Simpson's and its rival Eaton's are both defunct now, but there was a time when the two department chains anchored every major mall in towns across Canada. Eaton's was a family owned and managed firm until it went public in 1998, the year before it went bankrupt with Sears Canada subsequently acquiring its assets. Simpson's was a different story, although it met a similar end when Simpsons - the apostrophe had been dropped in 1972 to show solidarity with Québécois aspirations - was bought by the Hudson's Bay Company in 1978.
Robert Simpson, a Scottish-born merchant, had opened a dry goods store bearing his name in Newmarket, Ontario in 1858 and moved his family and his enterprise to Toronto in 1872. When he died suddenly in December, 1897, his widow sold the store to a syndicate formed by Joseph Flavelle, Harris Henry Fudger and Alfred Ernest Ames.
Unlike Eaton's, Simpson's quickly ceased to be a family-owned firm, although its glory years were associated with the Burton family, beginning with Charles Luther Burton, who worked as a bookkeeper for Fudger at his Fancy Goods Company, and gradually become a significant player there and in The Robert Simpson Company. In 1929, just before the stock market crash, Burton, with a group of investors, bought out Flavelle's shares and became president of the company. He managed it so well, especially its catalogue and mail-order business in a still largely rural country, that Simpson's survived the Depression handily.
C.L. Burton was succeeded by his eldest son, Edgar Gordon Burton, in 1948. He expanded the number of Simpson's stores and forged a profitable relationship with the Chicago-based Sears Roebuck Company in 1952, creating the Simpsons Sears catalogue operation and a series of Simpson's Sears stores across the country.
Mary Alice Burton, who was born in Toronto on May 5, 1928, was the eldest of E.G. Burton's four children. She grew up in a comfortable but not lavish household. When she was nine, she contracted rheumatic fever and was forced, according to the custom of the time, to spend more than a year in bed. Because her muscles had atrophied, she had to learn to walk again, which may explain her lifelong dislike of anything athletic and her equally pronounced determination. Instead of running and jumping, says her husband Alexander "Sandy" Stuart, she exercised her intellectual muscle by reading voraciously.
An excellent student, she went to Branksome Hall, a private girls' school, before enrolling in English language and literature at University College at the U of T. She graduated with the gold medal on June 4, 1949, the same day she married Stuart, a war veteran and a chemical engineer. They had met in the spring of 1946 in Eaton's of all places. Mary Alice and her mother Clayton (nee Callaway) Burton, a Georgia native who had met her husband after her family sent her north to attend the University of Toronto, were having lunch there. It was the only time in their lives that they ever set foot in the rival store, according to an oft-told family tale. Across the room, Mrs. Burton spotted Isobel Stuart, a member of her book club, and her attractive 20ish son. "I don't want to meet him," Mary Alice hissed to her mother. After a brief squabble, she relented. "All right, I'll meet him, but I won't marry him."
That was the beginning of a love affair and a partnership that lasted more than 60 years. He was an internationalist, an entrepreneur, and a principal in The Electrolyser Corporation (later Stuart Energy Systems, which subsequently merged with Hydrogenics), a firm he formed with his father to build hydrogen gas generating plants and fuelling stations as an alternative to carbon fuels.
She was a dedicated mother and homemaker with energy to burn in an era when succeeding her father's generation at Simpson's was not an option in her parents' minds, although it was in hers, according to her husband. "I think she would have been a great success," at Simpson's, he says. A consummate manager, she loved "rising to a challenge and the intensity of her rising to the challenge, inspired others." Stuart thinks his wife was intuitive like her father, seeing the solution and then working out how to get there, compared to his more scientific approach of working slowly through a problem to a conclusion.