EATON, Sir JOHN CRAIG, merchant and philanthropist; b. 28 April 1876 in Toronto, third son of Timothy Eaton* and Margaret Wilson Beattie; m. 8 May 1901 Florence (Flora) McCrea in Omemee, Ont., and they had four sons and two daughters (one girl adopted); d. 30 March 1922 in Toronto.
Born in 1876, seven years after the establishment of the Timothy Eaton store on Yonge Street in Toronto, John Craig Eaton became involved in his father’s enterprise from an early age. Inheriting his father’s business flair, at the age of six he was discovered demonstrating spinning tops in the toy department. Shortly thereafter he appeared at the main entrance encouraging passers-by to come and see the goods available. Educated at the Toronto Model School and Upper Canada College, he joined the Eaton workforce at the age of 16 and fulfilled his apprenticeship by serving in numerous capacities. By 1896 the Eaton store had evolved into a full-line department store whose buyers travelled regularly to the United States, Europe, Great Britain, and Japan. John Craig Eaton, at age 20, furthered his mercantile education by making an extensive trip overseas. In 1898 he became a director of the company.
The death of his brother Edward Young on 3 Oct. 1900 threw greater responsibility to John Craig as the only remaining son active in the firm. The loss resulted in his immediate appointment as vice-president. He thus became, at age 24, right-hand man to his father, to whom he now turned for advice on the management of the family business. When asked whether he could say yes or no, he agreed that he could. Asked further whether he knew which to say at the right time, he acknowledged some difficulty. According to Timothy Eaton, however, that was all he would have to do. Eaton Sr firmly believed that by inculcating a strong sense of cooperation in all workers and involved family members, he could make management by senior staff both quick and effective. On the death of his father in 1907, John Craig would succeed as president.
Perceiving the opportunities for development in the west, John Craig Eaton was largely responsible for the establishment of the company’s first branch store, in Winnipeg in 1905, and for its growth over the next decade. In 1916, building upon the catalogue business initiated by his father in the 1880s, he had a mail-order building erected there to facilitate the delivery of goods in western Canada. Additional mail-order outlets were opened in Saskatoon (1917) and Regina (1918). The careful attention paid to western farm statistics recognized that an increase in those figures offered potential growth in retail sales. Promotional efforts were then made to achieve this end. By 1921 Eaton’s total sales had increased to $125 million from $22.4 in 1907.
The Product Research Bureau set up in Toronto in 1916 was motivated by his father’s insistence that Eaton customers could depend upon store merchandise. The first incorporated by a Canadian retailer, it undoubtedly evolved from the firm’s own expansion into manufacturing. By 1922 the company was producing a wide range of ready-made clothes in factories in Montreal, Toronto, and Hamilton, Ont. This expansion enhanced its ability to provide goods at the volumes and prices so necessary for its markets.
Eaton continued to improve working conditions in his operations: by 1919 he had established Saturday holidays and evening closing at 5:30 p.m. in all stores, factories, and mail-order offices. Furthermore, to avoid any possibility of grievance and to deflect criticism, continuous efforts were made to ensure that wage rates were in line with those paid elsewhere. Since his prime intention was to promote business for the company on a nation-wide basis, he refused to allow either labour or capital to influence his business decisions.
The Eaton Boys and Girls clubs were but one facet of Eaton’s philanthropic interests and these along with scholarships offered at the Young Men’s Christian Association and the Ontario College of Art provided educational and recreational facilities for company employees. In addition, he made large contributions to the Toronto General Hospital and the University of Toronto which allowed for the maintenance of a surgical wing and a department of general medicine. Further donations were made to Victoria College, Toronto, and the Winnipeg General Hospital. Eaton received a knighthood for these activities in 1915. Perhaps his most lavish public contribution was the gift, jointly with his mother, of land and funds for a large Methodist church on St Clair Avenue in Toronto. Named after Timothy Eaton, it was constructed in 1912–14, an elaborate monument to a grand sense of family worth.
Throughout World War I Eaton employees on active service continued to draw salaries (either full or half pay, depending on their marital status). As a result, some 3,300 enlisted men received more than $2 million during this time. Because of Germany’s involvement in the conflict Eaton ordered a boycott of all German companies, and it was not until 1924 that the company resumed buying operations there.
A long-time supporter of the Liberal party and member of the Reform Club of Toronto, Eaton nevertheless strongly disapproved of the party’s 1911 endorsement of reciprocity with the United States. His views led him to combine with 17 other prominent Liberals to publish a manifesto opposing this policy [see Sir Byron Edmund Walker].
With his early death from influenza in March 1922 at the age of 45, the management of the company passed into the hands of close relatives since his sons had not yet reached the age of majority. His will specified that the presidency should eventually go to the son most qualified (John David* would take over in 1942) and that this decision should be left to the discretion of the board of directors. Lady Eaton, active in the arts and in charitable and benevolent societies, survived her husband by 48 years.
The main source for this study is the T. Eaton records at AO, F 229.
AO, RG 80-3-2-12, no.901317; RG 80-5-0-296, no.16842.
Golden jubilee, 1869–1919; a book to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the T. Eaton Co. Limited, by the Scribe (Toronto and Winnipeg, 1919).
Ross Harkness, J. E. Atkinson of the “Star” (Toronto, 1963)