It’s no wonder that tens of thousands of people—from Chicago and from all over the world—signed the electronic petition at urging Federated Department Stores Inc. not to change the name of their beloved Marshall Field & Co. store to Macy’s.

For years, shopping at Field’s defined “upscale” long before that word came into our language. But when Federated, the parent company of Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, bought Marshall Field’s last year, it was announced that the famous old store on State Street would change its name to Macy’s this fall. Angry customers are threatening never to return to the Chicago landmark, and that could have a serious impact on the current Christmas shopping season.

It all began in 1852, not with Marshall Field, who was 18 years old at the time and learning the trade at a store near his home in western Massachusetts, but with Potter Palmer. He, like Field a few years later, was one of many bright and ambitious young men who sought the opportunities offered by Chicago, the growing metropolis on the edge of the prairie.

When he opened P. Palmer, Dry Goods & Carpets on Lake Street, Palmer adopted practices that many of his competitors considered radical. He irritated them by advertising specific prices on his merchandise, and sometimes underselling them— often by quite a lot. He studied Godey’s Lady’s Book, and imported the laces, silks, hosiery, gloves and cloaks that were of special interest to the well-to-do women of Chicago. He kept his store open later than all the others. But most of all, his competitors considered Palmer crazy for his policy of being willing to give refunds or exchanges for any goods the customer might find unsatisfactory—for any reason.

P. Palmer, Dry Goods & Carpets built a large and loyal following.

Ironically, one of the early visitors to Palmer’s store was a representative of Rowland H. Macy, who in 1858 started his dry goods establishment in New York. After Macy’s became famous, Palmer liked to boast that he gave Macy some of his best ideas.

When ill health forced Palmer to sell the store near the end of the Civil War, he offered it to Marshall Field and Levi Leiter. These two men had built small fortunes and solid reputations for merchandising in Chicago’s wholesale industry. Under Field and Leiter, and then in 1881 under Field alone, the store carried on and expanded Palmer’s traditions—and the amount of business it conducted. This included a move in 1868 to much larger quarters on State Street. Once again, Potter Palmer’s hand was involved.

Palmer had correctly foreseen that State Street would become the burgeoning city’s new central business district because of its location near an important transportation junction, and he invested wisely in real estate there. Palmer built the hotel that still bears his name at the south end of his stretch of property. On the north end, he built a huge emporium, and easily convinced Field and Leiter to relocate. After several disastrous fires and prodigious rebuilding efforts, the Marshall Field & Co. State Street store came to occupy a full square block.

The nine-story Renaissance-style annex opened with a lavish celebration in August 1893, in the midst of the World’s Columbian Exposition. Field’s retail manager at the time was another innovator and showman, “Mile-a-Minute” Harry Selfridge. He viewed the world’s fair as an opportunity to promote Marshall Field & Co. as an exposition in itself: People would visit the store and then go home and tell their neighbors about it. The neighbors would come to marvel at the huge store—and to buy its rare and high-quality goods.

He was right.

When William McKinley was elected president in 1896, his wife insisted that the only people who could make a proper gown for the inaugural were the fitters and dressmakers at Field’s. So in December of that year, the McKinleys went to Chicago.

The president-elect himself caused quite a stir one afternoon. He wanted to see what one newspaper account called Field’s “tastefully decorated window” display. He was immediately recognized and surrounded by a crowd of well-wishers. Their cheers attracted more people, and before long the entire block was full of gawkers hoping to get a look at the president-to-be.

The object of McKinley’s interest was most likely the work of Arthur Fraser. He was brought to Field’s in 1895 by Selfridge, who had heard of the wonderful work he was doing at a store in Iowa. One industry source called Fraser’s windows a “theatrical experience.” Fraser added toys to the holiday window displays. Through the years, the displays developed themes, and finally, after World War II, the windows in series told a story that unfolded as shoppers walked along State Street.

In 1939 rival Chicago retailer Montgomery Ward introduced Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer to the world. In 1948 Field’s countered with the Pickwickian figures Uncle Mistletoe and Aunt Holly. They lived in the Cloud Cottage, and kids could join their Happiness clubs. Uncle Mistletoe and Aunt Holly became so popular that they even had a TV show for four seasons in the early 1950s.

Selfridge’s insistence on customer service and no pressure may have even had an effect on Field’s newspaper advertising long after he was gone. Field’s ads often contained no information about products that were for sale, but sometimes touted Field’s as the “Store of the Christmas Spirit.” For example, on Christmas Eve 1925, Field’s ran a seven-column ad. Inside a border defined by titles of Christmas carols, a half-page oval showed three children singing in front of a full moon. The caption underneath read:

Santa Will Come Tonight!

And little children all thrilled with thoughts of the presents, of stockings filled to the brim, of the sparkling tree will sing their carols lustily this evening. No one will be disappointed if we can help it, for every gift purchased here for a child or grownup before six o’clock tonight will be delivered tonight. Great fleets of trucks are ready to carry their gay packages all over the city and its suburbs. If just one truck could cover every one of these distances and should travel straight ahead, it would go half way around the world.

Santa will deliver all gifts as early as possible, but you must forgive him if he has to ring your doorbell in the wee small hours.

Serving food at Field’s was also Harry Selfridge’s idea. After many rebuffs from founder Marshall Field—“This is a dry goods store; we don’t feed people here!”— Selfridge finally got permission to open a tearoom in 1890. It was an instant success, and one that would lead to the establishment of the famed Walnut Room restaurant on the seventh floor.

The Field’s tradition of having a big Christmas tree in the restaurant dates to 1907—six years before Chicago erected its first municipal Christmas tree. It wasn’t yet called the Walnut Room, and the first decorations were somewhat haphazard. The tearoom’s busboys were given the job of decorating that first tree with an assortment of ornaments, gilt balls and artificial icicles.

Clara Wilson became the first tree “designer” in 1916, and her job was to plan and assemble the decorations, and then to supervise the busboys from below as they put the decorations on the tree from ladders and scaffolding. Eventually, professional designers took over, themes were assigned each year, and workmen erected the 50- foot trees with block and tackle after removing the revolving doors at State and Randolph streets to get the tree into the store. In recent years, an artificial tree was used, but it still glittered with 1,500 ornaments.

The store itself has been out of the Field family’s hands for years, but its endearing traditions live on. Friends and families would meet on State Street under the famous clock—iconized by a Norman Rockwell painting on the November 3, 1945, cover of The Saturday Evening Post. They would admire the wonderful window displays and have lunch under the Great Tree in Field’s Walnut Room. The children could visit with Santa Claus, and there was always an excellent chance that something special, something truly unusual, could be found for everyone on the gift-giving list.

Field’s fans just cannot seem to see a connection between the store’s familiar forest green color scheme and Macy’s bright red. When they think of Macy’s, they think of New York City—Chicago’s longtime rival—perhaps the Thanksgiving Day parade and maybe Miracle on 34th Street. In that 1947 movie, Macy’s Santa Claus advised a shopper that since Macy’s didn’t have a particular item, she ought to try Gimbel’s. Would Macy’s Santa of today be willing to recommend the name and the traditions of Marshall Field & Co.?


Originally published in the December 2006 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.