Historicist: Eaton's Golden Jubilee
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Historicist: Eaton’s Golden Jubilee

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Eaton’s in 1919. A Souvenir of Eaton’s Golden Jubilee 1869–1919 (Toronto: T. Eaton Co. Ltd., 1919).

The scene: the complex of retail space and factories on the northwest side of Queen and Yonge that marks the heart of the Eaton retail empire. The date: January 2, 1919. The event: the launch of a year-long series of celebrations to mark the golden anniversary of the launch of Timothy Eaton’s first Toronto retail enterprise. The narrator: Edith Macdonald, author of an official commemorative book to be handed out to the retailer’s employees later in the year:

Flags are flying from every window, a gay-striped awning canopies the doorway of the main Yonge Street entrance, crowds throng the sidewalk, and the atmosphere of the dull, dry January morning is charged with expectancy. It is the first shopping day in 1919, the year of the Store’s Jubilee, and Mrs. Timothy Eaton is coming to unlock the door with a golden key—a little ceremony of sentiment to commemorate those far-off days of 1869 when it was the custom of Mr. Timothy Eaton, himself, to open the Store each morning.
Motor cars, with the Eaton family and certain intimate friends, glide up to the curb; Mrs. Eaton, accompanied by her son Sir John C. Eaton, approaches the doorway, and as the City Hall clock strikes half-past eight, the wee gold key is slipped into the lock, the doors are pushed back, Mrs. Eaton and her party pass over the threshold, and the inauguration of the fiftieth year of business proceeds within the store.

Advertisement, the Toronto World, January 1, 1919.

The first hints to the public of what Eaton’s brass had in mind to celebrate the milestone came in a one-page ad that began appearing in Toronto newspapers on the final day of 1918. Signed by company president Sir John Craig Eaton, the ad promised “a new year and a new era” amid reflections on the policies that had shaped the store. Among Timothy Eaton’s key beliefs was the reduction of the work week, which he had accomplished by scaling down the weekday closing time from the standard 10 p.m. of 1869 to 6 p.m. a decade later. Many newspaper accounts portray employees as being thrilled to learn that not only would the standard Saturday closing time be set at 1 p.m., but they would have the entire weekend off during July and August.

Mrs. Timothy Eaton opens the door on jubilee morning. Golden Jubilee 1869-1919: A Book to Commemorate the Fiftieth Anniversary of the T. Eaton Co. Ltd. (Toronto, T. Eaton Co. Ltd., 1919).

Customers and employees arrived early on January 2 to see what festivities would unfold. By 7:30 a.m. store staff had lined up in the aisles, rows ten- to twenty-people deep, as if taking their spots on stage. After Margaret Eaton inserted the golden key into the entrance of the main store at 8:29, she pulled a gong to set off the fire and floor bells. After ten seconds of clatter, the public rushed in. The ceremony moved to a large platform in the centre aisle, where the company orchestra and a choir of two hundred employees launched into “Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow.” According to Eaton chronicler Rod McQueen, the staff “could have just as well been singing ‘Praise John from whom all blessings flow,’” due to their reverence for Sir John and the paternalistic ways of the Eaton family. As employees stood on counters to catch the action, the News noted that “the excitement outside was not a patch on the spirit inside the store… You actually forgot that it was just a place of commerce for the big store has become something very fine in spirit. Everyone was longing to cheer…even those who ordinarily stand a bit on their dignity unbent.” While some employees watched as Margaret Eaton was presented with “a sweet old-fashioned nosegay” of violets, roses, and mignonette by the company’s youngest employee, fourteen-year-old Margaret Smith, others had to contend with customers who could care less about the pomp and wanted to buy the day’s bargains.

On the main floor of the store, drawn by C.W. Jefferys. A Souvenir of Eaton’s Golden Jubilee 1869-1919

The entourage moved swiftly around the complex, quickly greeting onlookers as it moved from floor to floor, building to building. Half an hour after the key had been turned, the first round of festivities wound down in the furniture building, where after the choir sang “O Canada” the crowd burst into a round of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” A few hours later, the dignitaries were served an 1860s-themed lunch in the Grill Room. The only speaker was Sir John’s wife, Lady Flora, who heaped praise on the sources of her husband’s positive qualities: “From his father he inherits vision and the ability to seize the opportune moment to do a courageous thing, in a business sense, for the betterment of workers. From his mother, he inherits kindness, consideration for the comfort of others and generosity.”

Bronze statue of Timothy Eaton. Golden Jubilee 1869-1919: A Book to Commemorate the Fiftieth Anniversary of the T. Eaton Co. Ltd.

Celebrations carried on to varying degrees throughout the rest of the year. Each month was built around a theme, starting with old-time fashions in January. Employees raised twenty thousand dollars by June to allow Sir John to present the Hospital for Sick Children with an x-ray wing and a cot named after the president. On December 8, the date Timothy Eaton opened the store for the first time, employees presented the Eatons with a bronze statue of the store’s founder created by staffer Ivor Lewis. The ceremony caused Margaret Eaton, who referred to by Vice-President Harry McGee in company’s typically paternalistic way as “the mother of us all,” to weep. Margaret’s “boys and girls” (aka store staff) were rewarded for their attendance with a copy of Edith Macdonald’s survey of Eaton’s history, Golden Jubilee 1869-1919: A Book to Commemorate the Fiftieth Anniversary of the T. Eaton Co. Ltd. Accounts of the ceremony fail to indicate if anyone decided to rub Timothy’s toe for good luck that day. A Globe editorial the next day noted that the statue was:

…a remarkable tribute to the ideals of this pioneer in granting shorter hours and better working conditions that his memory thus should be perpetuated by those he helped. It shows that workers appreciate and remember. The goodwill of his employees is, after all, the best asset of an employer. Timothy Eaton proved that big-heartedness in big business pays.

Advertisement, the Mail and Empire, December 8, 1919.

Two events that wound down the jubilee year demonstrated the firm’s care for its employees. During World War I, Eaton’s continued to pay wages to employees who had marched off to the battlefield. Those who returned to the store were honoured with a gala dinner in the furniture building on December 20. On the last day of the year, Sir John announced that employees with six months of continuous service would be rewarded with a life insurance plan as of January 1, 1920, and that proposals for a pension plan were in the works.
The positive mood generated by the Golden Jubilee faded soon after. Rumours circulated throughout 1920 that the company was about to be swallowed up by an American retailer or reduce staff and wages in the face of price wars. Sir John quashed the rumour during a year-end dinner where, during a toast, he proclaimed “there is not enough money in the whole world to buy my father’s name.” Sir John would not enjoy the reigns of power for much longer, as he died from an infection following a bout of pneumonia in early 1922. As Rod McQueen argued in his book The Eatons, Sir John’s death “was a seismic event for Eaton’s. There would be peaks and valleys in the decade ahead, but the inexorable decline and fall of the Eaton empire and the royal family itself had begun.”
Additional material from A Souvenir of Eaton’s Golden Jubilee 1869-1919 (Toronto: T. Eaton Co. Ltd., 1919); Golden Jubilee 1869-1919: A Book to Commemorate the Fiftieth Anniversary of the T. Eaton Co. Ltd. by Edith Macdonald (Toronto: T. Eaton Co. Ltd., 1919); The Eatons: The Rise and Fall of Canada’s Royal Family by Rod McQueen (Toronto: Stoddart, 1998); and the following newspapers: the January 3, 1919, December 9, 1919, and January 1, 1920 editions of the Globe, the January 2, 1919, edition of the Toronto News; and the December 31, 1918, and January 2, 1919, editions of the Toronto Star.