Eatonians: the Story of the Family Behind the Family

by Patricia Phenix
ISBN: 0771069952

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A Review of: Eatonians: The Story of the Family Behind the Family
by Anne Cimon

Patricia Phenix, author of the national bestseller Olga Romanov: Russia's Last Grand Duchess, has chosen a very different subject for her newest book, Eatonians. Another non-fiction title, it covers the rise and fall of a Canadian institution, Eaton's department stores. I found it as engrossing as David Halberstam's 1996 bestseller, The Fifties.
Phenix ably collages a story full of human interest from her boundless research. The author explains in the "Acknowledgements", that she wanted to give due to the huge family of employees who, over 130 years, formed the "backbone of the Eaton Empire". She isn't more specific, except to state that one in six people in Canada worked at Eaton's at one time, or knew someone who did.
I can certainly vouch for this statistic: my first job was at Eaton's in 1970. I was 17 and without prior experience, since it wasn't easy, even then, to find a student job for the summer. I was lucky to be hired as a cafeteria worker in the downtown Montreal store.
I remember how horrified I was to find out, on my first day, that I had to wear an unbecoming bright yellow polyester uniform, and that I couldn't wear jewellery, including the love beads around my neck. The oily smell of French fries and corn dogs seemed to cling to my flesh in the humid heat. It was hard physical work, but I was an Eatonian, at least for a few months.
Yet, as for most readers, my favorite memories of Eaton's are of shopping sprees, with my grandmother and mother, and then on my own, as a teen.
Eatonians is a book filled with a variety of memorable anecdotes and interviews with employees, and some members of the Eaton's family. Through adept editing, the book uncovers how over a century, the company, and our society as a whole, has gone from service-oriented, to self-serve.
The founder of the family dynasty was Timothy Eaton who emigrated from Northern Ireland to Kirkton, Ontario, in 1834, at twenty years years of age. In 1869, Eaton opened the doors of what would be the first of a chain of dry goods stores, on Yonge Street at Queen.
This was a time when Canada was still celebrating its birth as a nation just two years earlier. A general, nation-wide optimism was reflected in Timothy Eaton's genial guarantee of full satisfaction or money returned, a guarantee that set the store apart, and brought in eager customers.
Eaton continued to be innovative in his business, and his profits grew daily. He soon offered his shoppers a counter of fresh food, produced on his own farm. He placed benches for ladies to rest, and eventually opened a lunchroom.
Eaton also had the knack to hire people who would be loyal to his company. He favored the Irish at first, and women, since they could be paid less, but he added the incentive of an employee discount on the merchandise, and off-hours activities and clubs, which bonded staff.
Phenix blends the history of Canada with the history of the company, demonstrating the extent to which, for more than a century, the Eaton family contributed to and influenced Canadian culture.
We learn that Eaton's beloved catalogue, nicknamed "Canada's Wish Book", not only helped to develop the west of Canada, but that during the war, it was valued by servicemen overseas, who flipped its familiar pages, and dreamed of what they would buy when they returned home.
As the railroad linked the country from East to West, so did the Eaton's catalogue offices, wherein out of the way settlers could socialize and place their orders. The catalogue was expanded to include the sale of whole houses and everything to equip them. There was an English and French version of the catalogue, and these reflected distinct aspects of each culture.
Phenix uses excerpts from letters from customers to enliven the text. The impact of Eaton's catalogue was such that Eugene Brochm took the time to write to the management offices to praise the high quality of the French language used.
When the company decided to shut down the still popular catalogue business in the mid-seventies, managers actually feared "people would go crazy" and that they might be bodily attacked by disappointed staff and clientele.
Another brainchild of Timothy Eaton's was the Santa Claus Parade, which Phenix describes as "the biggest movable billboard in the world." Thousands looked forward to the parade in several major cities and lined the streets to watch.
The first parade took place in Toronto on December 2, 1905. In 1925, Montreal began to have its own parade with the same floats.
A team of creative people worked to make the parade a success, but it was Jack Brockie who made it a cultural event after 1928. His experience as a designer, and his training in an artillery battery during the First World War, combined to make him the "mastermind" of the parade. He soon invited high school bands to participate, as well as the Highlanders. He acted as a consultant to the Winnipeg parade.
The nursery rhyme floats were built in empty garages around Toronto. The stories about the different Santa Clauses are priceless. One year, Santa had to climb a ladder to the second floor of the Toronto Eaton store to Toyland, and was helped by his "Seagram medicine". Another year, Santa arrived in a biplane on an airstrip North of Eglinton. Some Santas actually passed away during the parade, and replacements always had to be ready.
In 1968, the Montreal parade had to be cancelled amid threats from the FLQ, and the Toronto parade was cancelled the following year.
One of the best chapters is "The Maharajas of Eaton's" which concerns the store buyers, intrepid men and women who travelled around the world to find the merchandise that made Eaton a household name.
Tragedy struck a few times. Some buyers had bought tickets to sail on the Titanic but only one buyer, George E. Graham, arrived on time. He was among the thousands who perished.
In 1923, at the office in Yokohama Japan, Mr. Cabeldu was checking the silk orders for the Toronto and Winnipeg stores, when the Great Kanto earthquake hit the city. Mr. Walker, another Eaton buyer, found him on the sidewalk where he lay crushed and burnt, after he had thrown himself out of a window. He was cremated and his ashes were buried on the grounds of the British Consulate.
During the First World War, under the leadership of John Craig Eaton, the store made money on numerous contracts to manufacture uniforms. Employees who enlisted received financial support from the company. John Craig donated thousands from his own fortune towards the creation of a Machine Gun Battery equipped army. During the Second World War, the loyalty of the French buyers was demonstrated when they protected the company offices from Nazi Occupation.
Loyalty was strong among the staff but a drive towards a union in the late eighties divided the employees. It was successfully voted in at the suburban Bramalea store. At this time, Eaton's was suffering from an image problem. As society became obsessively youth oriented, it came increasingly to be seen as a store for seniors.
Outside consultants were called in. Peter Glen, a flamboyant manager, was hired to change the Eaton image but nothing could save the company from bankruptcy in 1997. A few days before the announcement, at the twentieth anniversary party for the Toronto Eaton Centre, Fred Eaton warmly saluted his staff. None of them knew that the company was going under.
Throughout Eatoninans, Phenix maintains a high quality of story telling that focuses on the emotional ties employees and clientele developed for this Canadian institution. A generous amount of archival photos and memorabilia make the book even more valuable.
On the back cover, a photograph of the statue of Timothy Eaton, commissioned in 1919 to celebrate the first fifty years of his company, shows it surrounded by bouquets of flowers and wreaths, while an unidentified shopper in running shoes gazes up at it. The grim expression captured on the founder's face seems to convey that he knew there would be an end to his success story, as there always is.

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