GENERAL ARTICLES

World’s Oldest Company

The Hudson’s Bay Company, 275 years old this week, uniquely blends 17th and 20th centuries

CHARLES NICHOLS May 1 1945
GENERAL ARTICLES

World’s Oldest Company

The Hudson’s Bay Company, 275 years old this week, uniquely blends 17th and 20th centuries

CHARLES NICHOLS May 1 1945

World’s Oldest Company

CHARLES NICHOLS

THE HUDSON’S BAY COMPANY is still doing business today in the northern Canadian wilderness where it set up shop in 1670.

But the original Governor and Company, who got a charter from Charles II on May 2, 1670, to open the first chain stores in the new land, wouldn’t recognize the old firm now. In the 275 years since it opened its trading fort gates to Indian trappers with beaver pelts to barter, this oldest company in the world has grown into the most incredible company in the world.

At Rupert’s House, where the company’s traders started business on the lower reaches of James Bay, the H.B.C. still takes in fur pelts from Indian trappers and pays out blankets and guns and dog collars and such. It does business in much the same way at close to 200 other posts scattered across the breadth of northern Canada.

And, at the same time, it:

Operates six large, modern department stores from

Winnipeg to Victoria and eight more modest retail stores;

Sends schooners, stern-wheelers, the famous Arctic steamship Nascopie, canoe brigades, and dog teams over a network of water and land routes to the far north and far, far north;

Keeps communications through the north with 100 two-way radio stations;

Sells farming and oil land across the fertile belt of the western prairies;

Distributes for cash its best-known trade goods to people who can’t barter fur pelts for them but still want them;

And in the far north sells Victory Bonds, collects for the Red Cross and pays out baby bonuses to Eskimos, in the form of snow knives and other things Eskimos need, on behalf of His Majesty.

The Hudson’s Bay Company is ancient tradition overlaid with chromium and plastics. It is sombre dignity mixed with some of the impudence of modern merchandising methods. It is an anachronism that has raced for 275 years with progress and has come out at least even and probably a little ahead.

It is a growth that has kept putting out. new shoots when its interests drew it toward new Canadian fields of activity, yet the trunk has remained maturing and solid under a screen of new and dazzling foliage.

The trunk that took root in 1670 at the mouth of the Rupert River in James Bay is represented by the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson’s Bay. In the company board room in Beaver House, the headquarters in London that has survived the burning of successive blitzes that ripped surrounding buildings, the Governor and Company still meet and decide the matters of high policy concerning their sprawling enterprise. That is the traditional core of the company, conscious of its heritage, its present trading earnings of about $8 millions a year, and its future.

But the working, nérve centre of the company is 4,000 miles away, encased in an unpretentious red-brick building among freight sheds and carbarns of Winnipeg’s downtown south side. Here, in Hudson’s Bay House, the ancient atmosphere of the Company and Governors is generously mixed with the tempo of today.

The digits 1670 are as important, to the H.B.C. as 1945 to an income tax office. Wherever the name Hudson’s Bay Company appears in old English lettering around the building, the line, “Incorporated 2nd May, 1670,” appears right underneath.

Everything is dated from 1670. When a burlapswathed bundle of trade goods, looking like a grotesque mummy, is shipped out to one of the northern trading posts, the address carries the figures 275, just as a business letter carries 1945. That’s the trading year, H.B.C. men explain—275 years since the birth of the company’s fur trade.

Follow a long calendar-lined corridor in the House, climb a flight of stairs and you come to a rotunda where highly polished floors, lime-green walls and round, straight pillars compose dignified modernity. In one corner is an unmarked mahogany door that leads to the administering brain of the whole vast busine.ss. This is the board room of the Canadian Committee of the Governor and Company.

Every Thursday morning, 52 weeks a year, six of the eight members of the committee under Chairman C. S. Riley meet in this broadloom-carpeted room around their long mahogany table. Here as well tradition intrudes, like the portrait of a revered ancestor, over the deliberations of a later generation. Above the glassed-in bookcases, housing bound volumes of “The Beaver.” the house organ, is a finely polished model of The Nonsuch, the tiny two-masted ketch which brought the first travellersof the Hudson’s Bay Company to Rupert’s House. On an opposite wall members of the Committee can see a map of Canada, fashioned in colored linoleum, on which are plotted the 200 trading stations from the Arctic to Toronto. Contrast it with the centuries-old yellow parchment maps outside the door; it’s like putting a streamlined automobile beside a Stanley steamer, or the white stone, seven-story retail “Bay” store in Winnipeg against the fragments of the first fort that stand a few hundred yards from the present-day House.

Where Centuries Meet

OFFICES, factory rooms, storerooms and packing floors surround the board room. Open a doorway and you come face to face with some strange enterprise, always marked by the intermingling of today and two centuries ago.

Biggest is the room where trade goods are packed, the shipping room for the senior service—the fur trade. On a modified assembly line, dog bells and layettes, ammunition and perfume, fur traps and beads are assembled for journeys north where they will stock the H.B.C. posts, provision the post managers and traders,

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The Hudson’s Bay Company, 275 years old this week, uniquely blends 17th and 20th centuries

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and eventually purchase skins for somebody’s fur coat in Toronto, New York or London.

In this room, the other day, men in smocks and women in slack suits were packing trade goods for North Vermilion, a post below Great Slave Lake in northern Alberta. Trappers from the Slave Lake country will trade their pelts for this incongruous package of goods, assembled on the basis of the natives’ demand for special commodities:

Bale of girls’ skirts

Carton of girls’ bloomers, 10-year-old size

Twelve rattles of colored, figured celluloid

Small bale of infants’ pants, blue and pink

Four boxes of Vanta baby vests (which urban shoppers would give almost anything but a mink coat for)

Red berets like paratroops wear

Dozens of incredibly heavy long men’s socks

Woollen baby bonnets

This isn’t necessarily representative. Some of the posts seem to go in for pomades and perfumes; others, bullets and beads.

Demand by the natives for modern wearing apparel is something recent as time is measured in the H.B.C. Only 10 years ago the first shipment of lingerie was sent north up the Mackenzie River to the Eskimos at Aklavik, on the rim of the Arctic Ocean.

The company’s district manager had misgivings about the shipments. He thought such flimsy garments would be shunned by the fur-clad maidens and matrons of the north. The merchandise manager thought they would sell, maintaining that Mrs. O’Grady and the Eskimo’s lady were sisters under their sealskins.

The merchandise manager was right; the shipment had been all snapped up an hour after it was put on the tradingpost shelves. The Eskimo women thought the scan ties were very pretty, too pretty to cover up with parkas and sealskins. They wore them on top of their usual clothes.

Now that the novelty has worn off the Eskimos don’t buy them so avidly. But they still buy them—and wear them underneath.

There are certain staples that trappers have demanded since 1670— like tobacco and blankets and tea and coffee —which urban people want too, enough to pay the equivalent of a beaver pelt in currency of the realm to get. This urban demand has caused widespread sale of such articles as H.B.C. point blankets, H.B.C. whisky and brands of tea, coffee and tobacco with special trade names.

The point blankets are as much at home on the back of an Indian trapper as on the surface of a box-spring mattress in a city home. They get their trade name from the fact that each blanket, made of fine wool woven in England, bore two or three and a half or four little stripes (or points) in one corner. Indian trappers could see at a glance how much blanket they were getting in receipt for their pelts without worrying too much about square feet and inches. The blanket cost one beaver pelt for each point.

War Brings Problems

War gave the H.B.C. more to do, less to do it with. Hudson’s Bay radio stations became part of the network of reporting points across the Arctic and sub-Arctic that plotted weather trends for the Dominion meteorological bureau and the Allied high command.

Indian and Eskimo trappers, working the far Northwest Territories and Labrador, became plane spotters and ship spotters, reporting unexpected aircraft and watercraft that crossed their horizons to H.B.C. wireless posts.

If any Nazi long-range aircraft had tried to cross the unsettled Canadian north in the first years of the war to reconnoitre or bomb, the chances are that it would have been spotted by some sharp-eyed native and reported to a “Bay” post. About 50 “Bay” post managers in the Arctic were members of the Aircraft Detection Corps, and they had an army of 2,000 Eskimos serving as their “eyes.” Company men consider the members of this informal army something close to human radar. Whether any enemy incursions were attempted in this theatre can’t be told until after the war. But it is known that the spotters were good.

There was the time when the new Hudson’s Bay Company Diesel transport ship was sailing into Hudson Strait in August of 1940—about the period when North Americans were looking anxiously at the unprotected northern approaches to their cities. The ship tied up one night in what appeared to be an uninhabited cove in the Strait. When the weather cleared the next day she sailed on 50 miles to a company post. It was no surprise visit to the post staff; native spotters had reported in detail all the movements of the unfamiliar ship since the night before.

A voyage in the same area by another company ship, which had been painted battleship color, kept radios through the north humming. Every time an Eskimo spotter saw the warlike craft he would dash for the nearest company post and have a description of it flashed to headquarters.

When it was decided that the Japs would have to be knocked from their lodgments in Alaska the Hudson’s Bay was called in ás an ally by the United States War Department. The U. S. wanted to build up a northern source of gasoline and oil at Norman Wells— site of the Canol project—and to do it they had to move a heavy cargo of materials over river routes into the Mackenzie country.

The Hudson’s Bay knew the river arteries like a milk-cart horse knows its neighborhood streets. It was the route that carried furs out of the rich Mackenzie trapping region.

On May 27, 1942, the company was told by the U. S. War Department that it was necessary to move 30.000 tons of freight from Waterways, the railhead north of Edmonton, to Norman Wells. The company was asked to use its mixed fleet of stern-wheelers, Diesel tugs and barges. Just as important, it was to contribute the expert guidance of its pilots to guide the war cargoes up . the tricky waters of the Athabaska, Slave and Mackenzie Rivers to their destinations.

By the close of navigation the Bay ships had pushed barges loaded with 6,000 tons of material to Norman Wells. Another 15,000 tons had been taken to intermediate bases on the waterways. The capacity of river carriers has been multiplied since then. The U. S. Army brought in metal barges and other carriers. But in that year the peace of mind and perhaps the survival of the west coast was seemingly at stake in the race to set up Canol, and the incongruous river fleet of the Hudson’s Bay gave it a swift start.

On other waters the versatile icebreaker Nascopie was doing a war job, too.

The gun mounted on the company’s flagship hasn’t been brought into use in this second great war; but it has been kept ready. The Nascopie remembers that a U-boat of the Imperial German fleet was smashed by that stern gun in 1917. It was when the Nascopie was returning to Canada after delivering a cargo of munitions at Archangel in Russia. The U-boat missed the little icebreaker with two torpedo salvoes before Nascopie scored a direct hit on the sub’s conning tower. In this war the U-boats haven’t bothered the Nascopie; but the crew is keeping its fingers crossed.

During the summer, as in peacetime, she makes her grand tour of Çhe eastern Arctic and Hudson Bay, carrying supplies to outlying posts and depots.

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In the winter she does whatever war jobs are needed. Twice she has gone to Ivigtut in Greenland to pick up cryolite and carry it back to Canada to help process aluminum. She has also taken cargoes between Halifax and United States ports and down to the West Indies.

Recruits Dwindle

While the war jobs increased, recruits lor the company’s northern services were channelled into the armed services. Before 1940, young, rugged youths with high l.Q.’s were trained in a school in Hudson’s Bay House for jobs as post hands. From company experts they learned how to tell a good pelt from a bad one, how to cook, look after injured or sick persons, keep books and generally carry more than a smattering of civilization to civiliza Lion’s outposts. Since 1940, however the youth of the country of the adventurous strain drawn to the H.B.C. has been enlisting elsewhere.

But the H.B.C., which has survived eight major wars—not to mention a few fought by its own men with competitive companies in pioneering days is still keeping its trading school ready for the postwar years.

Although the fur trade is still the senior service and still pays into the company coffers a fair though undisclosed part of its $8 millions a year gross, it has been surpassed by the company’s string of great modern department stores as an employer of personnel and source of revenue. But the first love is still a strong one and still a productive one.

Even in peacetime fur trading Isn’t what it used to be. No longer does a post manager disappear into the wilderness with his thoughts and his trade goods, drawing his supplies and turning in his furs as in olden times. Keeping pace with enlightened business administration, the trader and his staff are looked after by a staff of experts at Hudson’s Bay House.

The post manager has samples of the soil around his post analyzed to show what kind of garden he can grow. The nutriments that can’t be supplied by his garden and the canned supplies from the south are made up in vitamin pills, custom-built for H.B.C. trade personnel.

Books are carefully selected for the post libraries. (“Gone With the Wind,” long and meaty, wouldn’t do. Post staffs like their reading short and light.) And, since the post manager now often takes his wife along with him these days, the health and education of his children are looked after by the company.

In turn the post manager has to be something of a guardian to the population with which he lives. He has to be their doctor, counsellor and often their legal representative. In a sense, too, he is their liaison with the Crown as he serves the Government in such matters as sale of Victory Bonds and distribution of baby bonuses in kind.

Because of this arm of the H.B.C. there Is always an inclination to let the romance of the company’s history obscure the reality of its present. Hudson’s Bay people don’t. With such a spread-out organization they have conditioned themselves to look all ways at once; with such a history they have conditioned themselves to look backward and forward at the same time.

As for the next 275 years, General Manager Philip Alfred Chester looks ahead to a future as broad and as promising as Canada’s own. The company began with Canada, grew with Canada. The partnership between country and company has been good; H.B.C. intends to keep it working.