Eaton, Timothy (1834–1907), merchant in Canada, was born in March 1834 in the townland of Clougher, near Ballymena, Co. Antrim, fourth son among nine children of John Eaton and Margaret Eaton (née Craig). His father died two months before Timothy was born, and Margaret Eaton brought up her family alone on a farm of about thirty acres. Timothy spent a short time at an academy in Ballymena, then at the age of 13 was indentured to William Smith, a shopkeeper in Portglenone, nine miles (14.5 km) away; he found the work itself generally interesting but working conditions very difficult, with an employer who, although a relative of Mrs Eaton, did not take much trouble over Timothy's welfare. He worked sixteen hours a day, had to sort dirty rags, and (it is claimed) sometimes had to sleep under the shop counter. He had to serve out his apprenticeship because the family could not afford to forfeit the fee; but in 1854, with £100 which had been refunded on completion of his apprenticeship, he emigrated to Canada. His mother had died in 1848. Two elder brothers had preceded him, and he lived at first with a married sister, Mrs Margaret Reid, in Georgetown, Ontario, while he worked in a shop there. He and his brother James opened their own store in Kirkton, Ontario, and later moved their business to St Mary's. After his marriage (28 May 1862) to Margaret Beattie of Woodstock, Ontario, who was from an Ulster family, they moved to Toronto, to what was then a somewhat unfashionable area of the city, and established a dry goods store. Eaton advertised his commercial policy as ‘Goods satisfactory or money refunded’; he also did away with the possibility of haggling over prices of goods by clearly marking them on sales tickets, and he sold for cash only. His approach to retailing, though not entirely novel, was immediately successful, and Eaton was soon able to expand by opening further ‘departments’ in his shop; he was thus one of the pioneers of the department store. Continued expansion and continual innovations characterised the company's first forty years under his guidance; in 1883 he opened a much larger store with electricity, elevators, uniformed delivery staff, and a ladies' rest room; the following year he introduced shopping by mail order, thus enabling thousands of Canadians living far from shops to have access to a wide choice of goods. The catalogue was known as the ‘homesteader's Bible’ (Dunlop).
From 1892 the company was heavily involved in manufacturing clothing and other goods; in 1899 there were over 700 workers in the clothing supply business, turning out 4,500 garments daily. By 1900 Timothy Eaton stores were found throughout Canada, with over 9,000 employees. Timothy Eaton's reputation for fairness in commercial dealings was matched by his concern for his employees' welfare; he personally distributed Christmas bonuses, and pioneered schemes to allow more time off. The company's reputation as a good employer spread even to Ireland and lasted throughout much of the twentieth century; local folklore had it that anyone from Co. Antrim was sure of a good job if he or she applied to Timothy Eaton. The founder's presbyterian background and later strong allegiance to the methodist church was apparent in his lifelong opposition to alcohol and gambling; neither alcohol nor playing cards were sold in his stores until long after his death. Eaton and his wife had five sons and three daughters, but a son and a daughter died as infants, another son died as a result of an accident as a toddler, and the eldest son died in his father's lifetime (1900); a younger son, (Sir) John Craig Eaton, took over after his father's death in Toronto from pneumonia 31 January 1907, and continued the company's expansion. By the 1960s there were over 45,000 employees, and the shops were part of the fabric of Canadian life. The Eaton family, often described as a Canadian retail dynasty, was involved with the business until 1999, when the company foundered and its stores, its shares, and the name of Timothy Eaton were bought by the giant American corporation Sears.