Chicago Tribune, February 10, 1952
ONE HUNDRED YEARS ago Chicago’s liveliest lane of retail shopping was Lake street. Its successor, State street, was then merely the shabby eastern fringe of the business district, not much more than the fag end of a country road, regarded by the citizens as too close to the lake for comfort.
Eighty thousand Chicagoans of 1852, rich and poor, were proud and boastful for good reasons. Their swiftly growing city offered manifold opportunities for earning a living that could easily become a fortune. The town stimulated ambition and energy; moreover, it was pleasing to the eye. Its downtown had architectural merit, with level skylines of four- and five-story buildings that suggested vistas in Paris.
Look at Lake street now. Then consider State street as it has been for generations.
Two men caused that transformation, which was brought about by a shift in the current of retail buy- ing and selling. The stream of natives with pocket books had been moving east and west along Lake street. It suddenly swung around a corner to flow north and south along State street.
A century ago, one of these men was an 18-year-old clerk in a dry goods store in Conway, Mass. His name, Marshall Field, has become symbolical of State street, downtown. The other man was a dry goods merchant, a newcomer to Lake street and a keen appraiser of real estate opportunities: Potter Palmer, aged 36.
Palmer’s shop on the south side of Lake street between Clark and La Salle was the root which, when transplanted by his future partner, Field, produced the impressive State street establishment of com- merce that is now celebrating .
“Field’s,” the colloquial name for ihe store, is a household word in Chicago; it has been familiar in American speech for generations. It is an emporium of international fame for the profusion and quality of its goods, the graciousness of its atmosphere, the courtesy of its service. if Chicago were to claim the possession of world-wide marvels in classical style, this magnificent modern bazar, more than a square block in land area with floor space of 72 acres, should be listed among its Seven Wonders.
The first score of years, 1852-1871, the story of the transplanted root that grew richly on State street:
Nov. 5, 1852: Potter Palmer meets his customers in the dry goods store he has just opened on Lake street to catch the Thanksgiving and Christmas trade. He shakes hands with the editor of the Democratic Press, which later prints this item:
We notice this morning the splendid block on the south side of Lake street. It is composed of six stores, uniformly built. The dry goods store of Potter Palmer will be found at No. 137. His goods are fresh from eastern markets, and appear very well.
The store prospers, and Palmer enjoys life as an eligible but evasive bachelor and a jaunty man about town. He is always saying that Chicago needs a big- ger and fancier hotel and a first-class race track.
Late autumn, 1856: Marshall Field, aged 22, handsome, quiet, with ice-blue eyes, arrives in Chicago. He has come from the east with a determination to rise in the dry goods business. He inspects various stores and admires Palmer’s, but he is a wholesaler at heart and by training. He gets a job with the largest wholesale dry goods firm in Chicago, Cooley, Wadsworth & Co., 205 South Water at. His salary for his first year will be $400. He will save half of it by sleeping in the store and not buying new clothes. His working hours, on his own decision, will be 18 a day.
1857: A financial panic sweeps the middle west. Field has foreseen it and warned his employers. The firm rides out the storm and takes a new name, Cooley, Farwell & Co. Field’s salary is increased.
1860: Field buys on credit a junior partnership in Cooley. Farwell & Co.
Chicago is a hospitable city and its social life is spirited. But young Field does not like parties. He is of reserved manner, and merriment is never among his moods. Moreover, he is thrifty and social diversions mean spending money that should be saved. But one day, at a friend’s, he accepts an invitation to a home where he meets Nannie Douglas Scott, aged 23, a visitor from Ohio. He is shy and finds little to say, but she draws him out of his shell. So he seeks opportunities to meet her again. When the end of her stay in Chicago approaches, he is deeply in love with her, but she is not aware of it.
He goes to the railroad station to see her off. When the train starts, he surprises himself by an impulsive act; he jumps aboard the train. Nannie is embarrassed by a public proposal of marriage, uttered within hearing of other passengers. Nevertheless, she listens to his declaration with joy as well as confusion, and accepts his offer. Then Field jumps off at the train’s first stop and goes back to work.
The wedding in Ohio is fashionable, for Nannie’s father is a well-to-do ironmaster. Field establishes his bride at a fashionable address, 306 Michigan av.
1861: The drums of the Civil war are stirring men to arms. Recruiting rallies are held in Chicago almost every night; the names of Field and Palmer are often found in the handbills as vice chairmen of the meetings. Field is now a full partner in Cooley, Farwell & Co., by purchase. So is his office associate and closest friend, Levi Z. Leiter.
From Left: Marshall Field, Levi A. Leiter, Potter Palmer
Business booms in the war years. Field and Leiter are piling up money from the profits of their concern and planning to go into business for themselves as a team. In 1865 they approach Palmer with an offer to buy into his store, since he wants to withdraw from active duties in merchandising. Their bid is accepted, and the store on Lake street, “well spoken of by its fair visitors,” says The Chicago Tribune, hangs out a new sign: Field. Palmer, and Leiter. The new firm’s capitalization is $600,000.
1867: Palmer sells his share in the store to Field and LeIter, and his name drops off the sign. He starts to develop State street real estate by building the handsomest business structure in town on a large lot at Washington street. Field and Leiter rent the entire premises.
Oct. 12 1868: The “grand opening” of Field and Letter’s new store on the old country road once called Hubbard’s trail is celebrated in high style. “Wealth, beauty, and assemble,” says a Tribune headline. The reporter of the occasion testifies in print:
One would have thought that the opening waM an adjourned meeting of the Charity Ball. .. A dry goods store in a marble palace… Enough to turn almost any female head .. Brilliantly lighted from garret to basement, It stood out in bold relief among the mere shanties, comparatively speaking, which surrounded it.
Springtime, 1871: The prettiest belle of the year comes to Fields to buy the latest from Paris. She is Miss Bertha Honoré, born and bred in Kentucky. She meets the suave, dignified, aristocratic senior partner in the firm, who shows her the sights along the aisles, and then introduces her to his former partner and present landlord, Mr Palmer, who has appeared on the scene by chance.
This friendly and congenial bachelor, now regarded as ineligible because of unwillingness, is 45, hale and hearty, but twice Miss Honoré age or more. He renders to her charm, her , her voice, at first sight and hearing. Presently Miss Honoré is seeing a good deal of Mr. Palmer, and it isn’t long before she say a lifetime’s ” Yes.” Thus Chlcago acquires Mrs. Potter Palmer, later to be called “Queen Bertha.” This romance is No. 1 on the list of millions of courtships and marriages which Fleld’s store has influenced in one way or another.
Oct. 8-9, 1871: Chicago is burning. Thru the first night Field and Leiter, with employes and workmen hastily hired, fight to protect the building and save their goods They succeed in removing a large portion of their stock; they arrange for its hauling to safety farther south. Field stays on the premises until the marble palace begins to smoke; he is the last man out. Soon after he withdraws, an interior explosion shatters the wails. The ruin is total.
In the heap of hot debris and rubble on the morning of Oct. 11, a stake is planted. It bears a placard with a hand-lettered message:
Cash boys and girls will be paid what is due them Monday, 9 a. m., Oct. 16, at 60 Calumet av.
(Signed) Field, Lelter & Co.
A street railway car barn at State and 20th streets is empty; it in rented by Field as a storehouse, and is soon converted into a store. Six weeks after the great fire, this improvised place of business is crowded with customers, eager for household goods and wearing apparel. Field and Leiter are solvent, and their firm is doing a surprising business.
The second score of years, 1872-1891, telling how palaces of trade rose from the ashes of several fires:
Winter of 1872: Chicago’s merchants and real estate men are wondering, as they clear away the wreckage after the great fre, where Marshall Field will rebuild his new stow, because the tde. of shop- pers have a habit of flowing toward his site. They do not have long to wait for an answer, and they are surprised Field takes his buiness out of the car barn at State and 20th to the southeast corner of Madison and Market streets, on the western edge of downtown and close to the river’s bank.
His competitors want to know why he has migrated so far away from the choice lots they own or are hoping to buy. The answer is simple and logical: Field sees that the north side residential district has been devastated and the near south side’s has been damaged. He wants to do business at the main portal to the west side, where more than one-half of the population have homes the fire has not touched.
April 25, 1872: The second “grand opening’ of Field, Leiter & Co. is a notable success. The building by the river is a makeshift affair, but it has five floors and a basement, richly stocked. For the carriage trade, it offers dresses from Paris. For street car riders, It has imported muslins and for home dressmaking.
A Tribune reporter found on the fourth floor “the largest and most comprehensive assortment of Yankee nations in the Union.” There are 1,000 employes on the payroll. All this in the seventh month after most of Chicago had gone up in smoke! Verily, the phoenix has arisen from the flames and ashes.
The store stays there for almost five years. Its auditing department does not worry during the severe panic of 1873.
1876: Field commissions Richard Morris Hunt, leader of the Parvenu or Azewrian millionaire style of architecture, to design and build for him a mansion at 1905 Prairie av. “But no frills,” he says to Hunt He thinks that the Pullman mansion a block away is too blatant. Nevertheless, the big house coats $2,000,000. It has the first complete electric light installation in Chicago.
1877: Field’s store returns to its old site on State street, where a handsome new building is waiting for it. It happened this way: Shortly after the great fire, Palmer, pressed for funds and finding Field unwilling to make a bid, sold the site to the Singer company. This firm erected a building but could not find a tenant, because State street merchandising had slumped. Field bided his time; When the Singer company offered him a satisfactory lease, he accepted it. After the moving, he began to import gowns designed by Worth of Paris, famous dressmaker for the wives of European aristocrats.
Nov. 14, 1877: Fire returns to Field’s—a sudden and vicious night visit. The new five-story building in Italian renaissance style of architecture is burned out, and the store loses $50,000 in merchandise. Field and Leiter collect their insurance and move their business on Nov. 27 into the Exposition building on the lake front, a huge and gloomy structure sprawling along the east side of Michigan avenue where the Art institute will rise in the 1890’s.
Fields in elegant eighties.
Singer Building II (1878-1905)
1878: On March 11, Field, Leiter & Co.Field’s appears on Wabash avenue, between Madison and Monroe, and stays there a year. The Singer company offers to sell to Field, Leiter & Co. the ruins of the burned building and also the corner lot beside it. Field considers and delay hoping toget a lower offer, but he misses his trick. The Singer company erects a new building and leases it to Carson, Pirie & Co., also a department store concern. “This wil not do,” says Field, gnawing his mustache in vexation, so he buys the building for $750.000 with the understanding that the Carson, Pirie & Co. lease will be canceled.
April 28, 1879: The third “grand opening” for Field’s. The attendance is large and handsome. The Tribune says:
The general expression upon meeting an ac- quaintance connected with the store, was ‘Home again, eh?’ accompanied by congratulations…. The first two floors of the establishment were much the same, but the third floor was occupied entirely by carpets and upholstery; the fourth floor was a workshop for these items; on the fifth floor there were 300 women employed in making dresses; while the sixth floor was utilized as a cloak fur, and lace factory.
1881: Mr. Field says abruptly to Mr. Letter, his partner for 16 years:
Levi, I’ve concluded that it is time we part.
(For many years they had argued and bickered over details of management Leiter’s airs as a merchant prince had annoyed his partner and the departmental heads.)
To ease the blow, Field continues quietly:
Here is my proposition: I will name a figure that will cover a half interest, and at which either of us may buy or sell. I will give you first choice—to buy or to sell.
The figure Field mentions seems low to Leiter. He says he will buy, but asks time to consider. Field gives him 24 hours. Leter learns that none of the high-ranking executives will stay with the store if Field leaves it. The next day he announces that he will not buy, whereupon Fields him to their bargain: He has to sell at a figure he thinks too low.
So, at long last, in 1881 the business becomes Marshall Field & Co. Its chief, aged 47. is one of the richest men in the nation, but this is the first time that his complete name appears without competition partners on letterheads and all other announcements. The firm is deeply engaged in the wholesale dry goods trade and allied enterprises, but Field’s, the great store in the heart of Chicago remains the thing that capture. public interest.
1887: The company contributes to Chiago architecture a block-square edifice (Adams, Quincy. Franklin, Fifth avenue), designed by H. H. Richardson so for use by its wholesale department.
1888: Expansion of the store on State street into two five-story buildings adjoining it an the north.
April 14, 1890: The store sets an example for competitors and establishes a tradition in Chicago’s downtown social life by opening a tearoom on its third floor. This refectory has 15 tables and serves 56 people on its first day.
1891: Harry Gordon Selfridge, manager of the store since 1887, always bouncing with new ideas, begins to plan Field’s contribution to the World’s Columblan exposition, popularly called the World’s Fair.
Part of Field’s delivery wagon fleet in 1897. The store relied on delivery boys in 1868, acquired first delivery wagons in 1873.
The third score of years, 1892-1911, telling how the Big Store grew and its founder died:
1892: The World’s Fair spirit hovers over the erstwhile Marble Palace, now nicknamed the Big Store. The exposition has been postponed until 1893 and Gordon Selfridge doubles his orders for banners, window decorations, and emblems depicting Queen Isabella’s farewell to Christopher Columbus in 1492. Harlow N. Higginbotham, a veteran partner in the firm, is elected president of the exposition. Mrs. Potter Palmer becomes president of its board of lady managers. Marshall Field is the largest purchaser of the World’s Fair stock issue.
1893: The decorations of the store for the opening of the Columbian exposition are astonishing. The picturesque edifice billows with bunting: The premises are expanded into the nine-story building at Washington and Wabash, called the Annex.
1897, Oct. 12: The elevated railroads, north, south. and west sides, are linked together by the downtown Loop; thus Chicago’s central business district gets a nickname. Marshall Field & Co. and its State street neighbors are rejoicing over the facilities that cause an increased swarming of their customers.
1898: Field’s begins to streamline its Victorian style of architecture. The mansard roof of the 1873 building is removed and three new stories are added. At the University of Chicago. athletic team are playing on a piece of green real estate called Marshall Field in honor of its donor. The professors sniff at this punning name as an invention of students and newspaper reporters.
Marshall Field and Company Jewelry Department Catalogue 1894.
1902: The middle and north structures of the store along State street are replaced with up-to-date architecture. The massive pillars flanking the main State street entrance are the tallest cut-stone monoliths west of the ruins of Karnak, built by the Pharaohs of Egypt.
1904: Seltridge, manager of the store and inventor of the bargain basement method of seling goods, wants to change the firmes name to. Field, Selfridge & Co. Therefore he is told that his partnership will terminate at once. He will buy Schlesinger and Mayer’s store at State and Madison streets, operate it as Selfridge’s for two years sell, it to Cason-Pirie, and then establish Seifridge & Co. in London.
1905, Sept. 5: Mr. Field, a widower sInce 1896, marries Delia Spencer Caton, widow, his Prairie avenue neighbor for years. He is 70, but almost youthful She is about 50. Old friends at the ceremony say that they have never seen him so happy. At the wedding breakfast he gives the bride diamonds and pearls set in many sumptuous pieces of jewelry.
Chicago Daily News cartoonist, Luther D. Bradley’s tribute to Marshall Field after his death.
Published 19 January 1906
1906, Jan. 16: Marshal Field dies in New York six weeks after his son s death. four months after his happy marriage. His illness was pneumonia, caused by exposure during a round of winter galf at Wheaton. On New Year’s day. At 3 p. m. a gong rings in the Big Store. Clerks pull down the shades, turn out the Ughts, and go home. The store is closed for three days of mourning. On the day of the funeral 900 stores and business offices in Chicago will be closed.
Over the smoldering ruins of their store, destroyed in the fire of 1871, Field, Leiter & Co. posted this notice to their workers.
Employes of the shoe department in 1895, posing under the “Edison bulbs” which were used extensively to light the store at this time.
1907: John G. Shedd, new president of the company. mellow in experience, follows the founder’s policy:
Honesty always, courtesy always, readiness to oblige the customer’s wishes, always. Keep the store as a handsome spectacle for the shopping crowds. Never place price labels in window displays Never “trade down,” i. e., seek sales by cheap and shoddy goods. Quality always, in goods, and in manner
The store lacks a formal motto, for the saying often used to express its policy, “The customer Is always right,” is not official. But there are two words in heraldic French that would serve for a motto and say everything: Mercerie oblige.
1907: A new building repl!aces the old portion of the State street front from the main portal to Washington street.
Marshall Field and Company in 1908.
1911: The Field Museum of Natural History in Jackson park, housed in the Fine Arts building of the World’s Fair, recalls its founder s civic generosity: A donation of $1,000,000 in 1893 and a bequest of $8,000,000 in his remarkable wilL
The fourth score of years, 1912-1931, dealing with the new men at the “Cathedral of All the Stores:”
1914: An ambition of the founder and his successor is realized. A new building on the north of the Wabash avenue frontage is completed and the store now covers an entire city block. Moreover, the Store for Men, across Washington street at Wabash avenue, is added to the enterprise. It is connected with the parent structures by a tunnel.
1915: A poem by an employe of Field’s, IrvIng C. Lambert, gives the store its topnotch nickname. Its title and refrain is “Cathedral of All the Stores.” The Christmas day, 1915, edition of The Chicago Tribune prints it for the first time in a full-page ad of Marshall Field & Co. Here is a part of the verses:
To the north and south, to the east and went
Swing gates to wondrous floors-
Builded for service, aye, proudly it stands,
Cathedral of All the Stores.
1921: The south Wabash avenue part of the block expands its activities into the fifth and floors, formerly occupied by the John Crerar library.
Chicago: The Great Central Market
Published by Marshall Field & Company,
1923: James Simpson becomes president and Shedd is named chairman of the board of directors. Stanley Field retires from active duties with the company, but continues as a director, and top adviser on policy matters.
1926: John G. Shedd dies, aged 76 His will contains a bequest that will build and endow the Shedd aquarium on the lake front. The North Wabash avenue store area is augmented by the seventh. eighth, and ninth floors of that building.
1927: The company buys Holden court from the city of Chicago. This is the alley between the store’s State street and Wabash avenue frontages. It becomes a private driveway. The institution s 75th anniversary is celebrated.
1928-1929: Expansion continues as the post-war boom soars toward its peak. Construction on the Merchandise Mart, largest commercial building in the world, begins on Sept. 1, l928. Suburban stores are opened in Lake Forest, Evanston, and Oak Park.
1930: John McKinlay is elected president and Simpson becomes chairman of the board-
1931: The great economic depression, which started with a sudden crack-up of the stock market in the fall of 1929. becomes deeper and darker, but the Big Store itself has not yet used red ink in its annual financial reckonings
The fifth core of years, 1932-1951, ending on the theme of “Happy Centennial to You:”
1932: The store, considered by itself without relation to the wholesale and manufacturing activities of the company, shows the first deficit in its history, $100,000. Simpson resigns as chairman of the board and takes charge of the reorganization of Samuel Insull’s collapsed structure of public utility companies.
1935: James O. McKlinsey, a professional business analyst and part-time professor in the school of business at the University of Chicago. is elected chairman of Marshall Field & Co., and chief executive officer. Veterans in the store say of him, “He has never wrapped up a package.” But he has already submitted, after thoro study, a report the sale of the wholesale business. As soon as he is placed in authority, he acts according to his report, and thus for the first time a tradition of the founder is violated. As he lops off the wholesale branch. McKLnsey says, “This is not the way a man would act if he planned to be popular.”
1937: John McKinlay resigns as president and Is succeeded by Frederick D. Corley. James 0. Mc- Kinsey dies and Corley is elected chief officer.
1941, Nov. 1: The 28 Shop, so named because it is reached by a special elevator near the 28 E. Washington at. entrance to the store, is opened. This shrine of high luxury In women’s apparel is decorated and managed In the manner of the style-launching salons of la haute couture in Paris. It is a chic lounge where tea is served to customers while Mime. and Mle. Chicago view the models who emerge from the 28 dressing rooms to parade the latest designs for what the well-dressed woman should wear if she can afford it.
1943: Hughston M. McBaln, aged 41. with 20 years in the organization behind him, is elected president after the resignation of Corley. He prepares to free the company from the care and feeding of a white elephant in the titantic form of the Merchandise Mart. This sale will be consummated in 1945.
1946: A character named Uncle Mistletoe appears in the aisles during the Christmas shopping period as an auxiliary to Santa Claus. Everyone runs after Uncle Mistletoe, and Santa’s nose is out of joint. A competing merchant, viewing the merry mob scne, exclaim, “Donner and Blitmen!” (or words to that effect) “Field’s has stolen Christmas away from us!”
Like a comic strip hero, Mistletoe develops rapidly. He acquires a wife, named Aunt Holly. He inspires a new nickname. “The Store of the Christmas Spirit.”
Front cover of a Christmas box from Marshall Field’s with Uncle Mistletoe character circa 1948
1949: McBain is elected chairman of the board and continues as chief executive officer. James L Palmer. no kin of Potter Palmer, Is the new president.
1951, Dec. 31: This is inventory day, always an arduous ritual in the retail business. But it ends at the stroke of midnight with a song that should set the theme for the centennial year of 1952:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And days of auld lang syne?
Marshall Field & Company
Common Stock Certificate
Innovative Marshall Field window dresser, Arthur Fraser, rejected traditional merchandise-heavy displays in favor of artistic creations with modern abstract designs.
Discovered by Harry Selfridge while working in an Creston, Iowa store, Fraser reigned over Field’s windows for 49 years, beginning in 1895. New technology had made vast plate glass displays possible, and Fraser filled them with visual extravaganzas.
In 1922, the trade magazine The Show Window dubbed him as “America’s foremost artist in window display.”
One of Mr. Fraser’s window displays of 1910
The Field store, as Field’s well knows, is a show place as well as a store. And Chicagoans and out-of-towners alike list high on their bill of rights the privilege of wandering through the building, savoring the vast variety, titillating themselves, and making no purchases. The prime avowed function of the window displays is to articulate the show place rather than the store, bulwark the midwestern faith that “Field’s has everything.” With such congeries as the Pageant of Old Peking (above) the function is almost wholly that. And even so the Pageant of Old Peking last year did a volume of $78,000.