The history of both Chicago and Marshall Field’s are inextricably linked. It was amid the smokestacks and stockyards, the dusty streets and the wooden sidewalks of mid-1800s Chicago that Marshall Field’s, the venerable retail institution, began.

In a city whose heritage was built by laborers, Marshall Field’s became an icon of elegance. It lent luster to a city known for its industrial roots. The store built its reputation on quality and customer service and is one of the few retail institutions that has managed to maintain its reputation and its allure over the last 150 years.

The Great Clock, Frango mints, the Walnut Room, the Tiffany Dome…all of these Marshall Field’s trademarks contribute to the store’s mystique — and to that of the Windy City itself.

“Marshall Field’s has always been synonymous with Chicago,” said Tim Samuelson, cultural historian with the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. “It has always been a destination. The importance of Marshall Field’s as a store and as a symbol goes back to its earliest days. Chicago was a young, upstart city…Field’s thought to build a very elegant, first-class store where they sold luxury goods. It was a place of quality and innovation and in some ways showed that not only Marshall Field’s had a lot of class, but that the city did as well.”

The history of Marshall Field’s can be traced back to a man by the name of Potter Palmer, who founded a dry goods store on Lake Street in 1852. Palmer sought to create an innovative shopping environment for women at his eponymously named store, Potter Palmer and Company. He considered women an underserved segment of the city’s population.

“He created [the store] as a sanctuary for women,” said Tony Jahn, corporate archivist and historian for Marshall Field’s. “It was a place where they could be treated well, could see some of the finest things available in the day and be treated with dignity and respect. That wasn’t necessarily a normal thing in business out here 150 years ago.”

According to Jahn and old Field’s lore, Palmer made sure there were no spitoons or whiskey barrels in his establishment. He wanted respectable women to feel comfortable browsing through the store. Palmer also instituted a “no questions asked” returns policy, which served to nurture the goodwill and patronage of Chicagoans.When Palmer’s doctor urged him to get out of the business in 1865 because of ill health, he sought out partners and unearthed up-and-coming retailers Marshall Field and Levi Leiter. The trio joined forces and renamed the firm Field, Palmer, Leiter and Company.

In 1867, Field and Leiter bought out Palmer and the following year the pair relocated the store to State Street. But the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 burnt down the-then Field, Leiter and Company store. Field and Leiter, displaying just the beginnings of their resilience, rebuilt their store and reopened it in 1873. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the only time the store was destroyed by fire. In 1877, another fire struck and, once again determined not to be undone, two years later, the partners rebuilt and reopened on State Street. In 1881, Field bought out Leiter and the Marshall Field’s of today was born.

Field based his store on Palmer’s initial emphasis on customer service and his idea of catering to female shoppers. He had started his career in retail by apprenticing in a dry goods store in Pittsfield, Mass., but, like many Easterners, followed Horace Greeley’s advice and headed West, to Chicago, which he perceived as a city of burgeoning opportunity.

Once he and Leiter made their alliance with Palmer, Field began the process of building their shop into a department store from a dry goods store.

“In his travels, Field recognized how the Industrial Revolution was at the cusp of transforming America — how rail expansion and the increasing technology of communication was growing in importance. Also, a new class of people was being created and what Field realized was that people were beginning to have more disposable income and more free time. He saw that one needed to be there to serve this growing group of people,” said Jahn.

Field did more than just sell to them, however. The philanthropy of his company literally helped build modern-day Chicago. It donated $9 million to found and build the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and funded the restoration of Water Tower Park after the Great Chicago Fire. The efforts continued even after Field died in 1906. Marshall Field’s gave $3 million to build the John G. Shedd Aquarium and raised more than $28 million in U.S. Government War Bonds during the two world wars. Even today, 5 percent of its federally taxable income is directed back to the community through one of its giving organizations, Project Imagine.Equally important, many of his business techniques would help create modern-day retailing. According to Jahn, as Chicago grew in the 1860s and consumerism was in an upswing, Field began to tweak his company’s business model and began initiating innovative practices.

“Field realized that he needed to start doing things that were distinctive or, as he called it, progressive,” said Jahn. “He challenged his buyers to go out and find the most progressive merchandise possible to offer to the Chicago shopper, whether it was fashion, accessories or home wares.

“One of the great things about the Field’s story,” continued Jahn, “what set Field apart is that he literally put his entire organization behind generating things that would interest people. When he couldn’t serve or offer his customers something, he would create entire departments that would do that. During that process, in the late 1870s through the 1880s, Field began to develop what we now know, conceptually, as the department store.”

It was during this period of innovation and development that Field helped set up the first foreign buying office of any American merchant. The initial buying office was set up in Manchester, England, and subsequent offices were opened in Germany, France, Ireland, Italy and Asia.

Field also used his buying power to negotiate exclusive private labels deals with other manufacturers, such as Oshkosh Trunks and Tiffany Lamps.

Part of the retailer’s success was not only the exclusive, high-end quality goods that the store carried, but also his edict that salespeople “treat people of moderate means the same as you would a lady who arrives by carriage.” He also coined the phrase, “Give the lady what she wants.”

“Marshall Field’s was one of the great equalizers of class distinction,” said Jahn. “It’s one of the things that has endeared people to the company throughout the ages.”

As the company continued to expand its offerings, Field knew that it would need to expand its retail space as well. He began slowly buying up the lots on the State Street block adjacent to the store and commissioned architect Daniel Burnham in 1893 to design the Marshall Field’s flagship on State Street — which encompassed the entire block between Randolph, Wabash and Washington Streets. The store was ultimately completed in 1914, and rapidly became a landmark.The store’s cachet was further solidified by the work of Arthur Fraser, one of the most influential window designers in the country. Beginning in 1905, Fraser revolutionized store window design by creating elaborate sets. He sought to move and inspire shoppers by incorporating art of the day and over-the-top visuals.

“He created a sense of mystery in his windows,” said Samuelson. “He would use anything from great Roman columns to mechanical clowns. Fraser shocked everyone by just setting in one, two or three mannequins in these beautiful, theatrical sets.”

Throughout the years, the retailer continued to seek out luxury labels, carrying iconic designers such as Jean Patou in the Twenties, Coco Chanel and Adrian in the Thirties, Christian Dior and Givenchy in the Fifties and Oleg Cassini in the Sixties. In 1941, it opened The 28 Shop, which consisted of designer shop-in-shops and it claims it was the pioneer of this concept, which now has proliferated throughout retailing.

In 1982, the U.S. subsidiary of the U.K. company British-American Tobacco bought Marshall Field’s and added it to its retail portfolio, which included Saks Fifth Avenue, Gimbels, Frederick & Nelson and Kohl’s Department Stores. In 1990, Dayton Hudson Corp. acquired Marshall Field’s and in 2000 Dayton Hudson Corp. changed its name to Target Corp.

The following year, in 2001, Target Corp. rebranded all its department stores with the Marshall Field’s name. While Marshall Field’s has struggled in recent years, as have many department stores, it now spans 62 stores in eight states, including Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin. All spawned by a small dry goods store on Chicago’s Lake Street.

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