On Nov. 14, speaker and author Leslie Goddard, Ph.D., tantalized a crowded room at the Levy Senior Center with her presentation “Remembering Marshall Field’s.” A historian and fan of all things related to Marshall Field and Company, Dr. Goddard told the story of how the store was founded and shared historical photographs in a slide presentation.
The audience was eager to share personal recollections of visiting and shopping at a Marshall Field’s store, especially the main store on State Street. Many spoke of annual traditions: visiting the Christmas tree and store window displays every December, gazing at the intricate Tiffany glass mosaic ceiling, dining on meals in the famous Walnut Room, and buying a gift for a loved one. One woman recalled how she felt like she had finally “made it” when she was able to purchase clothing at Marshall Field’s for the full retail price and not just on sale. Several mentioned buying their wedding dresses there and the wonderful customer service they experienced.
As Dr. Goddard recounted the historical development of Marshall Field, she pointed to many examples from her personal collection of Field’s memorabilia: original print advertisements, a Marshall Field and Company credit card in the name of Mrs. Walter E. Hall, Aunt Holly and Uncle Mistletoe dolls, and an original copy of the book given to all Marshall Field employees, “Give the Lady What She Wants.”
Marshall Field (1834-1906) was an American entrepreneur and a retail genius. Many of the experiences and services now taken for granted were revolutionary concepts in the 1870s. Marshall Field instituted a store-wide policy allowing returns of goods for any reason. He is also credited with the concept of consistent pricing; until then, those wishing to make a purchase needed to haggle with the salesperson.
Mr. Field insisted his employees cater to customers. Once, observing a strained conversation between a salesclerk and a customer, he reportedly said, “Give the lady what she wants,” without concern for whether the transaction was profitable. The maxim “The customer is always right” was one Marshall Field lived by.
Dr. Goddard also described how Mr. Field introduced another radical concept: the idea of a store providing services in addition to dry goods and merchandise. One of those bygone services was the Kid Glove Cleaning Department.
Mr. Field believed customers should shop for luxury goods in a beautiful environment. He spared no expense outfitting Marshall Field and Company with rich, luxurious materials like brass, marble, and walnut to differentiate his store from any other. One did not go to Marshall Field and Company for an errand – it was a day-long event, an experience to be savored.
Mr. Field also had a knack for identifying talented employees, the most well-known being Harry Selfridge. It was Mr. Selfridge who suggested the store deliver packages to customers’ homes, and soon Marshall Field and Company employed 400 carriages and 700 horses to deliver purchases throughout Chicagoland.
Mr. Selfridge also convinced Mr. Field to include a place for customers to dine within the store. What started as a small experiment of a few tables soon made way for the the luxurious Walnut Room, which opened in 1907, the first restaurant ever in a department store.
Of all the audience comments shared at the end of Dr. Goddard’s presentation, perhaps the most moving was one from a woman who told how her husband was offered his first job at Marshall Field on State Street. She shared how he had a successful career there in retail, was treated fairly and respectfully, and spoke fondly of his employers and supervisors.
The day ended on a sweet note – Frango mints for everyone.