History Holidays

Eaton’s at Christmas

Eaton's at Christmas | Alex Inspired - Picture of old catalogues and vintage Santa mug

“Wonderful place, this Christmas Store … the Yuletide decorations are up inside and out, soft music floods the aisles and Santa reigns on his throne. Floor after floor is filled with beautiful Christmas gift suggestions – something for everybody! So many interesting things you’ve never seen before. A cheerful spirit everywhere.”

This is how Eaton’s stores across the country were described during the Christmas season of 1951. 

Ahh, Eaton’s at Christmas! How nostalgic!  

No matter where you’re from, Fort William, Port Arthur, Toronto, Calgary or Moncton – hearing the name “Eaton’s” awakens a Canadian pride and a yearning for what once was. Many of us have roots with Canada’s iconic department store. Maybe your grandparents or parents, aunts and uncles (like mine!) worked there OR maybe you even worked there!? Perhaps you remember visiting toyland, or maybe your mother entrusted you to stay put in the furniture department (*cough* dad and Uncle Peter *cough*), Saturday morning and watch Flipper so she could shop in peace. Either way, we all have memories of Eaton’s! 

Before Eaton’s Port Arthur came to be, the downtown core looked much differently than what we know today. 

Prior to the cities of Port Arthur and Fort William amalgamating, Red River Road was previously known as Arthur Street. The corner of Arthur Street and Court Street South was previously known as the Campbell Block and directly beside, on the Arthur Street side, was the Wheeler Block. 

Eaton's at Christmas | Alex Inspired | Thunder Bay Museum - Eaton Groceteria. Located at the corner of Arthur Street and Court Street in Port Arthur, the Eaton Groceteria was an off-shoot of the T. Eaton's Co. Ltd.

From the Thunder Bay Museum Flickr Page – Eaton’s Groceteria on the corner of Arthur and Court Street (where the vacant BMO is currently).

In order for the T. Eaton Company to set up shop, they required a large location – somewhere central and somewhere bustling. With a previously established Groceteria located in the downtown core of Port Arthur, kitty-corner to the Campbell Block, the T. Eaton Company had an idea. 

On January 28th, 1939, the Ruttan-Bolduc company announced that the T. Eaton Company purchased the property of the Campbell Block. At the time of purchase, this three story building housed a druggist, a plumber and a meat market with apartments above. Previously, this historic building was Port Arthur’s first department store. Under the name of I.L. Matthews Dry Goods Department store, it was owned and operated by I.L Matthews, former mayor (many times) of Port Arthur. His building not only served as a store, but also included other shops and acted as a hub for all necessities.

The original article from the Fort William Daily Times Journal claims the original building located on the Campbell Block was only two stories. However, an article from the Men’s wear of Canada directory indicates that in 1913, Matthews added an additional story (making it three), as he needed more room for merchandise. The cost of this endeavour would amount to roughly $522,996 today. 

It was also announced that the T. Eaton store would expand further, taking over the Wheeler block. At the time of purchase the Wheeler block had a large structure with a few businesses, including: a modern beauty shop, Sisco and Esposti fruit dealers, and apartments above.

If you look at the Fire map below, you can see that in the early 1900s, these areas looked much differently. At the time, the Royal Hotel (which burned down) was located on the Wheeler Block, along with a Chinese Laundry and several other stores. It’s funny to think about how citizens of Port Arthur must have felt, knowing these buildings would be demolished for a brand new store. Maybe some embraced change, however, I wonder how I would feel during this time? I feel, perhaps, I would be nostalgic for our old historic buildings, as this is how I feel now. Regardless, these iconic buildings were demolished to create a brand new Eaton’s store for the citizens of Port Arthur and Fort William! 

Eaton's at Christmas | Alex Inspired - Fire map of Port Arthur from the early 1900s indicating where the Eaton's store would soon arrive.

Eaton’s Employees were gently reminded of  the importance they played during the holiday season, not only to customers, but to each other. Eaton’s internal employee newsletter stressed the importance of being kind to one another, and putting the customer first.  

Eaton's at Christmas | Alex Inspired - Vintage eaton's ad reading: far be it from us to nag, but please carry small parcels.

In their 1951 internal newsletter (Contacts), the following directives were created for the Christmas Season:

Is every one of us ready for the merry whirl of Christmas shopping? Let’s make a last-minute check:

  • Do you have a cheery greeting and a helping hand for the new employee? Remember your first day as a new Eatonian?
  • Are you up on the new locations of some departments? No one enjoys being sent on a “wild goose chase.”
  • Do you give thoughtful, cheerful attention to older folk and children? Shopping is never easy for them.
  • Do you know the gift possibilities of your merchandise? Helping your customers to choose wisely saves headaches and perhaps heartaches.
  • Do you put a little of yourself into each purchase? Recognizing a common human fellowship—the joys for both giver and receiver—brings a glow to your own heart!
  • Do you show appreciation for the effort of others behind the scenes to assist you? We’re all playing on the same team.
  • Do you appreciate that each purchase or inquiry may mean more to the customer than the amount would imply? Let’s continue to make our customers glad they shopped at Eaton’s! Thank you, Eatonians!

Imagine creating something like this today? I actually feel like Eaton’s wanted to put the customer first AND ensure employees were also looking out for one another. In my hunt for all things Eaton’s related, I found this little gem from the Internet Archive. It may not seem like much, but it’s a picture of my Nana! What a great Christmas Present from the past! She always wrapped our presents in Eaton’s Santa sacks – something I will always remember and cherish. Eaton's at Christmas | Alex Inspired - Picture of Glenna Golden at an Eaton's Dance at Branch 5

And for all my Port Arthur peeps, here is a group of people who organized a dance at the Branch 5 Legion, maybe you know someone!?

Front Row—Left to right: George Rudd, chairman; A. Thompson, John McNeill, Jimmy Cockell and H. Holseth. Back Row—E. Smith, I. Autio, G. Taylor, Mrs. D. Armitage, A. Andrews, M. Yagnach, Mrs. K. Lepper, E. Perrie and Danny Rafalant.

Before I sign off, I would like to give a heartfelt shoutout to the reference department at the Thunder Bay Public Library. I started researching this blog post last year during COVID-19. Everyone from the department was so helpful and sent me information and articles pertaining to all things Eaton’s, they went above and beyond. I am so thankful for the information, it was more than I could possibly ask for. If you don’t already know, our library is under fire from city council and is at risk of losing funding. I would really love if you could support our Library in anyway you can.  You can read more about their plight here.

Eaton's at Christmas | Alex Inspired | Port Arthur news Chronicle 1944 Christmas Ad

Although Eaton’s may be gone, it lives in many people’s hearts during the holiday seasons, especially Christmas. I am so grateful that now, we can at least visit Goods and Co. and still enjoy a shopping experience in what used to be one of the most iconic stores in our city. 

Tonight, I leave you with this last note of Eatonia Christmas nostalgia. Merry Christmas, – Alex Inspired.

The beautiful Spirit of Christmas is evident on every hand at Eaton’s! You can see it in the cheery smiles and helpful service behind counters. You’ll find it at parcel desks, at cashiers’ desks and on the elevators! You can hear it in the driver’s knock, in his cheery call of “Eaton’s!” You can hear it, too, in the friendly voices of Eaton telephone operators as they make helpful shopping suggestions to those now busy preparing for the Yuletide season.

Eaton's at Christmas Time | Alex Inspired | Eaton's Santa Sack under the tree


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  • Reply Barb Frankow December 21, 2022 at 10:20 pm

    Well done! Nicely written. This was fun to read!

  • Reply Doris Quistberg December 22, 2022 at 9:44 am

    Great article Alex. I too have many fond memories of Eatons, particularly during the Christmas season’s. It was a delight to look at the beautifully decorated Christmas trees something I looked forward to every year. Thank you.

  • Reply Shannon Redden December 22, 2022 at 12:45 pm

    I worked in keskus mall until the very day it closed down. I’d always catch the bus downtown early so i could enter through Eaton’s and walk around looking at everything before my shift. It was a sad day when i had to enter through the mall entrance once it was closed. I enjoyed this read very much-brings back fond memories!

  • Reply Maureen Wolcott December 22, 2022 at 6:22 pm

    My Dad, in the picture of the group that organized the dance at the legion (front row A Thompson, actually it was Thomson – no P) worked for Eaton’s for 37 years, retiring from the Winnipeg store. My first job was packing candies in bags for Santa to give out to the kids. Then I got promoted to washing dishes in the cafeteria down stairs.

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