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An Article about the Hudson's Bay Company
From the Canadian History Magazine


The Rise of Retail

From a network of trading posts to an international retail icon, HBC underwent a remarkable transformation in the twentieth century.

The early spring of 1967 — Canada’s centennial year — was bitterly cold across the prairies. Then came the great blizzard of March 29. The storm roared across Saskatchewan, pummelling the land of the living skies with high winds and heavy snow that snarled streets and shut down public transportation. It really wasn’t fit to be outside. But nothing — not even a blizzard — was going to stop the people of Saskatchewan from enjoying legendary savings.

The next morning, many residents braved the blustery weather to shovel out from the snow. Among them was a tiny tyke standing beside a chest-high snowbank in Saskatoon and holding a sign that spoke volumes about HBC’s sway over shoppers in the sixties: “We’re going to Bay Day.”

Bay Days, of course, is one of HBC’s most popular and enduring sales promotions. And the 1967 photograph of the little Saskatoon child heading to Bay Days illustrates the impressive brand loyalty HBC was able to build in just a few short decades as it transitioned a network of sales shops into a national, and today international, retailing giant.

To understand how HBC was able to accomplish this astonishing feat, it’s necessary to go back to the period just after the 1869 transfer of Rupert’s Land to Canada. The late-nineteenth century was an era of upheaval and change in the Canadian Northwest. Societies, economies, and traditional ways of living were upended.

On the prairies, the dramatic decline of the bison resulted in great hardship for Indigenous peoples. At the same time, the Canadian government signed a series of numbered treaties with Indigenous peoples that enabled it to build a railway linking British Columbia with the rest of Canada.

The railway had a major impact on the country — and on HBC. Trains carried tens of thousands of immigrant settlers to the West. This influx was a boon for HBC, because it coincided with a decrease in interest in furs; after enjoying more than two centuries of popularity, fur was falling out of fashion.

The transition to retail was a natural evolution for the Company. For more than two centuries, HBC had expanded throughout North America, building a network of more than five hundred outposts that stretched from the Atlantic, to the Pacific, to the Arctic.

As immigrants flooded into the West, HBC was ready to supply them with everything they needed, from pots and pans to seeds, supplies, and more.

HBC also owned plenty of land to sell to settlers — more than 2.8 million hectares — thanks to the terms of the Rupert’s Land transfer. In 1874, the Company created a land department to organize the surveying and sale of this property. The man placed in charge of the land department, Donald Smith, would years later play a pivotal role in the creation of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Efforts to diversify the Company had begun decades earlier, thanks to Sir George Simpson, the governor of HBC’s Northern Department in the early 1800s. Simpson was a visionary who willingly embraced new ventures, such as felling timber in the Ottawa Valley and commercial fishing on the Great Lakes.

During the nineteenth century, HBC also began selling salmon and cranberries on the west coast. Salmon was shipped as far away as England, Hawaii, and Australia. HBC even entered the ice business, carving frozen blocks from glaciers in northern British Columbia to send to San Francisco during the California gold rush.

The variety of HBC goods for sale was matched only by the many methods of paying for them. Since hard currency was rare at remote outposts, traders found innovative ways to barter for the goods they needed, including fur trade tokens made of wood, ivory, or shells; later versions were typically made from metal.

“We had a store, and the idea was we ... bought their furs in exchange for supplies the trappers needed,” recalled Wulf Tolboom, an HBC trading post manager who worked in the Northwest Territories during the mid-twentieth century. “There was no currency exchanged whatsoever. We used tokens. Each pelt was worth so many tokens, and as I traded we took the tokens off the table. [The trappers] never took them home, they always left [the tokens] with us. Whatever was left was a credit on the books.”

By the late 1800s, most HBC fur trade outposts had embraced the transition to sales shops. But, as increasing num- bers of people moved from rural areas to towns and cities, it became clear that HBC’s future lay in a then-revolutionary concept: the department store.

The rise of department stores coincided with the urbanization movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s and was aided by improvements in roads and rapid transit, like buses and subways, that allowed more people to converge in downtown areas.

The first Canadian department store was Morgan’s, founded in Montreal by Henry Morgan in the mid-1800s. (HBC acquired Morgan’s in 1960.)

HBC followed suit in the early 1900s. Beginning in 1913, HBC opened six flagship department stores across Western Canada, in Calgary, Edmonton, Victoria, Vancouver, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg.

Large even by today’s standards, many of the flagship locations were the biggest stores of their time. They were also the cities’ largest importers, employed the most staff, and had the greatest sales volumes of any sector.

Department stores had a tremendous impact on society in general and introduced many new technological marvels to Canadians. For instance, department stores offered many people their first glimpses of escalators, elevators, air conditioning, electric lighting, steel-frame construction, and fire-proofing. The stores also helped to spur mass production and gave rise to the culture of consumption and fashion. Meanwhile, the evolution of the credit system allowed more people the option of paying for purchases over time, thereby enabling them to buy items that were previously unaffordable. Credit was now extended to the masses.

Department stores also played a pivotal role in women’s rights. In the nineteenth century, shopping became an important outlet for women’s independence. At the time, women in urban areas often were not permitted to take part in social interactions unless accompanied by a chaperone or by their servants. However, it was socially acceptable for women customers to shop alone. As a result, department stores became places of leisure, social interaction, and mobilization for women. Department stores also became key employers of women, allowing them to pursue a professional career and to financially support themselves and their families.

Over time, the stores became the cultural and social hubs of their communities. Department stores were natural meeting places and offered everything from art exhibitions to trade shows, music recitals, dances, public lectures, and fine dining.

By the middle of the twentieth century, HBC had stores in most major cities in Canada, thanks to a series of acquisitions of other department store chains, including Cairns, Zellers, and Simpsons. All of these chains shared HBC’s willingness to change with the times. Over the decades, HBC embraced innovations such as mail-order and catalogue sales and experimented with new sales strategies and concepts such as distribution chains and inventory control. Stores began to offer specialty services such as home delivery, in-store groceries, pharmacies, restaurants, postal and telephone services, fur storage, and recreational facilities. As the retail industry matured, advertising and branding became increasingly important.

In 1970, HBC marked its three-hundredth anniversary by officially becoming a Canadian company. Until then, the Company had legally been a British company. After the Company was rechartered as a Canadian corporation, its head office relocated from Winnipeg to Toronto in 1974.

The ensuing decades have seen the company continue to adapt and to innovate with the times, embracing new technologies such as e-commerce and expanding into new markets. Over the past three and a half centuries, the company transformed itself from a risky fur-trading venture centred on Hudson Bay to a leading international retailer — a story whose future chapters have yet to be written.

A Lasting Legacy
The historical, cultural and social impacts of Hudson’s Bay Company are tremendous.

For more than two centuries, the Cree of the James Bay region of Quebec had engaged in a robust trade relationship with Hudson’s Bay Company.

Beginning in 1668 with the arrival of Nonsuch, and for generations afterwards, Cree trappers had snared beaver, mink, fox, and other animals and then returned to Rupert House, HBC’s trading post, to exchange the furs.

But by the 1920s the beaver population began to dwindle. This decline led to economic hardship for the Cree.

In March 1929, two Cree trappers, Robert Stephen and Andrew Whiskeychan, arrived at Rupert House with news: They had found a mating pair of beaver. At first, the men were going to trap the animals. However, Rupert House Factor James Watt convinced them to let the beavers live, so that they could have a litter of kits.

At the time, wildlife conservation was a relatively new concept. Watt, however, quickly began to champion the creation of a beaver preserve to help to bolster the population.

Watt and his wife, Maud worked with leaders from the Cree community, including Abram Katapatiuk, Bertie Diamin, and Sidney Namagoose, to identify more beaver pairs and to protect them. The Watts also decided to ask the Quebec government to set aside Crown land near Rupert House specifically for beaver conservation. Since Maud spoke French, she volunteered to travel to Quebec City to argue the case for conservation.

After a Herculean winter trek — part of it made by dogsled — Maud arrived in Quebec City and made her pitch. It must have been convincing, because Quebec agreed to set aside a conservation lease of over 18,600 square kilometres. By 1944, the beaver population had grown from just a few animals to more than thirteen thousand, and the success of the Rupert House project had inspired similar conservation initiatives in Ontario and the Northwest Territories.

HBC’s conservation legacy goes far beyond beaver sanctuaries. Thanks to the Company’s efforts to preserve its rich heritage and history, people everywhere can today access centuries’ worth of information about life in early North America. HBC kept meticulous records on all aspects of its business — from the quality and quantity of pelts sold, to daily weather records, to the detailed memoirs and diaries written by the Company’s explorers and traders.

For centuries, these records were dutifully filed away in the Company’s vaults in London, England, available only to HBC officials. However, the records were of immense interest to researchers, historians, archivists, genealogists, and, indeed, anyone interested in the story of the Northwest.

In 1920, to toast its 250th birthday, HBC decided to open its archives for the first time to outsiders. After years of careful preparation, the archives were opened to the public in England in 1931.

Next, HBC decided to relocate its records to Canada, where they could be more easily accessed by Canadians. After some deliberation, Winnipeg, HBC’s Canadian headquarters since 1860, was selected to host the material.

The process of preparing the records for shipment across the Atlantic was a challenging one for the archivists involved in the transfer. Shirlee Anne Smith, the first keeper of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives of Canada, spent a year at London’s Beaver House overseeing the sorting, packing, and shipping of material. It was a long — and sometimes chilly — process.

The heat at Beaver House sometimes stopped working, and, Smith recalled, “at one period we only had heat for four hours a day.” Working long hours “in winter boots and layers of woolen clothes,” Smith sorted through endless boxes of materials. In the end, eight containers weighing eighteen tonnes each were transported overseas in three ships, so that if one ship sank not all would be lost.

In 1974, HBC officially deposited its records with the Archives of Manitoba, and they were opened to the public the next year. The records transfer was made permanent in 1994, when HBC formally donated the archival material to the Archives of Manitoba.

Since then, the archives have been used by researchers to study everything from climate change, to astronomy, to genealogy and beyond. Due to its immense historical significance, the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives has been named part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s Memory of the World collection, which places it in the company of such priceless artifacts as the Magna Carta and the Bayeux Tapestry.

In addition to donating its archives, HBC also donated its vast artifacts collection to the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg in 1994, where the collection is enjoyed by thousands of visitors each year. The tax savings from these two donations allowed HBC to establish the Hudson’s Bay Company History Foundation (HBCHF), which supports both the archives and the museum collections, as well as Canada’s History magazine, founded by HBC in 1920 as The Beaver.

The Beaver began as an internal Company newsletter and evolved over the decades to become the national history magazine of Canada. In 2017, the HBCHF supported the creation of a free online archive of back issues of the magazine, today known as Canada’s History.

The story of HBC continues to unfold. It’s at once a global trendsetter and an iconic institution. Thanks to its vast social, cultural, and historical legacies, the story of Hudson’s Bay Company will forever be synonymous with the story of the growth and development of North America.

From feature films, to a replica ship, to a three-day concert, Hudson’s Bay Company has celebrated the anniversary of its founding in many ways.

In 1920, HBC marked its 250th anniversary by commissioning a feature-length film, Romance of the Far Fur Country, and a book, The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson’s Bay during Two Hundred and Fifty Years, 1670–1920. HBC also launched The Beaver, a corporate newsletter that grew into a national history magazine. In 2010, the magazine was rechristened Canada’s History.

In 1945, HBC marked its 275th anniversary with a subdued tone due to the Second World War. A highlight was the creation of a scholarship and student exchange program between Canada and Britain.

In 1970, the company celebrated its 300th anniversary with several events, including the building of a replica of the HBC ship Nonsuch; it resides today at the Manitoba Museum. Other highlights included a visit to Canada by Queen Elizabeth II and the last occurrence of the rent ceremony at Lower Fort Garry.

A quarter century later, the HBC marked its 325th birthday with a three-day concert in Alberta. Over seventy-five thousand people attended the Big Sky extravaganza, where performers included Bryan Adams, Blue Rodeo, and Celine Dion.

This text has been condensed and excerpted from the publication An Epic Tale, by Mark Collin Reid, published in 2018 by Hudson’s Bay Company. With files from Dr. Karine Duhamel and support from HBC Heritage Services.


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