The Robert Simpson Company Limited
Twenty-one year old Robert Simpson arrived in Canada from Scotland in 1855, already with strong experience in the grocery trade. Settling in Newmarket, Ontario, he worked in the dry goods business for only two years before feeling confident enough to launch himself in business. He and his partner opened Simpson and Trent, a store selling groceries, boots, shoes and dry goods. The partnership was dissolved after four years of good business and Simpson continued to operate the store independently. It was only a few months before he sought a new partner and the business was renamed Simpson and Bogart. Simpson and Bogart gradually developed a strong "jobbing" business with small stores in adjacent communities. Essentially, they acted as wholesalers.
Robert Simpson, at 32, ca. 1866.
Simpson had been building a good and reputable trade for almost 10 years when disaster struck. On October 29, 1870, a raging fire destroyed both the store and all the company's stock. Undeterred, he re-opened for business in time for Christmas. The losses seem to have been severe, though, as it appears that Simpson declared bankruptcy in early 1871. It was this disaster that pushed him to move to Toronto, where the opportunities were more plentiful.
After a brief stint in the King Street shopping district, Simpson moved and re-opened as R. Simpson, Dry Goods in 1872. The store's new location, at 184 Yonge Street, was a few doors north of Queen Street. In order to distinguish himself from the stiff competition (no less than 13 other dry goods businesses were situated within a few blocks of each other, not the least of which was the T. Eaton Company) Simpson began distributing coloured dodgers - what today we call flyers - to city residences.
Early Simpsons store Toronto, at Richmond and Yonge, ca. 1908
Simpson's timing was extraordinary: Toronto's population would quadruple between 1871 and 1896, from 56,000 to over 225,000. This period was one of active growth for Simpson's. The store grew from having a few employees to 200 by 1890. The store relocated from its original Yonge Street location to the corner of Queen and Yonge, and expanded several times. In fact, business was so brisk that the store soon needed more substantial enlargement. Thus it was on December 4, 1894 that a brand new six-storey brick building opened its doors at the corner of Queen and Yonge streets.
On March 3, 1895, less than three months after its opening, the new Simpson store burned to the ground, falling victim to the third major fire in Toronto in less than two months. Undaunted and defiant, Robert Simpson resolved to re-open for business as soon as possible and to rebuild his store. Exactly six days after the fire Simpsons was once again welcoming customers, albeit in rented premises. The store would move back to the Queen and Yonge location in just over 10 months, in a new and improved building.
The architect firm Burke & Horwood resolved to make this second building the best in its class. To lessen the risk of fire the new building was built on a steel frame - the very first of its type in Canada. The rolled steel girders were fire-proofed with concrete and the columns spaced at greater intervals. This structure, which still stands today, is the original core of a much larger building that occupies an entire city block.
Simpsons store, expanded down Yonge St. and along Richmond, ca. 1923.
Robert Simpson did not live to see his company thrive for very long after the 1895 fire: he died at the end of 1897. Soon thereafter an American company began negotiating with Simpson's estate. Fearing the American takeover of a prominent Canadian business a small group of investors led by Harris Henry Fudger, Joseph Wesley Flavelle and Alfred Ernest Ames purchased the company's inventory and chattels for $135,000. Fudger, Flavelle and Ames, three astute businessmen and prominent members of the Toronto community, took over a business which was already healthy, despite the fire two years earlier, and rapidly grew it. By 1900 the store was in need of expansion; by 1929 it would have been enlarged several times to accommodate the ever increasing flow of shoppers.
Only a few years after Fudger assumed the leadership role at Simpsons, the company began a territorial expansion. In 1905, Simpsons acquired Montreal's John Murphy Co. The same year, it erected its first Mail Order building on Front Street to handle orders and outbound parcels. In 1913, the Mail Order operations moved to a bigger building on Spadina Avenue In 1916, Simpsons Mail Order opened a large warehouse in Regina, and three years later it expanded its operations into Halifax.
C.L. Burton, by Yousuf Karsh, n.d.
The growth of Simpsons' Mail Order business was soon followed by a need to expand the company's retail activities. In 1924, retail outlets were opened in the Halifax and Regina Mail Order buildings. In 1929, the flagship store in Toronto completed yet another expansion which included the addition of a brand new restaurant, the Arcadian Court. With seating for 1,000 it was said to be the largest facility of its kind. In the same year, the John Murphy store in Montreal was renovated and re-opened under the Simpsons name. Finally, it was also in 1929 that Charles L. Burton, who had started with Simpsons in 1912, was named President of the Company, H.H. Fudger becoming Chairman of the Board. On the eve of the Great Depression, Simpsons had positioned itself as a very strong player on the retail scene, just in time for the difficult years ahead.
The rough times brought about by the Depression led Simpsons to adopt a promotion- heavy approach to retailing. Celebrities were constantly streaming into the store for talks or book signings, fashion shows were organized on an almost a daily basis, and a giant pet shop was opened (next to the china department!). Some promotions were more successful and well thought out than others. On one occasion, Simpsons brought a few (dead) beluga whales down from Hudson Bay to attract the curious. On the third day of the showing, the exhibition was hurriedly shut down as the ventilation wasn't quite up to the job!
At the end of the Depression, business started to pick up again. However, it wasn't long before another, much worse disaster hit the world: World War II. Of a total of 1703 Simpsons employees who enlisted for military duty, 85 perished and 583 returned to work at Simpsons after the war ended. Shortly before the end of the war, Simpsons began expanding its operations again with the acquisition of Smallman and Ingram, in London, Ontario. Then, in 1946, the assets of R.H. Department Store, the largest Regina retailer, were added to Simpsons. While the war years were filled with material restrictions (steel, for example, was largely unavailable for common uses such as civilian construction), it did not prevent Simpsons from renovating many of its stores and building a brand new Mail Order facility in Vancouver.
Simpsons Mail Order business, while modest compared to Eaton's, was thriving. In a bid to rustle up a larger share of the retail market, Simpsons began talking to Sears about a possible association. Initiated in 1951 by Sears, Roebuck and concluded the following year, the agreement led Sears to take over Simpsons' entire Mail Order business: four control stores, 322 order offices and 64 heavy goods agencies. Meanwhile the two companies would jointly own and operate retail stores under the banner Simpsons-Sears. Those stores could be located anywhere outside the five Canadian cities where Simpsons had its own stores: Halifax, Montreal Toronto, London and Regina.
The 1950s and 1960s marked a decidedly different trend in retailing: the move to the suburbs. In Ontario Simpsons opened stores in Scarborough (Cedarbrae) and North York (Fairview Mall) and Pointe-Claire Quebec (Fairview Shopping Centre), as well as other suburbs surrounding the two largest Canadian cities. Everywhere else new retail operations were run by Simpsons-Sears. This period also saw Simpsons mirror other retailers in holding large interests in the properties being developed. One such real estate project was the construction of the Simpson Tower, which opened in 1969 and which became the home of Simpsons head office. This building today houses the head office of Hudson's Bay Company.
Queen St. Toronto Simpsons store with the Simpson Tower, ca. 1969.
The year 1978 was undoubtedly the most critical in Simpsons' history. Hudson's Bay Company took over the Simpsons chain at the same time as it acquired Zellers, dramatically expanding its presence in the market. Simpsons brought to HBC invaluable experience with upscale stores. While HBC merged some of Simpsons' operations with its own, the chain was largely kept independent, at least for the first few years. A few Simpsons outlets became Bay stores, one Bay location became a Simpsons store, but overall few changes were made to Simpsons. However, by the end of the 1980s, all Simpsons stores outside Toronto had been converted to Bay stores. In 1991, the last Simpsons store, the flagship Toronto downtown store, was finally converted to the Bay banner, and all remaining Simpsons operations were folded into the Bay. That store still operates today as the Bay, Queen Street.
While the loss of the last Simpsons store signified the end of an era, it was not the end of the name. Simpsons' credit cards were honoured until the year 2000. To this day, longtime Toronto residents still sometimes refer to the store at Queen and Yonge by its former name.