It seemed strange that the death of Fredrik Eaton on February 20, at age 82, received no news coverage in the Toronto daily newspapers. Frederik Stefan Eaton was part of the last generation of the renowned family merchandising dynasty. Eaton’s, was in its day. Canada’s largest and most beloved department store chain. It was founded in 1869 in Toronto by Timothy Eaton, an immigrant from what is now Northern Ireland. Eaton’s grew to become a retail and social institution in Canada, with stores across the country, buying-offices around the globe, and a mail-order catalog that was found in the homes of most Canadians. A changing economic and retail environment in the late twentieth century, along with mismanagement, culminated in the chain’s bankruptcy in 1999.
For generation of Canadians, the arrival of the Fall and Winter edition of the Eaton’s Catalogue was an event. Kids could pore through the toy section and perhaps suggest to parents what they hoped Santa would bring.
Going back to a time when Canada’s population was predominantly rural, often living in isolated settlements, the Eaton’s catalogue provided a selection of goods that was otherwise unavailable to many Canadians, much like the Sears Roebuck catalog in the United States. It served an important economic role, as it broke local monopolies and allowed all Canadians access to the prices and selection enjoyed in some of the larger cities. The catalogue offered everything from clothing to farming implements. Some Canadians even purchased their homes from the catalogue, with Eaton’s delivering to them all the materials necessary to build a small prefabricated house. Today, a large number of Eaton’s catalogue homes still exist throughout the country, primarily in the West. The catalogue had many other uses, ranging from its use as a learning tool by settlers learning to speak English, to its use as goalie pads during hockey games. It could also be found in outdoor privies.
By 1930, the company employed just over 25,000 people, and controlled almost 60 per cent of department store sales in Canada. That was the high point of the Company’s success although it continued to prosper through to the 1970’s. Then, the retail sector in Canada underwent expansion with new entrants like Sears and discount department stores resulting in a large drop in market share. Eaton’s halted their iconic catalogue services in 1976, cutting over 9,000 jobs. By 1978, Eaton’s was behind both Sears and Hudson’s Bay in Canadian retail sales, a considerable drop from their initial postwar position. The company declared bankruptcy in 1999.
The Eaton family partnered with John Bassett, owner of the Toronto Telegram to establish Baton Broadcasting which put CFTO on the air, CFTO became the anchor for the CTV network and is Canada’s most successful local over-the-air TV station with the highest news ratings in the nation.
Fredrik Eaton remained active in Arts and charities and served on many corporate boards. He was chair of the Canadian Museum of History from 2007 to 2011. Marking his passing the Museum issued a statement that read in part, “Mr. Eaton and his family generously supported the Museums in many ways, including a $2 million donation for the development of the Museum of History’s signature exhibition, the Canadian History Hall, in 2016. In recognition of this generous gift, the second of the three galleries in the Hall is named in honour of the Fredrik Eaton Family. At the time, Mr. Eaton said, “I have always considered the Museum somewhat like Canada’s attic: a repository for the ‘stuff of history.”
Fredrik Stefan Eaton had a Hamilton connection. He was married to Cathy Howard (Nicky) Eaton, the daughter of one of Hamilton most distinguished lawyers, D’Arcy Argue Martin. She survives Mr. Eaton as do son Fredrik D’Arcy and daughter Flora Catherine and grandchildren.
Former employees of Eaton’s posted tributes to Fredrik. One summed it up for many young women who got their first job in an Eaton’s store, “I worked for Eaton’s for a number of years through high school and university. It was a true family company, that instilled the value of community and a customer service etiquette that I have successfully carried forward in my own life.”
His obituary reads, “Businessman, diplomat (High Commissioner to London), philanthropist, author. Passionate hunter, fisherman, conservationist, mariner, aviation enthusiast, and patron of the fine arts. He lived a full and happy life.”