Remembering the Majesty and Magnificence that was Marshall Field & Company

The program, "Remembering Marshall Field's" by local author and historian Leslie Goddard, was recently presented to a group I'm in, the Leona Farms Questers. Questers is an international, non-profit organization that enjoys history and promotes preservation and restoration.

This triggered some major reminiscing about what the iconic Grande Dame on State Street meant to so many of us growing up in the Chicago area during the 50's, 60's and 70's.  Defining moments that marked the passage of time in my life are connected to this prized gem.

Do you have fond memories from shopping at a strip mall, a mall in general, or another department store? I didn't think so.  Marshall Field's just had this overwhelming sense of being something historic, classic, luxurious, stately, genteel, Old World Chicago and totally "our own."

When you walked through the revolving doors of  Marshall Field's you entered into a place that was extraordinary. It was never about what was purchased, but the way you felt once inside those gracious columns.

In the famous toy department, my parents purchased my first Barbie doll, in all her glory with the heavy, black eyeliner, platinum blonde ponytail and dressed in a black and white striped swimsuit.  Her first outfit, the long, black, sparkling evening gown complete with a standing microphone was named "Solo in the Spotlight." Yes folks, Barbie outfits used to have names.

This was the store where the "Real Santa" came each December to listen to everyone's wish list. The glimmering snow, toy soldiers, nutcrackers, Mrs. Claus, reindeer, giant candy canes and decorated Christmas trees made this a Wonderland for children. If Santa truly did exist, his home at the North Pole would pale in comparison.

Our parents took us there every Christmas to see Santa and stick our cold noses on the animated window displays on State and Randolph. It just wouldn't be Christmas without this tradition. Generations of us feel this way

Many meals were savored in the Walnut Room with and without the spectacle of the Great Tree. The Marshall Field's Sandwich (open faced rye bread, turkey, swiss cheese, topped with an ungodly amount of iceberg lettuce, with Thousand Island dressing poured over the entire mound, then a garnish of bacon, sliced tomato, hard boiled egg and a few olives), and the Peach Nest filled with chicken salad and slices of nut breads were my favorites. Never did order the famous Mrs. Hering's Chicken Pot Pie, but everyone else in the restaurant certainly did and still do.

Our beloved dad would take his four "girls" (there were no boys) downtown on the Illinois Central commuter railroad from the south suburbs to Marshall Field's each August for our back-to-school shoes. Attending Catholic schools in uniforms, we didn't need any new clothes, but he did believe in wearing good shoes. We looked forward to this trip all summer long.

During high school and college days, my dad, sister Meg and I would venture down to Field's on Christmas Eve to do some "last minute" shopping and have lunch.  No one else in the family ever took to this new tradition, but we cherished it as our private, secret adventure.

Back then, the store was a graveyard on that last holiday shopping day. Normal people were home with their families, already deep into celebrations. We basically had it to ourselves and it was delightful. Did we really need to purchase anything? No, of course not. It was just an excuse to get back to the store for one last Christmas Spirit stroll.

After college when I landed my first job on Wacker Driver, the first credit card in my wallet was from Marshall Field's. I was turned down by Visa, but the Field's credit department took a chance on a twenty two year old with no credit history and earning about $9,000 per year. Bless you!

When he popped the question and I said, "Yes!" we registered for our wedding in the Bridal Registry. The baby blue spiral bound notebook Marshall Field & Company gave me to record our guest list and gifts, is worn and yellowed, but still kept in my desk almost forty years later.

During an early spring snowstorm in the snowiest winter on record in Chicago (1977-1978), I was one of the few brave souls that made it to work that day in the Standard Oil building (now Aon). When the office closed down before noon, I slid over to Field's on my way home to reward myself and purchased a new trench coat that I wore for decades. Field's helped me "think spring" on one of the worst weather days and of course the store was staffed even though very few customers were shopping that day.

Speaking of staff, they were legendary. Every department was staffed by nattily dressed, knowledgeable and well trained professionals. Always available and at attention, they were genuinely helpful, honest and reliable.  Whether it was a camera, socks, sewing kit, coffee pot, antique silver or luggage you sought to purchase, that department sales staff would be experts in assisting you and you would be a wiser shopper for it.

If you purchased a gift, every check out area was stocked with beautiful, well constructed, two piece white boxes of all sizes, with the Marshall Field and Company name embossed on the top. The sales clerk would line the box with carefully folded tissue, expertly arrange your gift and close it up with a round gold seal bearing the store logo. The lid would be tied shut with gold cording and a gold gift card would be tied to the bow. No gift wrap needed.

I honestly believe the packaging was often as or more expensive than the actual gift itself.

In a major shopping mood and overloaded with packages? They would gladly have the dark green Marshall Field's trucks deliver your purchases free of charge. No problem. Perhaps a preview of Amazon Prime?

The store is still standing but rebranded and renamed. The days of shopping in mega department stores seem to be fading. Even shopping malls are having hard times finding tenants to fill these empty behemoth spaces.  Shopping is done quite differently now and this era may be over. The remaining giants are trying to reinvent themselves to appeal to the current crop of shoppers and that's great, I wish them well and hope they succeed.

Progress, innovation and change are what challenges the world to become better. We need to evolve or we will be left standing at the starting gate with our jaws dropping to the ground wondering what happened. To live in the past and dwell on the way things used to be is stagnating.

Perhaps in future generations, the Grande Dame on State Street will be reconfigured to contain affordable, mixed housing, a hotel or office space and quite possibly, a mix of all three. I think she would welcome that energy and new life with her doors wide open.

However, I am truly grateful I lived during a time when a department store could define a city as big as Chicago, create fierce loyalty, civic pride, become a destination in creating long treasured family traditions, and offer a shopping experience second to none. Marshall Field's did this simply by being the best and "giving the lady what she wants."

Tipping my dad's red Dobbs' fur felt Christmas hat to Potter Palmer, Marshall Field, John Shedd and Harold Selfridge.Thanks for the memories, gentlemen.


Filed under: Lifestyle, Observations

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