Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Oooo boy my mother is going to be maaaaad

When I started researching Field's history, I figured, hey, I probably have a ton of photos of Field's. Definitely of the Walnut Room Christmas tree.

My family -- well, my three adorable nieces, my darling mother, my lovely sister and I -- have been going to the Walnut Room for at least 10 years now. Like everyone else, we wait around forever (well, unless my mother does the saintly thing and goes early to get us one of those buzzer things). One year we arrived around lunch hour and waited so long the girls resorted to stuffing themselves on potato chips and it was probably closer to 4 when we finally sat down for "lunch." The next year, we arrived so early we got seated at something like 10 a.m. These things just cannot be coordinated.

Nope. Two hours of digging through boxes of photos turned up exactly one out of focus photograph that doesn't include me:
My mother (who will hate me because she hates seeing photos of herself but I think she looks great) and my darling niece Annie.

Blurry? Check. No visuals of the background? Check. So tightly cropped it could be in any restaurant and we can only tell it's the Walnut Room because of the date marked stamped on it? Check check check.

Why is it that I take tons of photos of things I never want to look at in the future -- acquaintances from high school who happened to be at the graduation ceremony, buildings at college that I can no longer even recall what went on in them, every unflattering Halloween costume ever worn -- but the things that now really form cherished memories some elude photographic immortalization?

But these great traditions that we look forward to every year? Not nearly enough photos.

So, goal for the future: Take more photos. Of the things that really matter.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Top 10 Favorite Marshall Field's Traditions

One of the delights of exploring department store history is learning which traditions are most cherished by customers and employees.

In talking with people and reviewing books and articles about Marshall Field’s, certain favorite traditions emerge as the standouts. In my unscientific assembling, the top 10 favorite traditions are:

10. Uncle Mistletoe. What's not to love about a Christmas character who looked like he stepped right out of a Dickens novel, encourages kids to join the Kindness Club, and has eyebrows that resemble small boats?

9. Marshall Field's Special Sandwich. A huge hunk of iceberg lettuce, some chicken and neon Thousand Island Dressing. A Classic, even if hasn't appeared on a menu for years.

8. The 3rd floor book department. This is the dept. that

started book signings and hosted everyone from Shirley Temple to Admiral Byrd to Amelia Earhart. For a while, the biggest book dept. in the world (or so Field's always said)

7. The 8th floor Trend House. A ground-breaking idea for its time -- an entire house set up on the 8th floor, changed about twice a year and featuring fully decorated rooms. Originally the furnishings were affordable and the looks something ordinary people might want, but gradually it drifted into the outrageously trendy and outrageously pricey.

6. The 4th floor children's dept, especially the toy and game dept. At one time, the largest toy dept in the world (again, in Field's own unbiased words) and full of exclusives, like Field's own Madame Alexander dolls and Marshall Field's green Tonka trunks.

5. The Great Clock. According to legend, established so people would have a convenient place to meet. The original clock at State and Washington was replaced when the new store building went up. And a mate was installed at State and Wabash (in the new building that actually opened prior to the one at State and Washington). Designed by Daniel Burnham's firm, which also did the building, and slated for memoralization in a Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell. For some reason, the clock at Washington St. became more famous than the one at Wabash -- and both more famous than virtually any other clock in Chicago.

4. The Tiffany mosaic glass dome. Still the largest individual piece of irridescent glass mosaic ever installed. When it opened, as part of the new building's opening in 1907, president John G. Shedd worried that the floor under the dome might not hold up under the weight of the throngs who came to see the dome.

3. Frango mints. Chocolate. Mint. Delicious. Not a Field's original (acquired with the acquisition of the legendary Frederick and Nelso Dept. store in 1929) but Field's made it its own, producing it for years on the flagship store's 13th floor. Field's perpetuated the wonderful legend that they were originally called Franco's but were renamed when the Spanish dictator rose to power. Sadly, patent application papers reveal that the name Frango was registered in 1918, long before anyone heard of Generalissimo Franco.

2. The Great Tree in the Walnut Room. Originally a 45-foot real tree hauled up the light well and monitored by firefighters, but for most of its history an artificial -- but splendid tree rising several stories high. Eating lunch or having tea under the Great Tree became such a tradition for Chicago families that many children's memories include the hours and hours -- and hours -- of waiting until a table openedup.

1. The Christmas holiday windows. Marshall Field's was not the first department store to put up Christmas window displays, but like so many other things, the Field's windows came to feel like the best in Chicago.

Ok, maybe nothing earth-shattering here, but think about this:

On this list, 5 of the 10 are not directly related to buying. The Christmas windows, the Tiffany dome, the Great Clocks -- not things you came to purchase, but rather the delightful, lavish displays that drew you to the store and made experiencing it a one-of-a-kind, special indulgence. They marked a visit to the store as something opulent and luxurious. They were part of the “feel” of the store, the emotional whallop a visit to it delivered.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Remembering State St

Today, with even the great grande dame Carson Pirie Scott gone, it's hard to remember that State St was once packed with retail boutiques and department stores.

Consider the block directly south of Fields:
That's Field's on the far left, the Columbus Memorial Bldg (some retailers but also offices), then Chas A Stevens, then Mandel Bros, then Carson's on the far right at the corner of State and Madison. And that's just one side of one block!

What's even more amazing is that this density of retail didn't come about as a result of mere competition. Field himself (as in, Marshall #1) purchased chunks of real estate and sold it to other retailers, hoping to draw more retail business to the area around his store. The thinking, not unlike that for a mall today, was that the more shops were concentrated in one area, the more likely people will come to that area to go shopping.

I think the mobility that cars gave us has made us forget just how much of a virtue this was in the days when trains, trolleys, streetcars, and horse-drawn buggies were the major modes of transportation.

And helps us understand why the arrival of the automobiles (making it so much easier for people to go wherever the wanted to shop) and the continuing increase in population in Chicago (making it more and more congested on State St) ultimately spelled trouble for State St.

But nonetheless, for a brief while, luring other department stores and boutiques to the area around his store was a brilliant strategy for Field.