"Give the lady what she wants." - Marshall Field
Retailing pioneer Marshall Field was born the third of six children 172 years ago on August 18, 1834 on a farm near Conway, Massachusetts. Field died one hundred years ago in 1906 and he is buried in Chicago's famous Graceland Cemetery. But his business legacy, the great department store chain that was named after him 125 years ago in 1881, will officially disappear from signs about sixteen days from now. Marshall Field is considered by many business historians to be the greatest retailer of all time and the inventor of the modern department store. In 1853 at the age of 19, Field moved west to Chicago which then was a boom town of only eight thousand people with rows of wooden buildings on muddy streets. He went to work for the largest dry goods store in town, Cooley, Wadsworth & Company. His salary in 1854 was about $400 per year and he saved half of that by living at the store.
By 1860, Field was a junior partner at Cooley. In 1865, Field and Levi Leiter joined with a competitor of Cooley, Potter Palmer, to form a new dry goods store called Field, Palmer, & Leiter. Palmer retired from retailing in 1867 to devote his energy to real estate but he rented the store building to Field and Leiter. Potter Palmer developed most of downtown State Street including the Palmer House Hotel and then he had to rebuild it all again after the Great Chicago Fire of October 8 and 9, 1871. Marshall Field bought out Levi Leiter in 1881 to form Marshall Field & Company.
The success of the Marshall Field department stores in the 1890s was attributed to several innovations that were copied by other stores such as free delivery and an easy return policy. While he may not have invented the phrase, Marshall Field was known nationally as an advocate for the idea that "the customer is always right."
While his personal fortune grew, Marshall Field's personal life was not always happy. His first wife Nannie Scott lived apart from him for many years and died in France in 1896. His son, Marshall Field, II died in 1905 in a shooting accident. In 1893, Field donated one million dollars for a natural history museum to be built for the Columbian Exposition World's Fair. He donated another $8 million after the fair for a permanent building. Today, The Field Museum of Natural History is one of the world's largest museums of its kind.
Field owned a beautiful home on Prarie Avenue that was the first private home in Chicago to be wired for electric lights. By 1905, Marshall Field was the largest private individual taxpayer in the United States, before the days of personal income tax. When he died one hundred years ago on January 16, 1906, his estate was estimated to be more than $125 million mostly in Chicago real estate holdings. He was the richest man in the city and one of the richest in the country. Upon the death of Marshall Field, Vice President John G. Shedd took over as president of the company in 1906. Shedd was the founder and first benefactor of The Shedd Aquariam. Shedd donated $3 million of his own money and raised more money from business friends. The aquariam opened in December 1929.
Mashall Field left a trust for his two grandsons, Henry and Marshall Field, III. His grandson Marshall Field, III served in the same Illinois National Guard unit with Chicago Tribune publisher Col. Robert McCormick in World War I. Marshall Field, III puchased the Chicago Daily News and the two papers that became the Chicago Sun-Times. In 1984, Marshall Field, IV sold the Chicago Sun-Times to Austrailian newspaper baron Rupert Murdoch.
The very successful Marshall Field department store chain was sold to Dayton Hudson in 1990 (later called Target Stores), to May Department Stores in 2004, and acquired by Federated Department Stores in 2005. In a very controversial move for many Chicagoans, Federated is currently putting the New York brand name of "Macy's" on all Marshall Field stores thus ending a run of 125 years for the Field brand name. Federated executives are hoping that the advantages of national advertising will outweigh the public relations black eye that the company has generated among old-time Field customers in the Midwest. Other Chicago customers argue that the name change does not matter because Marshall Field stores had already been "Macyized" with lesser-quality products and more limited retail choices.
The Illinois traditions of shopping at Marshall Field stores have been disappearing for a while. The famous Frango Mints apparently dated back to "Francos" mints in 1929 but were changed to "Frango" because the store owners did not want people to think they were named for the Spanish dictator Generalisimo Francico Franco in the late 1930s. After World War II, demand for Frango Mints exceeded the supply of chocolate available. The decision in 1999 by Dayton Hudson store to lay off 157 candymaking expert workers in Chicago who made the mints and send the jobs to Pennsylvania instead angered many Chicagoans. Mayor Richard M. Daley was particularly annoyed because he was never given any advance notice by Dayton Hudson (Target). The store name change to "Macy's" of rival New York of all cities has been another bitter blow to some people who care about the pride and history of Chicago.
Another old-time Field Christmas tradition was the presence of Santa Claus on a throne, Aunt Holly and Uncle Mistletoe as an annual attraction for children. But as in many stores, any commercial observance of a Christian for many, and secular for some, holiday is in danger of drawing a visit from the politically correct multi-cultural thought police. One tradition is going to survive for a while anyway. A scale replica of the Marshall Field clock, donated by the State Street store in 1993, has been put away in storage by the Illinois State Society of Washington, DC and they intend to use it again in January 2007 for the next Inaugural Gala. Other members are hording Marshall Field collectibles with the company name such as bags, boxes, Christmas tree ornaments, and old advertising brochures.
Do you have a favorite Marshall Field store memory from your childhood? If so, leave a comment.