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People & Events: Potter Palmer (1826-1902)

Potter Palmer, portrait photograph. John Carbutt, photographer. 1868. This is from the Biographical Sketches of the Leading men of Chicago. Photographically illustrated by John Carbutt. These were mastered all at once. Potter Palmer made his first millions with a dry-goods store. Among his innovations were "bargain days" (the first "sales"), money back guarantees (for any reason), the policy that the customer is always right, and free home delivery of all purchases. Palmer set out particularly to win female customers. His store was the one place in Chicago where women could go unescorted. Palmer imported high-quality merchandise from Europe and the Orient, taught clerks to remember customers' names and preferences, and instructed them never to pressure visitors into buying. In short, Potter Palmer created "shopping" as we know it.

In 1865, as a thirty-nine-year-old bachelor in poor health, he abruptly gave control of his business to the young Marshall Field and his partner Levi Z. Leiter, but remained their landlord. Then Palmer took a few years off to recuperate in Europe.

Back in Chicago in 1868, he built a ball field for the Chicago White Stockings baseball club (later the Cubs) and spent time at the horse races. When he wasn't enjoying the sporting life, however, he was developing a plan to reshape his city.

Palmer Potter House, corner of Quincy and State Streets. P. B. Greene, photographer. Stereograph. Pre-1871. Palmer quietly bought up property on State Street, a narrow north-south thoroughfare parallel to the lakeshore. After he had acquired more than a mile of property, he asked the city council to widen the street to create a broad, Parisian-style boulevard. This was no simple task and many State Street neighbors refused to set their buildings back to accommodate a new street. The resulting street cut back and forth between Palmer's new buildings and the older structures. After the Great Fire in 1871, however, the blocks were all regularized and State Street became wide enough to accommodate carriage parking and horse-drawn trolleys.

Potter Palmer had single handedly reoriented Chicago's downtown from Lake Street -- an east-west road along the stinking canal -- to the new, elegant boulevard that he virtually owned. A massive six-story structure on the corner of State and Washington was leased to Field and Leiter for a new Marshall Field's store.

In 1870, Palmer had announced his marriage to Bertha Honoré. As a wedding gift, he presented her with a hotel. The Palmer House was, at eight stories, the tallest building in the city. Its 225 rooms were decorated with Italian marble and French chandeliers. Bertha had agreed to marry, saying she would be satisfied to be the wife of an innkeeper.

Potter Palmer portrait, by Steffins. Looking left as an older man, grey hair and grey beard. The Great Fire destroyed the Palmer House Hotel before it was officially opened, and it was rebuilt quickly. Palmer claimed the new hotel was completely fireproof and backed a guarantee like he did in his old dry goods store. In advertisements, he dared anyone to light a hotel room on fire: "If at the expiration of [one hour], the fire does not spread beyond the room, the person accepting this invitation is to pay for all damages done and for the use of the room. If the fire does extend beyond the room (I claim it will not), there shall be no charge for the damage done."

After the fire, Palmer receded from public life while Bertha blossomed as Chicago's supreme hostess. Potter Palmer died in 1902, leaving a generous bequest in his will for his wife's next husband because, he once said, "He'll need the money."

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