Paul Wilson: A Sign Past Its Time – a shadow of Eaton's in downtown Hamilton

It was once the country's largest department store chain, a Christmas favourite of Canadians everywhere. Eaton's died years ago, but a ghostly reminder remains in our core.
Squint hard enough and you'll spot what's left of the dearly departed Eaton's store in the core. It's at dead centre. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

We’ve lifted the page on December, and on the weekend there was snow in the streets. I’m now ready to consider that Christmas is coming.

And when I think about Christmas, I pine for Eaton’s.

The first store opened in 1869, just a couple of years after Canada was born. It grew to become the largest department store chain in Canada.

The Eatons name has vanished across the nation, but the sign people never quite got around to dismantling this one in downtown Hamilton. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

It made five words famous: "Goods satisfactory or money refunded." Yes, you could take anything back to Eaton’s – even a sticky cookbook, if you didn’t like the recipes.

In 1999, Eaton’s died – a victim of mismanagement and changing times.

But here in Hamilton, the name lives on. Here there is A Sign Past Its Time.

You have to be standing in just the right place to see it. Look to the east from the Jackson Square plaza level, to the right of Central library.

And there are those six famous letters. They’re in white, and at one time they would have lit up.

The old Eaton's on James North featured white-gloved elevator operators calling out the floors. (Hamilton Public Library)

They are the last reminder of what was once a retailing powerhouse in downtown Hamilton.

The old Eaton’s store had six floors, with white-gloved operators running the elevators. At this time of year, the most popular stop was Fifth Floor – Toyland.

Eaton’s was a family-owned operation, and that family knew just how it wanted things done. Floor staff were to wear dark colours from Labour Day until Victoria Day weekend. Light colours were OK during summer, but only in good taste.

Secret shoppers patrolled the floors. Snippy counter staff got sent to the office. Helpful clerks got a shiny silver dollar.

Before Xbox and iPods, some kids were asking Santa for a model train. Eaton's had good ones. (Eaton's 1969 Christmas Catalogue)

For some of us, Eaton’s made Christmas shopping easy. Perfume, books, electronics, toys, all under one roof – Canada’s favourite store had the right gifts for all.

Then, to Hamilton’s delight, Eaton’s announced it would build a new flagship in the core. In the words of one executive, it would be "a smart, downtown high-fashion store."

It opened on May 2, 1989 and the big old Eaton’s closed. They began tearing it down to make way for a mall adjoining the new Eaton’s. It was to have a hundred stores on three levels, under a big glass dome.

The timing could not have been worse. A brutal recession was just underway. And the Eaton’s family had not noticed the seismic shifts in the retail landscape in the ’90s.The big box store was on the rise. And Walmart had marched across the border.

Nothing was more excitng than the arrival of the Christmas catalogue. (Eaton's 1904 Christmas Catalogue)

Eaton’s had to start shutting stores across the nation. Some were spared for a time, including the one in downtown Hamilton. That was only because it was an anchor store to the mall, which was owned by Eaton’s Properties. Close the store and the mall would collapse too.

In the end, that’s what happened anyway. They closed the store downtown in mid-October, 1999. It didn’t even get to see Christmas.

It sat empty for a couple of years. Then they started clearing out the last remains, including Eaton’s Christmas Dreams banners for $10.

Everything had to go to make way for a new retailer in that spring of 2001, an outfit called Liquidation World. Could there be a sadder outcome?

The crew removing all the Eaton’s signs from the building at that time forgot one, not visible from the street. More than a decade later, it is forgotten still.

A Sign Past Its Time pops up every now and then on CBC Hamilton. If you’ve spotted an old sign that needs its story told, do let me know. | @PaulWilsonCBC

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.