Retail Nation: Remembering Simpsons and Eaton's before NAFTA
I remember great department stores in Canada, which was a source of national pride in Canada. We did not have the Walmarts or the Targets. As Canadians, we expressed our distinctive national identity through our made-in-Canada retail giants like Simpsons, Eaton's, and the Bay into the 1980's. These chains were not simply privately owned businesses, but expressions of our unique Canadian sensibilities for quality, which distinquished ourselves from lowest common denominator shopping in places like Buffalo, and in Seattle. Since that time, and thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) our department stores have been taken over by American interests, with Zellers now in blaah Target's hands.
As the CBC archives elaborates T. Eaton Company was formed shortly after Canadian Confederation and soon became rooted in the country's cultural landscape. The department store was part of Canadian life. The Eaton's mail-order catalogue was called the "Family Bible" and the company's lavish Santa Claus parade launched the Christmas season. When the last Eaton's store closed its doors on Feb. 26, 2002 many Canadians mourned its death. It wasn't the business empire they would miss, but the loss of a national institution.
Retail Nation: Department Stores and the Making of Modern Canada by Donica Belisle explores the experience of walking down a store aisle — replete with displays, salespeople, and infinite choice — is so common we often forget retail has a short history. Retail Nation traces Canada's transformation into a modern consumer society back to an era (1890–1940) when department stores such as Eaton's ruled the shopping scene and promised to strengthen the nation. Department stores which include Simpsons emerge as agents of modern nationalism, but the nation they helped to define — white, consumerist, middle-class — was more limited, and contested, than nostalgic portraits of the early department store suggest.