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A brief history of T. Eaton Co.

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I was out last night near Yonge and College for a friend’s going away party and the topic of the College Park building came up (originally an Eaton’s department store). We talked about how in the 1920s it was planned as a 38-storey Art Deco tower (see above photo), but that the Great Depression forced Eaton’s to scale back their plans. They ended up building a 7-storey building, albeit an impressive one.

Then today, thinking about that discussion, I became curious about the story of Eaton’s. Where exactly did it start and how did they get to a point where they were planning the largest retail and office complex in the world?

Well, as many of you probably know or can guess, the first Eaton’s store was opened where the Toronto Eaton Centre mall currently sits today. The exact address was 178 Yonge Street, which is just north of Queen Street. But what was interesting about this location is that, at the time, it was considered to be far removed from Toronto’s center of fashion and retail. That was King Street East. Below is a map from 1842.

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In 1869 when Timothy Eaton opened his first store, the heart of Toronto was what is today known as Old Town (although most people would probably just refer to it either as King East or as the St. Lawrence Market). People shopped along King Street between Yonge and Jarvis, and Queen Street probably would have felt out of the way.

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But Eaton’s succeeded at Yonge & Queen, along with rival store Simpson’s, and retailing shifted northward. With Eaton’s College Street, the company was once again looking north. In fact, they wanted to move their entire operation from Queen Street up to College Street, and they even tried to get Simpson’s department store to do the same (somebody clearly understood agglomeration economies).

But since the full build out of Eaton’s College Street never actually happened, both stores were kept in operation and a customer shuttle bus was run between the two of them (until the Yonge subway line opened up in the 1950s). With the opening of the Toronto Eaton Centre mall in the 1970s, Eaton’s closed both Queen and College Street locations, and consolidated operations near Dundas Street.

In 1999, after 130 years of operation, the company went bankrupt.

What I find interesting about this story is that it speaks to how dominant the department store business model was at the time and how it was shaping the city around it. If Eaton’s had achieved its vision for the corner of Yonge & College, Toronto might look a lot different today. Perhaps we’d all be shopping for fashion along College Street.

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