Timothy Eaton

Timothy Eaton, founder of the huge all-Canadian department store chain bearing his name, began with a small dry goods business in Toronto in 1869. By his death in 1907, he had built up a giant retail store in Ontario’s capital city along with a country-wide mail-order business and a big new branch store in Winnipeg, the first of many such “T. Eaton Company” business establishments that, in time, would spread all across Canada when Timothy’s family successors extended the Eaton empire. Yet it was master merchant, Timothy, who led in the crucial period of development that spanned nearly forty years, a period of time in which he instituted the very concept of “Department Store,” an idea that flourished not only in Canada but also in London, Paris, New York and, in fact, worldwide.

Master Merchant, Department Store Monarch, Prodigious Prince of Retail, Timothy Eaton not only revolutionized shopping but masterminded the moving of merchandise by mail-order. [Photo, courtesy T. Eaton Collection/Archives of Ontario]

Timothy was born in 1834 on a tenant farm near Ballymena in Northern Ireland to an Irish Presbyterian family that took its faith very seriously, as did he. As a boy he worked in a local general store, but, at 20, in 1854, he followed two older brothers to Canada where they established a general store at St. Marys, in what became southwest Ontario. But Timothy looked to greater things and thus moved on to Toronto in a time of fast-rising city markets where, in 1869, he opened his own store on Yonge Street near Queen – an unfashionable area that he would totally change partly because of two striking innovations he made in retailing: sales for cash only and satisfaction guaranteed or money refunded. The first precept did away with age-old haggling and barter that always left the merchant uneasy about meeting costs and his customer about getting the best price, while the second assured the buyer of a secure choice – now and later. And so, with policies that would spread across department store business, Timothy Eaton excelled in a growing enterprise that enlarged from dry goods to clothing, housewares to furniture, and, in due course, to stationery, hard-ware, electrical goods, and still more.

Timothy Eaton’s commercial career as a merchandising genius had its roots in both Kirkton and St. Marys in southwest Ontario. The first T. Eaton & Co. store, inset, was established at 178 Yonge St., Toronto, two years after Canada’s Confederation in 1867. [Photo, courtesy T. Eaton Collection/Archives of Ontario]

In 1883 he opened a new, far larger store on Yonge Street. With four shopping floors, two elevators, electric lighting, concerts, and ladies’ restrooms, the flagship Toronto store was aggressively modernized, no doubt because of the new rival store of Scottish immigrant, Robert Simpson, just across the street. In truth, the proximity of the two big shopping enterprises facilitated astute shopping since buyers could readily compare price tags at both stores. In 1884 Timothy Eaton expanded his customer base beyond city limits (in time followed by Simpson), for he sought to gain prosperous rural markets by establishing a mail-order catalogue and service. Eaton’s mail order spread fast: a whole new building was erected in Toronto for its operations that ultimately reached “from sea unto sea.” Meanwhile, business increased in the Toronto store which introduced more elevators, installed escalators, and was serviced by a host of delivery wagons, neatly painted in red and black, with polite, uniformed drivers and well-groomed, patient horses.

Timothy Eaton stressed not only quality goods, prices, and customer service but also fair labour practices. Early in his business endeavours, he began closing his store at eight in the evening, two hours earlier than any of his competitors, thus affording his staff time for rest and relaxation. He also closed on Saturday afternoons during July and August, another innovation for that time. A thoroughly earnest Protestant of his era, he condemned smoking, drinking, dancing, and card playing – and would not, did not, sell liquors or tobacco. Nor had he changed by the time of his death in 1907.

When he left his thriving 9,000-employee company to his sons, he had, with his successful policy of “Satisfaction Guaranteed, or Money Refunded” done his helpful best to entrench a commercial ethic.

J.M.S. Careless