgets, farm machinery and even pre-fabricated houses could be ordered through the catalogue and shipped through the expanding network of railways.  For generations, the arrival of the Eaton store catalogue was a big event, and when the old catalogue became obsolete, it served another important use in the outhouses of rural Canadian communities ...

THEN : The Eaton's Department Store catalogue was an innovation in marketing.
THEN : Eaton's Catalogue from 1904.

THEN : Eaton's Catalogue from 1913.
THEN : The sporting goods page from the Eaton's spring / summer catalogue for 1927.

THEN : Back in the day, even pre-fabricated houses could be purchased from the Eaton's catalogue.  From there, they'd be shipped and assembled on site.  Today, we have IKEA.  I wonder how many Allen keys it took to put together a house?

THEN : This house in Stirling, Alberta was purchased from a Eaton's catalogue and assembled on site.  It still stands.

Timothy Eaton had married Margaret Beattie in 1862, and together, they had five sons and three daughters.  One daughter, Josephine Smyth Eaton, survived the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915.  Sadly, Josephine's daughter, Iris, was lost.  The Lusitania was rather notoriously torpedoed by a German U-Boat during World War One.  It was a large ship, but it sank in only 18-minutes, giving rise to suspicions that it was smuggling secret munitions from America to the British, across the hazardous Atlantic.  The Americans were officially neutral, but the sinking of the Lusitania prompted them to join the Allied war effort, much like the bombing of Pearl Harbour did in the Second World War.  The sinking of the Lusitania invoked public hostility against the Germans; 1,198 of the 1,959 passengers on the Lusitania died when it was torpedoed.

THEN : Timothy Eaton's granddaughter, Iris, was lost in the sinking of the RMS Lusitania.

When Timothy Eaton died of pneumonia in 1907, his son John inherited $5-million and the family business.  He was a shrewd businessman, just like his father, and the Eaton department store chain flourished under John's management.  He furthered family interests, too, by having six children to help carry on the family name.  With John Craig Eaton at the helm, Eaton's was cemented as a household name for generations.

THEN : Sir John Craig Eaton took over the helm of the department store chain upon the death of his father, Timothy.  John would die prematurely in 1922, of pneumonia, the same illness that claimed the life of his father.

John Craig Eaton died prematurely in 1922, of pneumonia, the same illness that killed his father. His son, John David Eaton, was in his early teens, and was not old enough to take over the family business. A family cousin, Robert Young Eaton ran the store until John David was of age. Robert was a successful business leader, and expanded the company thoroughly during his tenure as president. However, John Craig's widow, Lady Flora Eaton, took a disliking to Robert, and considered him to be from a lesser branch of the family. Robert also served as president of the Art Gallery of Ontario from 1924 to 1941. One of Robert's sons died in the Dieppe Raid in World War Two.

THEN : Robert Young Eaton ran the department store chain until John Craig's son was old enough to take over.

THEN : This photograph shows Robert Young Eaton and Margaret Eaton, the couple in the centre, at Woodbine Racetrack in 1930.

Son of John Craig Eaton and grandson of store founder Timothy Eaton, John David Eaton took over the family business in 1942, at the age of 33. Prior to this, he was apprenticed through the company, becoming a director (1934) and a vice-president (1937). During his time as president, Eaton's continued to expand, and medical insurance and retirement plans were offered to employees for the first time. John David personally donated $50-million to start up the company retirement plan in 1948, fuelling speculation that he was Canada's richest man. A shy and quiet man, he kept his personal life very much to himself.

THEN : John David Eaton eventually followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and father as head of the family chain.

John David Eaton's son, George, was the last of the family to be directly involved with the management of the chain.  In the second half of the 20th-century, Eaton's lost touch with younger generations of shoppers, and their commitment to value and service began to falter. The extensive Eaton family became less and less interested in running the family enterprise. George Ross Eaton became better known as a race car driver than a leader of the family business. In 1930, Eaton's had 60% of the market share, but in 1997, they had only 10%. That year, they filed for bankruptcy, and the last of the stores closed in 1999. Canadians were stunned. Imagine if “Canadian Tire” or “Tim Horton's suddenly disappeared ... 

THEN : A shopping bag from Eaton's, from 1997, just before the chain of stores disappeared.


Although the Eaton family name has disappeared from stores, the family left behind a legacy of landmarks around Toronto.  He is an inventory of Toronto icons, past and present, that owe their origin to the Eaton family.

The Statue of Timoty Eaton, Royal Ontario Museum
NOW : This bronze statue of Timothy Eaton was one of two that was produced in 1919 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the original store, that opened in Toronto in 1869.  It was also a gesture of thanks for the generosity shown by the Eaton family to store employees serving in the First World War.  The other statue is in Winnipeg, while this one now calls the Royal Ontario Museum home.  It is the only item in display at the ROM that visitors are actually encouraged to touch.
In 1919, Eaton's staff wanted to give a gift to their family of employers. The department store turned 50 that year, and the company owners had been very generous to their employees during the war. All employees who fought overseas were guaranteed their old jobs back on their return, and enlisted men got either their full pay, if they were married, or half pay, if they were single, while they were off fighting. All through the war, Eaton's continued to ship gift baskets overseas, making sure that Eaton's employees were at least moderately provisioned while serving in the trenches. To commemorate the store's anniversary, and thank the owners for their wartime generosity, two statues of Timothy Eaton were cast, one in Toronto, and the other in Winnipeg. The Toronto statue stood in the main entrance of the Queen Street store, and was then moved to the Dundas Street side of the mall that Eaton's anchored.

Over the years, it became tradition to rub Eaton's left foot for good luck. With the closing of the department store chain in 1999, the statue was moved to the Royal Ontario Museum. It is the only item on display at the ROM that visitors are allowed and even invited to touch.

Timothy Eaton Memorial Church

NOW : Timothy Eaton Memorial Church still stands as a monument to the contributions that the Eaton family has made to Toronto.

Sir John Craig Eaton donated the money to build a new church on St. Clair Avenue West in 1914. He named the church after his father, Timothy Eaton. Like the Masseys, the Eatons were Methodists, and when the Methodist church became in the United Church of Canada in 1925, the church on St. Clair became Timothy Eaton Memorial United Church. The church is known for its music, and has kept up radio broadcasts of its services. To keep current, it has started broadcasting online.
 World War One flying ace Billy Bishop married Margaret Burden, a granddaughter of Timothy Eaton. They were married on October 17th, 1917, at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church. The church became the centre for any religious ceremonies of the Eaton family. Billy Bishop is credited with shooting down 72 enemy aircraft, and surviving an encounter with the infamous German flying ace, Manfred von Richthofen, also known as the Red Baron.

THEN : In 1917, Canada's flying ace Billy Bishop married in to the Eaton family, at the local family church.

The church was also home to more sombre Eaton family commemorations, including the 1922 funeral of Sir John Craig Eaton.

THEN : Torontonians gather outside Timothy Eaton Memorial Church in 1922, to witness the funeral service of Sir John Craig Eaton.

THEN : The 1922 funeral of Sir John Craig Eaton.

Timothy Eaton's Home in the Annex
Timothy Eaton had this mansion built at 182 Lowther Avenue and moved in with his family in 1889. Located in the Annex, this fine suburban home went well with Eaton's yacht and his second mansion in Muskoka. His son, though, was disappointed, as there was no indoor garage for his Rolls Royce, and so John Craig Eaton eventually had a new home built, in Rosedale. This home was torn down in the 1960s.

THEN : The 1889 home of Timothy Eaton, located on the northwest corner of Spadina and Lowther, was demolished in the 1960s.

THEN : The interior of Eaton's home in the Annex was gloriously Victorian and cluttered.

Sir John Craig Eaton's home, "Ardwold"
Sir John Craig Eaton was one of the wealthiest men in Canada, and wanted a home that reflected his success. In 1909, construction began on his home called “Ardwold”, which comes from the Gaelic for “high, green hill”. It was built across the street from Casa Loma, in an area that was home to Toronto's wealthiest families. Ardwold was a Georgian style house that was influenced by the greatest country homes of England. It contained 50 rooms, 14 bathrooms, a swimming pool, and its own hospital. Eaton owned the 45,000 m² property on which it stood, and his land also included a 2,000 m² glass conservatory.

When Eaton died in 1922, his widow kept the home until 1936. She then decided to make her home in an enormous chateau in King City, called Eaton Hall. The contents of Ardwold were auctioned off, and the house itself was blown up, because the walls were too thick for conventional demolition.

THEN : A garden party at the Eaton estate of "Ardwold".

THEN : The back gate of Ardwold, with the name of the estate shown above the gate.

THEN : The main gates of Ardwold.

Eaton Hall
 Sir John Craig Eaton and his wife had bought 3 km² of land in King City in 1919, but “Eaton Hall” was not constructed there until 1937. Lady Eaton moved out of Ardwold and into the new home. The 72 room home became a central gathering space for the large Eaton clan. The house was used as a convalescent hospital during World War Two. After Lady Eaton died, the property was sold to Seneca College, who held it until 1991. It was sold again, and is now a public hotel and conference centre.

THEN : Eaton Hall, circa 1940.

THEN : Eaton Hall, circa 1940.

THEN : A fox hunt at Eaton Hall in the 1940s.

THEN : A hunt at Eaton Hall in the 1940s.  Lady Eaton is on the right.  No doubt, she rode side saddle.

NOW : Eaton Hall today.

Eaton's College Street Store, now known as "College Park"
As early as 1910, the Eaton family began secretly acquiring land near College and Yonge streets to build what they planned to be the largest retail complex every constructed anywhere in the world. The First World War delayed their plans, but in 1928, they announced plans for a 38-storey skyscraper. The following year, their plans were again delayed by the Great Depression, but they managed to build a 7-storey building at the corner of Yonge and College. It was to be the first phase of the building, but it was the only part that was ever constructed. On October 30, 1930, Lady Flora Eaton and her son John David Eaton officially opened the new store.

THEN : Looking south down Yonge Street from College about 1900.

THEN : Southwest corner of Yonge and College streets in 1914.

THEN : College Park in 1930.

NOW : College Park today.
THEN : The Round Room, at the top of College Park, was the height of Toronto's social scene for many years after it opened in 1930. 

NOW : The seventh floor of Eaton's College Street store was abandoned for several years after the new Eaton Centre opened in the late 1970s.  However, it was brought back to life during a major renovation several years ago.  The Round Room is shown here in a recent promotional photograph for the "Carlu" event space.

Even though this first phase was all that was constructed, Toronto had never seen a retail complex this grand. It showed how much power the Eaton family had over Canada's retail industry. Building materials were brought in from all over the world, including marble from Europe. Lady Eaton, who was the driving force behind the building, arranged for two whole rooms to be brought over from manors in England and reassembled in the store's furniture department. The store became known as “Eaton's College Street”, and was the largest store in the British Empire. The old Eaton's store, near Yonge and Queen streets, stayed open, and for years the two stores were connected by a shuttle bus, until the TTC opened the Yonge Street subway.

Lady Eaton was in charge of all of the restaurants in the family's stores. She hired French architect Jacques Carlu to design the seventh floor of the College Street store. This top level of the building was the heart of Toronto's cultural life for decades. It included the Eaton Auditorium, which sat 1,300. Here in the auditorium, the biggest performers of the day performed, including Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra. Glenn Gould loved the acoustics, and recorded a lot of music there. The 7th floor also included the Round Room restaurant. The various rooms on the 7th floor were interconnected by the lobby, which was designed to look like an ocean liner. The space underwent a restoration that began in 1991.

NOW : The Toronto Eaton Centre may be the only remnant of the Eaton family legacy that present day Torontonians ever intersect with.

The Toronto Eaton Centre
The most famous use of the Eaton family name today is the Eaton Centre, on Yonge Street between Dundas and Queen streets. The Eaton company had been planning the construction of a new, larger store and shopping mall complex as early as the 1960s, but construction didn't start until the 1970s. The Eaton Centre mall opened in 1977, and has been renovated, expanded and changed since. It now houses 330 stores, and takes up five levels and 160,000 m2 . The Eaton Centre that we know today is what replaced the old location at College and Yonge streets.

With the failure of Eaton's stores across Canada in 1999, many of the actual locations were purchased by Sears. Traditionally, Eaton's Department Store anchored a lot of malls across the city. The stores themselves have gone, but with the case of Toronto's main downtown shopping complex, the name remains. The Eaton Centre is Toronto's top tourist attraction, with 20-million visitors every year.


The Eaton family mausoleum is located at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, just a short distance away from their family Church on St. Clair Avenue West. Like the Gooderhams, the Masseys, and other prominent Toronto families, there are a few remnant descendants living in and around Toronto. While their names may have disappeared from the public consciousness, these families who gained wealth and prosperity in the Victorian era have left legacies throughout Toronto.

NOW : From the cradle to the grave, the Eaton Family mausoleum in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto.