Marshall Fields – A History
Marshall Field & Company will forever be remembered in Chicago shopping history. Um, yes there is such a thing as Chicago shopping history. We may or may not have just made it up, but that’s irrelevant.
I remember going to Marshall Field’s as a kid with my mom, strolling the massive and ornate flagship department store, filled with anything and everything you could ever dream of. Oh the Frango mints! Perhaps the best thing to ever hit the lips. From a young age, I knew Marshall Field’s to be my mother ship, calling me home.
Ok yes my memories of this iconic department store may be slightly hyperbolized, but for many Chicagoans it does represent a bit of nostalgia that no longer exists on Chicago’s famed State Street. At least not in the way it used to.
The seeds for Marshall Field’s department store were planted when Mr. Marshall Field of Massachusetts joined with Chicago retailers Levi Leiter and Potter Palmer. Of course, the company was originally known as Field, Palmer and Leiter, but in 1881 Field became the sole owner and Marshall Field & Company was born.
Construction on the store began in 1892, and on November 26, 1897 the famous Marshall Field’s clock was installed at the corner of Washington and State Streets, calling Chicagoans to what was not only just a shopping center, but a city meeting place.
The company would soon grow to epic proportions, becoming the largest wholesale and retail dry goods enterprise in the world. Field was known for initiating innovative retail practices, which would later become standardized around the world. He posted his prices large and clear, curbing the common practice of haggling and bargaining. Marshall Field’s was also the first department store with dining options inside and the first to offer bridal registry.
When Marshall Field died in 1906, much of the city shut down for the day in his honor, including all of State Street and the Chicago Board of Trade. Following Field’s death, John Shedd (of the Shedd Aquarium) was appointed president of the company and, in accordance with Field’s wishes, he continued with the rebuilding of the State Street store, which had already been set into motion.
The new store opened in September of 1907. It included a Tiffany Ceiling, which is both the first and largest ceiling ever built in favrile glass, containing 1.6 million pieces. It was certainly a sight to marvel at. By 1914 the structure as it stands today was completed under the direction of architect Daniel Burnham, encompassing the entire square block bounded by Washington, State, Wabash, and Randolph. The fancy new additions included a 13-story sky-lit atrium and the fashionable Walnut Room, a place to see and be seen. The holiday window displays were also always a Chicago tradition, attracting Suburban families for a stroll on State Street to view the festive decorations.
In 1929 a Washington-based department store known as Frederick & Nelson was acquired by Marshall Field & Co., and with it came the now famous (and heavenly!) brand of mint chocolate candies, Frango mints. These candies became so closely identified with Marshall Field’s and Chicago that the Field’s candy kitchen at the State Street store eventually began making them in-house.
Though the store was a beloved Chicago staple, Marshall Field & Co. did have an unfortunate history of racism. In the early 20th century, the famed department store made a strong effort to avoid attracting African-Americans as clientele. Black Chicagoans were often denied service, ignored, or even kept to the close-out department in the store’s basement.
On August 30, 2005 the department store giant (and dream-killer) known as Macy’s forever changed the Chicago shopping scene by buying out our beloved Marshall Field’s. If you can believe it, picketers actually stormed the State Street location, demanding that Macy’s leave the Marshall Field’s brand alone. No such luck. The location now boasts the Macy’s big red star and inferior merchandise. However, for those of us who developed an unhealthy obsessed with Frango mints, Macy’s fortunately still carries the brand today in homage to the days of Marshall Field’s.
In the first year after the conversion to Macy’s, the company reported a notable drop in sales. According to the Marshall Field’s fan website (oh, yes there is!), a 2009 survey indicated that 78% of downtown Chicago shoppers still wanted Marshall Fields instead of Macy’s. Probably to their best interest, Macy’s announced at one point that they will no longer attempt to convert old Marshall Field’s lovers into Macy’s shoppers. Instead, they will try to attract new shoppers to their stores in Chicago. Well, fine, Macy’s; we don’t want you anyway.
Now, stepping off my soapbox… if you’d like to visit the former Marshall Field’s and *cringe* shop at what is now a Macy’s flagship store, you’ll find it at the corner of Washington Street and State Street in Chicago’s Loop.