At the start of World War I (WWI), men from all over Canada were enlisting for overseas military service. Some of these men were forced to sacrifice their jobs and livelihoods to pursue what they saw as their duty to their country. But for the employees of the T. Eaton Company Ltd., this endeavour was encouraged with unprecedented support.
Founded by Timothy Eaton in 1869, the T. Eaton Company Ltd. grew into one of the largest department stores in North America. The T. Eaton Co. opened as a single dry goods store in Toronto, and in 1884, the store introduced catalogue ordering, broadening the company's scope and allowing customers across Canada to place orders. Eaton's expanded through the 20th century, opening stores across Canada. By 1987, the company employed over 35,000 staff and had 108 outlets. The stores were closed after the company declared bankruptcy in 1999.
At the start of WWI, the T. Eaton Company was headed by Timothy’s son, Sir John Craig Eaton. John, like most Canadian men of the time, believed he had a duty to support his country, except he had the assets of the largest store in Canada at his disposal. Under his encouragement, store employees contributed $600,000 towards Canada’s war effort, but his own contributions were far more substantial.
Sir John Craig Eaton made sure that his company contributed to the war effort at a national scale. Early in the war, he announced that all military contracts received by the company, for uniforms, equipment, and other needs, would be delivered at cost.
When Canada’s arsenal appeared to be too meagre, the federal Minister of Militia and Defense, Sir Sam Hughes, approached John for assistance. John personally contributed $100,000 for the outfitting of 15 armoured trucks equipped with Vickers-Maxim guns. This mobile unit would be known as the Eaton’s Machine Gun Battery.
The support of Sir John Craig Eaton went far beyond corporate sponsorship. 3,327 Eaton’s employees, often called Eatonians, enlisted during WWI. 2,200 of these were from the Toronto store alone. In order to encourage enlistment, and to support his employees, John Eaton made an incredible offer: All married employees who enlisted would be paid their full salary for the duration of their service, in addition to their military wages. Unmarried men who enlisted received half their salary. By the end of the war, Eaton’s had paid over $2.2 million in wages, more than any other Canadian firm.
There were many other ways Eaton’s supported its employees overseas, including premium savings accounts, gift baskets, and monthly hampers for prisoners of war. For his enormous contribution to Canada’s war effort, Sir John Craig Eaton was named a Knight Bachelor in 1915.
Of the Eatonians who fought in the WWI, 315 were killed. Hundreds more were wounded. Of those who were able to return, 1,375 men resumed their work at Eaton’s.
The T. Eaton Company and Sir John Craig Eaton contributed an unprecedented amount to Canada’s WWI effort. But the photographs on the following pages remind us that the contributions of the individual employees were perhaps even more important, and certainly more impressive. These men put their lives on the line, and for some of them, this photograph is the only visual record of their heroism.