The Rise of Retail
From a network of trading posts to an
international retail icon, HBC underwent a remarkable transformation in the
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
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
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
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
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
A Lasting Legacy
The historical, cultural and social impacts of Hudson’s Bay Company are
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
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
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 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
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
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.