toronto ed mirvish

5 early entrepreneurs who helped shape Toronto

Where would Toronto be without the contributions of Timothy Eaton, Robert Simpson, William Davies, Henry Pellatt, or Ed Mirvish? It's hard to say, but we would all be worse off were it not for the success of their businesses or the timing of their financial investments.

Some of the names on this will be familiar, others less so, but their legacies are still tangible. Toronto has streetcars, its downtown mall, and one of its defining foodstuffs thanks to the input of these early businessmen.

Here are 5 early entrepreneurs who helped shape Toronto.

Timothy Eaton: a national chain of stores and, eventually, the Eaton Centre.
Raised on a farm in present day Northern Ireland, Timothy Eaton set up shop on Yonge St. in 1869 after running a general store with his brother in St. Marys, Ont. Following a brief flirtation with the wholesale business, Eaton established what would become a national retail empire at 178 Yonge Street, just south of Queen. Eaton opened his flagship store at Queen and Yonge in 1883 where he grew his company into a Canadian social institution. Eaton died suddenly in 1907 at the age of 72, but his business lived on until 1999.

Henry Pellatt: electricity and streetcars.
Sir. Henry Pellatt's most conspicuous contribution to Toronto was his massive and ridiculous mansion, Casa Loma, which he was able to build thanks to numerous shrewd investments. He and a group of businessmen provided vital early funds to the Toronto Electric Light Company, the city's first electricity company, which in turn made it possible for the city to adopt electric streetcars. According to the Star, Pellatt lived "primarily for his own self-aggrandizement" and sometimes operated unethically or illegally. He died in 1939 with just $85 to his name.

Robert Simpson: another national chain and one of Toronto's great downtown buildings.
Eaton's arch rival Robert Simpson was, it appears, also his polar opposite. While Eaton was a religious teetotaller, Simpson, according to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, was a heavy drinker. The two businessmen followed similar trajectories: both were born outside Canada and were at the helm of failed businesses before finding success. Simpson's flagship store, which still stands, used for face Eaton's directly across Queen St. Its founder died in 1897 and, like Eaton's, the company name survived until the 1990s.

William Davies: peameal bacon and the Hogtown name.
Today, William Davies isn't a household name, but his Don Valley stockyards may have been responsible for Toronto acquiring becoming "Hogtown" (either that or it was an insult from the smaller towns of Ontario.) The William Davies Company was one of Canada's largest exporters of meat in the early 1900s, and their peameal bacon was particularly popular. Davies is also credited as being the first food producer in Canada to operate a retail store division, "Davies' Stores." He died in 1920, aged 90, weeks after being kicked by a goat.

Honest Ed: a discount department store and a revived theatre district.
"Honest" Ed Mirvish was best known for his eccentric discount department store at Bloor and Bathurst, but his contribution to the city's theatre industry was immeasurable. Born in Virginia to Lithuanian Jewish parents, larger-than-life Mirvish opened his famous store in 1948 and used the considerable proceeds to, among many other things, save the Royal Alexandra Theatre on from demolition. He built the Princess of Wales Theatre in 1993 and is widely credited with spurring the revitalization of the King West strip between Spadina and University. He died in 2007 aged 92.

Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Images: City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Public Library, X 66-25


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