(Originally blogged October 22, 2009)
Last week the Hudson Bay Company’s announced it was going to reopen ‘The Room’ in its Toronto flagship store at the corner of Yonge and Queen streets. This store was once the Simpsons department store – a high end fashion retailer for Toronto’s society women.
It began when Scottish immigrant Robert Simpson and his business partner opened a grocery and dry goods store in Newmarket, Ontario in the late 1850s called Simpson and Trent. A few years later, the company’s partnership changed along with the name to Simpson and Bogart. The business had begun wholesaling to smaller stores in nearby communities when a fire in October 1870 gutted the premises. Simpson quickly rebuilt but the costs of the fire in combination with the onset of an international recession lead to Simpson declaring bankruptcy in 1871.
Simpson moved to Toronto where the quickly growing city offered more opportunity for a merchant. In 1872 Simpson opened R. Simpson, Dry Goods at 184 Yonge Street, nearby the successful dry goods emporium, T. Eaton Company. On December 4, 1894 Simpsons opened in a new six-story brick building at the corner of Queen and Yonge streets but in less than three months fire gutted the new premises. The rebuilt store, which opened in early 1896, featured a steel frame construction, the first of its kind in Canada.
Robert Simpson died in late 1897 and a group of investors purchased the company who began to expand the Simpsons retail empire. In 1905 Simpsons entered the mail-order business that grew to include mail order warehouses in Regina in 1916 and Halifax in 1919, both of which opened retail outlets in their warehouses in 1924. The Toronto flagship store received a major renovation in 1929 including the addition of Toronto’s leading restaurant at the time, the Arcadian Court. Also in 1929, the John Murphy store in Montreal was renovated and re-opened under the Simpsons name.
During the Depression, Simpsons focussed on promotions and events to keep customers returning to their store. Alongside celebrity appearances and sideshow-like exhibitions, Simpsons also catered to the tastes of the elite, opening The St. Regis Room – a leading outlet of designer fashions and imported couture. Simpsons was well positioned and easily survived the tight economy of the 1930s as well as the wartime shortages of the 1940s.
Black lace printed on gold kid shoes from the St. Regis room, Simpsons, c. 1960-1965
Simpsons Mail Order business, while modest compared to Eaton’s, was thriving in1951 when the American firm of Sears Roebuck initiated discussions for an official association. An agreement was struck in 1952 that had Sears taking over the mail order business while the two companies would jointly own and operate new retail stores under the name Simpsons-Sears. The only stipulation, which lasted for twenty years, was that no Simpsons-Sears could be located within twenty-five miles of any of the existing Simpsons’ stores in Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, Regina, or London. In turn, Simpsons would not build any new stores outside of these five cities.
In 1972 the twenty-year restriction ended and the following year Simpson-Sears opened a store in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, calling it ‘Sears’ to avoid association with the Simpson’s stores. Over the next few years, the name Simpsons-Sears slowly disappeared from stores and catalogue operations. In 1978, the Hudson’s Bay Company acquired Simpsons but under federal competition law, Simpsons and Sears had to be divided with all former Simpsons-Sears stores becoming officially renamed Sears Canada. The Bay continued to operate most former Simpsons’ stores as upscale marketplaces that included ’store within a store’ outlets for luxury brands. However, by 1991 the recession ended the elite store experiment and all Simpson’s operations were merged with The Bay. The name is now largely forgotten, although Toronto oldtimers still usually refer to the Queen and Yonge Bay store as Simpsons. This may change however, as the new CEO of The Bay, Bonnie Brooks, has decided to revive the St. Regis Room concept with a five million dollar renovation to create an upscale multi-designer fashion boutique, something not seen in a department store in Canada since the 1970s!