When visiting a new place, I’m always interested in the history of fashion retail in that town or city. In so many ways, in Chicago this is epitomized by Marshall Field’s, a long established department store located in the heart of the old shopping district of State Street inside the Loop. To sum up a lot of history, the store that became Marshall Field’s was started in 1852 by Chicago big-wig Potter Palmer. Field became involved in a partnership in the store in 1865.
In 1868 the renamed Field, Leiter, and Co. moved to where the store is now located on State Street. But this is not the same building, which was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. As the city rebuilt, so did Field and Leiter. In 1881, Field bought out Leiter, and Marshall Field and Co. was officially born. A series of building additions ensued, and in 1907 the store as it exists today was pretty much finished.
Over time, Marshall Field became a Chicago institution, so much so that in 2005 when the store was bought by Macy’s there was a big protest. Fortunately, much of the interior was left intact so that visitors to the store today can get a good idea of the grandeur in which people shopped in the early part of the Twentieth Century.
The store has two large open areas, and one of them has a favrile glass mosaic vaulted ceiling decorated by Tiffany. It’s worth taking a stroll into the building just to see it.
Today, of course, the shopping experience is just not the same with the bright florescent lighting and the same Macy’s merchandise available across the country. Still, if one uses their imagination…
The Chicago History Museum has a display on Marshall Field & Company, which was a fashion leader in the city.
One block down State Street is the site of another great Chicago department store – Carson, Pirie, Scott. As you can see, today the lower floors are a Target, but the beautiful ironwork in the Louis Sullivan designed building still amazes anyone who takes the time to stop and really look at it.
As I was thinking about the grand old department stores and their disappearance from American retail, I turned to Jan Whitaker’s book on the subject, Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class. Rereading the first few chapters reminded me that while we mourn the demise of stores like Marshall Field and Wanamaker’s and Rich’s, when the department stores took over one hundred or so years ago, people were mourning the loss of the little private owner specialty store. And interestingly enough, it looks like today’s retail beasts – Walmart, Target, Costco, and the like – will soon be at the mercy of Amazon as it moves into the grocery and brick and mortar business. Will we have the same nostalgia for the big box chain store?
As the French say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.