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Marshall Field’s: The Store that Helped Build Chicago

04 May

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I thought I knew most of what there was to know about Marshall Field’s the still beloved department store that started in Chicago, but I learned a lot more about how the business started, who Field’s partners were, how big their whole sale business was and how subsequent CEO’s like John G. Shedd, of aquarium fame, behaved at the helm. Seems every descendant of a Chicagoan knows that “the customer is always right” and “give the lady what she wants’ were first said by Marshall Field and we know the various explanations for the naming of Frango mints, but there’s still a lot we don’t know and  Gayle Soucek enlightens readers on all aspects of Fields in a pleasant breezy style. It’s a quick read and pleasant till we come to the end when evil Macy’s takes over the store and changes the name.

Field was a good man, and something of a straight arrow. He held true to his credit terms — even after the Chicago Fire in 1871 when creditors wrote him offering to change the terms. He came from Puritan roots and stayed true to them. (His son did not and I for one believe Junior was shot at the Everleigh Club, another interesting Chicago establishment.)  The man was a genius with incredible foresight and respect for people. I wish I could have been in the store when it had a library, offered information (to provide tourist information, ship times, railway routes, etc.)  and accommodation bureaus (which booked theater tickets,made sleeping car arrangements,  checked bags, offered stenographer services, and more). Services didn’t stop there. One anecdote tells how a man told a clerk he was “mourning the accidental estrangement of his brother, who had traveled to Europe and lost contact. The word went out to Field’s foreign buying offices, and in a short amount of time the wayward sibling was located.”

The book mentions Harry Selfridge, the brash man, who worked his way up to partner, a position Field’s was surprise Selfridge had the audacity to ask for (Field’s planned to offer it and was just a more reserved man). It mentions Selfridge as originating the bargain basement and later buying his own store, where he always kept a portrait of Marshall Field in his office. So much of Selfridge’s store is an homage to Field, which is why the book connects with the PBS program.

The book ends with an appendix of famous Field’s recipes.

I still can’t stomach that and haven’t made a purchase in Macy’s since they took over. Marshall Field’s, State Street, was a store you could love in a way current stores just aren’t. We’ve got smart phones so we can make our own travel arrangements or notes on the fly and we can shop online or in person in countless stores, but this personal touch is largely gone or on the way out.

 

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Posted by on May 4, 2014 in history, non-fiction

 

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