Image from Eaton’s – Golden Jubilee (1869-1919) (T. Eaton Co Ltd, 1919).
On April 30th of 1897 the Almonte Gazette had this small article on their front page:
Eight sewing girls in the mantle department of T. Eaton & Co’s, factory, went on strike because no more than 12 cents was allowed them for making a jacket. They said they could not live on that amount, and who will doubt them ? And yet there are women in Almonte and elsewhere who patronize such a system.
Strikes like this were common in the needle trades in the early twentieth century as men and women sought better wages and working conditions. But, despite some gains, the early labour movement had little sustained success in improving the lot of workers. In the garment industry, conditions remained as deplorable on the eve of the Second World War as when a young and social-minded William Lyon Mackenzie King first investigated sweatshops in 1897.
It wasn’t until ten o’clock in the morning on February 25, 1931, more than five hundred women of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) put down their work, halted their machines, and walked out of garment shops across Toronto.
All my life I will never forget this strike. It was so terrible that the police protected the shops, and they treated the workers like garbage. It was so horrible. I tell you, I remember how they came so close by with the horses. The picketers they treated terrible. They protected the strikebreakers. So you know even [if] you didn’t believe in unions … you believed in unions when you saw what was [happening].
Image from Eaton’s – Golden Jubilee (1869-1919) (T. Eaton Co Ltd., 1919).
The citizens of Toronto interpreted the workers’ wage demands as greedy in the midst of the Depression. After two-and-a-half months, the strike ultimately ended in failure, abandoned at a mass rally attended by a thousand supporters on May 5.
Wages were low and employees were not even allowed to speak to each other while working. Starch filled the air, one worker reporter, making your “throat sore and your nose stuffed up and you felt a wreck.” But if a window was opened, there were serious cold drafts.
Worse than the physical conditions were the “brutal task-masters” who swore at—or sexually harassed—the women, and discriminated in the distribution of piece-work to reward their favourites, or those who did them favours, with additional pay. Slower workers, or those who showed up even five minutes late, might be sent home without pay for indefinite periods. The supervisors used stop-watches and implemented speed-ups when orders increased.
“I would go home nights and I would be so tired I could not eat my supper,” said one woman describing the impact of the speed-ups. “And I would be so tired and stiff going home on the streetcar, I would just dread getting a seat, because if I sat down, I could not get up again, my knees and my legs would be so stiff.”
Files from the Historicist: Sewing the Seeds of Discontent
In 1884 the Eaton’s catalogue had 32 pages. Twelve years later it had grown to 400 pages.
The Eaton’s catalogue was such a valued part of Canadian life that it had a number of nicknames including the “Homesteaders Bible,” the “Family Bible” and the “Wish Book.”
The Eaton’s catalogue seemed to offer all things to Canadians. In the late 1800s an expectant mother could even order supplies for giving birth at home. In the early 1900s the
Eaton’s catalogue offered prefabricated barns and schoolhouses along with various sizes of prefabricated houses
The Eaton’s Christmas catalogue was first published in 1897. The store’s French catalogue first appeared in 1928.
Canadians found practical uses for old Eaton’s catalogues. They were used as shin pads in hockey games; boiled down for their dye to colour Easter eggs; used as readers in classrooms; and rolled up tight and put near the stove to be used as foot warmers in bed.
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