Hudson’s Bay Compay: Paying homage to two of the oldest retailers in the United States and Canada: Part Two–Hudson’s Bay Company.

November 15, 2020

In Part One of this two-part series, we took a deep dive into the history of Brooks Brothers, the oldest store in the United States. In Part Two, we’ll go on a Canadian adventure into the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), which is not just the oldest store in Canada, but in the English-speaking world.

 Hudson’s Bay Co. (HBC) is a Canadian retail business group that started way back in 1670 as a fur trading business. Today, HBC owns and operates 89 retail stores in Canada and the United States, including
Saks Fifth Avenue and
Saks Off 5th.

Founded in 1670, HBC is the oldest company in North America and, in fact, in the English-speaking world. Today, HBC is more than just one store, it’s a conglomerate of more than 250 stores that range from luxury department stores, such as
Saks Fifth Avenue, to off-price fashion outlets. With about 30,000 employees around the world, we Canadians would say, “that’s a bit of all right, eh?”

Hudson’s Bay’s 89 Canada Store Locations

The History of HBC
In the 1660s, two French traders, Radisson and Groseilliers learned from the Cree tribe that the country north and west of Lake Superior was rich in furs and that there was a “frozen sea” still further north.

Grosseiliers and Radisson

They believed the “frozen sea” was Hudson Bay, so they looked for French backing to set up a trading post on it to reduce the cost of moving furs overland.

With great determination to make their dream a reality, Radisson and Groseilliers met with a group of businessmen in Boston, Massachusetts, to seek financing for their venture. With backing from the Bostonians, Radisson and Groseilliers set out on their voyage in 1663, but the mission failed when their ship ran into large pieces of floating ice (called pack ice) in the Hudson Strait.

In 1668 an English expedition acquired two ships, the Nonsuch and the Eaglet, to explore possible trade into Hudson Bay. Groseilliers sailed on the Nonsuch and Radisson on the Eaglet. On June 5, 1668, both ships left port at Deptford, England, but the Eaglet was forced to turn back off the coast of Ireland.

The Nonsuch continued to James Bay located at the southern tip of Hudson Bay, where its explorers founded, in 1668, the first fort on Hudson Bay at the mouth of the Rupert River. They called it Charles Fort.  

On May 2, 1670, King Charles II of England granted a monopoly to the Governor and Company of Adventurers Trading into Hudson’s Bay.

On May 2, 1670, King Charles II of England, granted the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson’s Bay a monopoly over the region drained by all rivers and streams flowing into Hudson Bay in northern Canada. The area was named Rupert’s Land after Prince Rupert, the first governor of the company.

The drainage basin of Hudson Bay comprises over one-third of modern-day Canada, constituting 1.5 million square miles (3.9×106 km2), and stretches into the present-day north-central United States. Rupert’s Land would eventually become Canada’s largest land “purchase” in the 19th century.

Today, the Hudson’s Bay Company has 89 stores across Canada and 250 stores in its conglomerate, including Saks Fifth Avenue and Sasks Off Fifth in the United States.

The tale goes on and on, but to make a very long story short, the HBC established six posts between 1668 and 1717: Rupert HouseMoose Factory and Fort Albany on James Bay; and on the western shore of Hudson Bay proper: Fort SevernYork Factory and Fort Churchill.

Hudson’s Bay Company’s first inland trading post, Cumberland House, was established by Samuel Hearne in 1774 in Saskatchewan.

The Hudson’s Bay Company was founded by Radisson and Groseilliers who had established trading routes that led to its creation.

HBC had been a British company since its founding in 1670 and it wasn’t until 1970, during its 300th anniversary year, that HBC became a Canadian corporation.
But, the truth is, we Canadians
have always thought of it as our own.

Hudson’s Bay Company Trading Post in the 1800s

About Today’s HBC
Hudson’s Bay is one of Canada’s most-loved department stores, offering quality products, excellent service, designer clothing and popular fashions for the home. The company also offers online shopping with its website.

The signature stripes are a registered trademark of
Hudson’s Bay Company.

In 1972, HBC acquired the Shop-Rite chain of catalogue stores, but closed them in 1982 because of declining sales. 

The company also acquired Freimans department store on Rideau Street in Ottawa in 1973 and converted it to The Bay. The store occupies 31,100 square metres (335,000 sq ft) and is the smallest flagship that remains in a landmark building.

In 1978, HBC acquired Zellers and Simpson’s department stores, converting them both to Bay stores.

HBC is sold
On July 16, 2008, it was announced that Hudson’s Bay Company had been purchased by the US firm NRDC Equity Partners, which owned Lord & Taylor and Fortunoff.

Beginning in October 2012, The Bay was renamed to Hudson’s Bay Company, alongside its initial public offering.

Hudson’s Bay stores were temporarily closed for varying periods during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. During this period, all stores, schools, restaurants, movie theaters, libraries, churches and offices were closed. All entertainment was cancelled, including major sports, concerts, theater and ballet. Online shopping reached new heights, children did their studies virtually and parents worked from home. Hudson’s Bay survived the crisis, unlike many smaller businesses that were forced to close permanently due to income loss. The federal and provincial governments provided financial aid to businesses, families and individuals to help them through this unprecedented crisis. As I write this article, the pandemic is still in full swing and we do not yet have a vaccination.

Gloria Sauvé
Communications and Marketing

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