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Field's Day

The legacy of retail forerunner Marshall Field lives on in Chicago.

The monumental State Street Marshall Field & Company store attracted scores of stylish shoppers.

In the past, if a gentleman was in the market for a new suit, he looked to Marshall Field & Company. Standing tall and strong on Chicago’s bustling State Street, the grand retail landmark, with its glimmering Tiffany ceiling and congenial clerks, was the premier destination for the dapperly dressed. A place where “the customer was always right” and a shoeshine was best when followed by lunch in the Walnut Room, Marshall Field’s paved the way for upscale shopping as it’s currently known. 

Although the highborn emporium was destined for greatness, its founder and namesake, Marshall Field, hailed from humble beginnings. Born in 1834 on a Massachusetts farm, Field moved to Chicago at age 21 to bask in the booming capitalist air of the time. Shortly thereafter, Field joined forces with fellow Chicago businessmen, Levi Leiter and Potter Palmer, to create the dry goods store, Field, Palmer, Leiter & Co. After his partners’ retirement, the store shed its extraneous names and commas to become the iconic Marshall Field & Company.

Having forever changed the retail game, by the late 1880s Field’s retail empire included a store on State and Washington; a monumental, seven-story wholesale building at Quincy and Adams; nearly 3,000 people in its employ; and annual sales of more than $30 million. Field’s departure from the buyer-beware approach allowed him to institute a new kind of customer service. Lured by his motto, “Give the lady what she wants,” the era’s most cosmopolitan flooded the shiny shopping mecca, leisurely perusing the well-stocked racks and chatting with clerks. Field’s gentle, soft-spoken demeanor pervaded every aspect of the business too—gone were aggressive salespeople pressuring prospective purchasers to buy and opportunities to haggle or bargain. Field trained his clerks to be attentive, but not overbearing, and prices were displayed large and clear.

Field’s store also introduced a number of inaugural offerings: It was the first department store, for example, to boast in-house dining, restrooms and escalators. Lounges, a nursery and a library quickly followed. Shoppers could check their coats, write letters on complimentary Marshall Field’s stationery and even hold meetings. Field also was the first to offer the trusting money-back guarantee, bridal registry and complimentary delivery service. With nearly every amenity imaginable to shoppers, Marshall Field’s was the perfect place for the refined and stylish to while away the afternoon.

The present-day 12-story State Street monument, which was constructed in the early 1890s following the original building’s razing after the Great Chicago Fire, still bears the Marshall Field & Company plaque, despite it now being home to the Macy’s flagship store. Daniel Burnham and Company built the store in classic Chicago style: with sprawling windows for extravagant displays. And, in 1897, after noticing folks were using the sidewalk as a meeting place, Field installed the illustrious great clock—immortalized in one of Norman Rockwell’s depictions for The Saturday Evening Post—on the building’s northwest corner. Most splendid was the store’s interior featuring a Tiffany dome, a large glass mosaic still gleaming with approximately 1,600,000 pieces.

Following Field’s death in 1906, just a year before the opening of the new magnificent Marshall Field’s, all of State Street and the Chicago Board of Trade shut down in his honor. At the time, the retail titan owned more property than anyone else in the country—a fact still true throughout Chicago. His will set aside $8 million for the well-known natural history museum that bears his name and beckons tourists and locals alike.

Marshall Field’s continued to boom under the presidency of John Shedd, who expanded the company nationally and purchased textile mills in North America and Asia. His successor, James Simpson, went on to spearhead the building of The Merchandise Mart, with the idea that it would headquarter the company’s wholesale divisions while offering retail and restaurant space. Upon its completion in 1931, the building was the largest commercial structure in the world.

The Marshall Field legacy not only established itself as the largest wholesale and retail enterprise in the world, but also as a fixture of Chicago culture. In fact, many would argue that beyond even a Red Hot slathered in a grocery-list of condiments, or a piping-hot slice of deep dish, Marshall Field’s delectable, minty-sweet Frango (a candy still stocked on Macy’s shelves) is the city’s trademark taste.