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Eaton's: A Canadian Tradition

For the week of Monday December 1, 2008

On December 2, 1905, the first Santa Claus Parade, sponsored by the T. Eaton Company, or Eaton’s, marched through the streets of Toronto. It was an unmistakable sign of the prominence that business had attained in Canadian culture.

Santa Claus Parade, Toronto, ca. 1907
© Archives of Ontario, F 229-308-0-791
Timothy Eaton opened the first Eaton’s department store in December 1869 in Toronto. The store soon proved to be a great success and was followed by several others. For over a century, this company would play a very significant role in our society, helping Canadians create new traditions. For example, in 1919 people started routinely rubbing the left shoe of Timothy Eaton’s bronze statue at the entrance of the Winnipeg store, believing this would bring them good luck.

For many, Eaton’s became synonymous with the Christmas holidays. Every year, scores of children would gaze into Eaton’s shop windows to stare at the Christmas gift displays. The famous Santa Claus Parade also marked the start of the Christmas holidays for many Canadians. Notwithstanding its humble beginnings, the parade grew rapidly and, by 1950, was one of the most important in North America. Every year, thousands of people lined the streets to watch the event, which started being televised in 1952. Eaton’s also sponsored a parade in Montréal from 1925 to 1969. In 1982, the company announced that it could no longer carry on organizing the Toronto parade because of financial difficulties. A non-profit organization then took over the task of upholding this tradition and it continues to this day.

Eaton's Christmas Catalogue, 1904
© Archives of Ontario, F 229-231-0-4

The Eaton’s catalogue was also an important influence in our society, giving Canadians, especially those in rural areas, the opportunity to shop for various products. The catalogue, first published in 1884, slowly became part of the Canadian way of life everywhere in the country. It was mentioned in a number of works, such as Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater, and garnered a variety of nicknames including the “Homesteaders' Bible” and the “Farmer’s Bible.” People even found inventive uses for the old catalogues: children used them to make goalie pads for hockey games or to learn and practice their reading skills. In 1976, Eaton’s had to stop publishing their catalogues as they were no longer cost-effective.

The T. Eaton Company declared bankruptcy in 1999 when it sold its stores to Sears Canada. Timothy Eaton was designated a National Historic Person of Canada in 1971.

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