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People & Events: Marshall Field (1834-1906) and Midwestern Commerce

Marshall Field at twenty-four 'he had the merchant's instinct'."I was determined not to remain poor."
-- Marshall Field (1834-1906)

Marshall Field was born in 1834 on a Massachusetts farm. After working as a clerk in a general store, he went to Chicago at the age of 19 to make his fortune. He got a job at Potter Palmer's dry goods store and when Palmer retired from the retail business, Field and his partner Levi Leiter took over.

After the Great Fire of 1871, Field and Leiter disagreed over the direction of the business. Field bought out Leiter in 1880 and the business took his name. Marshall Field's great six-story merchandising emporium catered to urban women with leisure time. Rather than "buyer beware," Field's motto was "Give the lady what she wants."

Marshall Field store interior male and female staff at attention - kid gloves department The service at the store reflected Field's soft-spoken nature. There was no pressure to buy, but there was always a salesperson available if needed. Purchases could be delivered to one's home, and could also be returned for any reason -- an unprecedented guarantee. Field hired young women as salesclerks and lit up his store with electric lights when they became available. He put a restaurant in the store, and offered lounges, rest rooms, a library, nursery, and telephones. Ladies could check their coats, write letters on complimentary Marshall Field stationery and hold meetings at the store. His products were selected for the store by buyers in the European capitals, or shipped from East Asia. When the streetcar was introduced, Field invested in one of the lines and made sure that trains stopped in front of his store. All of these innovations made Marshall Field's a welcoming and comfortable place for women to spend their afternoons.

Marshall Field Store Even as refined ladies shopped on State Street, general store owners from across the Midwest would arrive at Marshall Field's Wholesale Store. In 1887, the store was moved into a magnificent Romanesque warehouse designed by architect Henry Hobson Richardson, a structure that was to influence the design of the Auditorium and other Chicago landmarks. The general store owner would wander through 500,000 square feet of merchandise, accompanied by a Field employee. Baby carriages, musical instruments, sports equipment, furniture, medical instruments -- anything anyone could hope to want -- was available, neatly presented, at the wholesale store. Service for the wholesale customers was as complete as it was for retail; the visitors would be taken to lunch and dinner by elegantly dressed Field representatives who would even direct the customer to Chicago's red light district, if asked. (The Field employee would never accompany the customer in the commission of sin. If caught gambling or drinking -- even off the job -- he would be fired. Informers and spies riddled the payroll and reported to Field on the behavior of his employees -- especially fraternization with union officials.)

The general store owners who bought wholesale from Field had competition from men like Aaron Montgomery Ward. Ward had been a salesman for a wholesale retailer, and had conceived of a method of selling that would cut out the general store and reduce costs. Mail-order catalog shopping met with resistance until Ward instituted guarantees and liberal return policies like Field's. Ward had a corner on the catalog market until 1893 when Sears, Roebuck and Company of Minneapolis came into the picture. Sears soon moved to Chicago because of its central access to railways. Not only did trains bring grains and livestock into the city; the same rails would carry the cornucopia of merchandise from Sears and Ward directly to their American consumers.

Women walking in front of Marshall Field's department store on State Street. In the 1880s, as anarchists grew in number and influence, Field armed a local militia to patrol the Chicago Board of Trade. After the Haymarket trials, there was a move to grant clemency to the convicted conspirators. Lawyers pointed out that the bomber had never been identified, and even a few leading businessmen favored a pardon in an effort to improve relations with labor. Field, the richest man in the city, refused to consider clemency, and once his position was known, not many businessmen wished to publicly disagree with him.

Field was not a pleasant man. A displeased look could inspire fear in his employees. At company dinners he made surprise announcements of promotions -- and retirements. He was not happily married and had few close friends. He was not known for his generosity, and it was only later in his life that he gave land to the University of Chicago and funded the museum of natural history that now bears his name. He died in 1906.

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