Marshall Field and Co.

“From its beginnings in downtown Chicago in 1852, Marshall Field's has earned a reputation of excellence through its landmark achievements, making it one of the premier department stores in the United States.” (8)


In 1852, Potter Palmer, one of Chicago 's most notable entrepreneurs, began a small dry-goods store on Lake Street, located in Chicago's top retail district. By implementing unique, strategic retail strategies, including return and credit policies, Palmer quickly made a name for himself. Facing health concerns, Palmer was forced to sell his business to two young merchant entrepreneurs, one being Marshall Field. Once out of the retail business, Palmer turned his focus to real estate development. Palmer hoped to one day transform State Street into a grand shopping district that would bring Chicago international recognition as one of the world's greatest cities. In 1868, Palmer constructed a magnificent structure on the northeast corner of Washington and State, and insisted Field relocate his recently acquired firm to the new State Street location. (9)

In 1971, the Great Chicago Fire consumed central Chicago and left Marshall Field's store in ashes, along with thousands of dollars in merchandise. Despite the tremendous misfortune, Field insisted on reconstruction. With goods continuing to arrive daily, Field conducted business seemingly uninterrupted. A short while later, plans for the construction of an improved State Street store were unveiled. (10)

State Street (ca. 1905)


With Chicago growing rapidly, Field realized he must do the same. The store's first expansion took place in 1893 with the opening of a nine-story structure on the corner of Washington and Wabash, which dealt with thousands of foreigners during the World's Columbian Exposition. The desire to expand even further prompted Field to acquire all properties bounded by State, Washington, Wabash, and Randolph. From 1900 to 1907, Field effectively demolished every building on the city block, except the 1983 store, and replaced them with retail buildings, each housing upwards of seven floors. (11)

The new store was designed in a neo-classical style, similar to that of most banks and municipal buildings. Such a style suggested to patrons the store's established and trusted understanding of cultural tastes. The State Street location remains in its original neo-classical form to this day. The reconstruction of 1907 also required the demolition of the 1879 location at the corner of Washington and State. The structure replacing the site was also in a neo-classical style, and consisted of a five-story light court topped by a glass mosaic dome. (12)

Marshall Field and Co., State Street (ca. 1907+)

Court and Mosaic Dome (ca. 1910)

Social Influence

In addition to purchasing material possessions, Marshall Field's was utilized by customers for many different reasons. Specifically, Marshall Field's was designated as a place of social and cultural gathering. Employees worked diligently to reinforce and exercise a prominent customer's social status. Store aisles and merchandise displays were arranged to ensure optimal comfort for shoppers. In addition, systems of credit and layaway options were developed to cater to women reluctant to carry cash themselves. (13) Marshall Field's adheres to the philosophy: “Give the lady what she wants,” a term coined by Marshall Field himself. (14)

Unlike the men at the time, women had few locations in which to socialize. Department stores were a valuable asset utilized by women patrons to socialize and be seen by various members of the community. For many women, the need to reaffirm social identity became an almost daily routine. A common daily ritual for women would be to invite several companions out, arrive at Marshall Field's shortly after their opening, spend several hours shopping and socializing, enjoy a leisurely lunch, and return home in time for her family's return from work and school. (15)

Marshall Field's offered men's and women's lounges used for social matters separate from those of shopping. Lounges were decorated in elegant fashion. (16)

Women's Waiting Room, State Street, (ca. 1910)

Marshall Field

Chicago Department Stores & Retail Entrepreneurs