Hudson's History
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20 Things You Didn't Know About Canada's Favorite Department Store

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Hudson's History
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Hudson's History

Canadian retailer Hudson's Bay Company has been making headlines as its executive chairman leads a bid to take the company private. HBC, which dates back to the 1670s, is facing a variety of challenges in the rapidly evolving retail world. As shareholders try to secure its future, here's a closer look at its storied history. These colorful and often little-known facts come from the company's HBC Heritage department and Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Founded by French Traders
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Founded by French Traders

Hudson's Bay Company came into being after a pair of resourceful French traders, Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard de Chouart, Sieur des Groseilliers, established a fur-trading route to the interior of the North American continent, through the great inland sea of Hudson Bay. With the support of Prince Rupert, cousin of King Charles II of England, ships set sail from England in 1668 to exploit this discovery.

Sign of the Times
Sign of the Times by Fiona Paton (CC BY-ND)

Incorporated in England

While Hudson's Bay Company is a Canadian icon, it was actually first incorporated in England, on May 2, 1670. The founders were granted the right to seek a northwest passage to the Pacific, to occupy lands adjacent to Hudson Bay, and "carry on any commerce with those lands that might prove profitable."

Headed by a Prince
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Headed by a Prince

The territory originally allotted to the Hudson's Bay Company was known as Rupert's Land, named for Prince Rupert, who also served as the company's first governor. During its first two centuries in existence, Hudson's Bay operated in a handful of forts and trading posts located around the shores of James Bay and Hudson Bay.

Beaver Pelts as Currency
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Beaver Pelts as Currency

During its early years in business, HBC needed something that was recognized by the indigenous population as having value, and by 1748, beaver pelts had become the "Standard of Trade." Trappers brought furs to barter for items such as knives, beads, and blankets. These goods, and even other furs, were evaluated against one beaver pelt in prime condition, which was known as a "Made Beaver."

Example of HBC tokens used circa 1854
Example of HBC tokens used circa 1854 by Jimtrethewey (CC BY)

Fur Trade Tokens

Hudson's Bay Company posts that supported the fur trade eventually developed an entirely separate currency in the form of fur trade tokens. Trappers would bring pelts to exchange for merchandise and, if they were owed any change, it was provided in the form of trade tokens that could be used for later purchases. The earliest of these tokens were made of wood, ivory, or shell. Some districts later used brass or aluminum "Made Beaver" tokens.

Armed Clashes With Rivals
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Armed Clashes With Rivals

In the late 1700s, Hudson's Bay Company found itself facing stiff competition in the form of the North West Company. Over the course of four decades, the two organizations remained bitter rivals, even engaging in armed clashes during the early 19th century. The feud finally ceased with the help of the British government, which brought about a union of the two companies in 1821 under the name Hudson's Bay Company.

HBC in the U.S.
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HBC in the U.S.

As the years passed, Hudson's Bay Company expanded further and took over the fur trade of Oregon Country, or what is now Oregon, Washington, Idaho, British Columbia, and parts of Montana and Wyoming. In 1846, Oregon Country was divided between the United States and Great Britain, and the Hudson's Bay Company remained in control of the British portion of the region until 1858.

HBC Territories
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HBC Territories

In 1870, the company's remaining territories, which included nearly all of present-day Canada (with the exclusion of the Maritime Provinces and parts of Ontario and Quebec), were purchased by the Canadian government for 300,000 pounds. The deal gave HBC blocks of territory around its posts and title to one-twentieth of the lands in the habitable portion of western Canada.

Hudson's Bay Gardens
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Hudson's Bay Gardens

Wherever Hudson's Bay Company built its trading posts, European-style gardens soon followed, no matter how brutal the local climate. HBC gardens were used primarily to promote the health and well-being of staff and HBC customers in remote areas. There was an economic benefit, as well: Growing crops reduced the need for costly imports. Tools, seeds, fertilizer, and manuals were provided free of charge, and prizes were awarded for the best post gardens.

The Canadian "Xmas" map stamp of 1898
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Short-Lived Mail-Order Catalogues

Hudson's Bay Company produced its first mail-order catalogue in 1881, allowing people who weren't near its stores to purchase goods and have them delivered. However, the service was short-lived. The last customer-oriented catalogue was published in 1913. The company continued to produce an in-house fur-trade catalogue for years, however, providing its trading posts and depots with descriptions of products that could be ordered to stock their shelves.

pkdon50 Seguir Hudson's Bay Furs Are Incomparable (1922)
pkdon50 Seguir Hudson's Bay Furs Are Incomparable (1922) by pkdon50 (CC BY)

Changing Fashions and a Shift to Retail

As the 20th century neared, fashion styles shifted and the fur trade became less lucrative. However, westward expansion and the Gold Rush brought a new clientele to HBC: people who shopped with cash. The company's focus shifted to retail and it began transforming its trading posts into shops offering a wider variety of items.

West Georgia & Granville (190?)
West Georgia & Granville (190?) by Mike (CC BY-SA)

The Original Six

In 1912, as part of a modernization effort, the company created the original six Hudson's Bay Company department stores. They were located in Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver (shown here), Victoria, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg.

"The Perfect Tobacco in Perfect Condition" (Imperial Mixture) - Hudson's Bay Company (1921)
"The Perfect Tobacco in Perfect Condition" (Imperial Mixture) - Hudson's Bay Company (1921) by pkdon50 (CC BY)

Real Estate, Canned Salmon, and Liquor

Hudson's Bay Company has explored a variety of commercial pursuits over the years, including a wholesale business that offered liquor, canned salmon, coffee, tobacco, and other items. In addition, the company branched into real estate and sold homesteads to settlers, a line of business that would later take HBC into commercial real estate and development. Still other endeavors included shipping and natural resources such as oil and gas.

Hudson's Bay Company
Hudson's Bay Company by Can Pac Swire (CC BY-NC)

Incorporation in Canada

Until 1931, HBC was governed solely from England. Even after a Canadian committee was given exclusive authority in Canada, it was still responsible to the governor and committee in England. It wasn't until 1970, upon its 300th anniversary, that HBC finally became a Canadian corporation.

A ship baptized Nascopie is docked near a pillar of Jacques Cartier Bridge in Montreal, Quebec
A ship baptized Nascopie is docked near a pillar of Jacques Cartier Bridge in Montreal, Quebec by (None)

Tourists on HBC Supply Ships

In 1933, HBC's supply ship Nascopie, the workhorse of the company's eastern Arctic service, began taking tourists up north during supply runs. This offering became incredibly popular and continued for eight years. Travelers could book passage for all or part of the Arctic voyage, which lasted three full months. Fares ranged from $350 to $850 and included travel, accommodation, and all meals. In its inaugural season, the steamship carried about a dozen tourists from the United States and Germany.

Still Fur-Trading Till the '80s
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Still Fur-Trading Till the '80s

In the late 1970s, HBC acquired a number of other well-known stores including Zellers/Fields and Simpsons in 1978 and Robinson's in 1979. Even with these retail acquisitions, the company remained one of the largest fur-collecting and marketing agencies in the world well into the 20th century. It wasn't until 1987 that the company sold off its fur-trading business.

Lord & Taylor
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Everything From Lord & Taylor to Saks

The company's growth over the years has brought numerous well-known stores under its umbrella, including Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Saks Off 5th, a discount designer offshoot. It also owns Galeria Kaufhof, the leading department store group in Germany, and Belgium's only department store group, Galeria INNO. It's also a favorite of Americans who travel to Canada.

Blowout Anniversary Bashes
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Blowout Anniversary Bashes

To mark its 250th anniversary, in 1920, Hudson's Bay Company commissioned both a feature-length film and an official history book. HBC purchased Educational Films, a production company, and hired cinematographer H.M. Wyckoff to create a silent film titled "Romance of the Far Fur Country." For its 325th anniversary, in 1995, the company hosted a three-day concert event known as Big Sky. About 75,000 people attended performances by acts including Bryan Adams, Tom Cochrane, Celine Dion, David Foster, and Sarah McLachlan.

Found in East Van
Found in East Van by Mike (CC BY-SA)

The Beaver Magazine

HBC also recognized its 250th anniversary by creating The Beaver, its first corporate newsletter. Readers were invited to submit ideas for articles and gather local news from posts and stores for circulation. By 1934, The Beaver had grown into a "magazine of the North" and, to broaden its appeal to the general public, added articles about the history of the company and Canada. Eventually, publication was turned over to Canada's National History Society, and the magazine was later renamed Canada's History.

The Oldest Retail Corporation
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The Oldest Retail Corporation

Hudson's Bay Company continues to be active in real estate, merchandising, and natural resources. It's the oldest incorporated joint-stock merchandising company in the English-speaking world and employs about 65,000 employees globally.