I grew up in the 40s war years at the Jane Addams Homes public project on the near west side of Chicago. Four nearby places dominate my memory - Hull House, Maxwell Street Market, the Maxwell Street Market12th Street Store, and Marshall Field's on State Street. The first was where I learned to play the violin, the next was where I became dizzy with the smells of simmering Polish sausages most Sundays, and the last two were where my mother would shop while I came down with shopper's legs fatigue.
As a kid, the redeeming feature of Field’s was the toy displays, Walnut Room lunches during the Christmas holidays, and the third floor book department. Even after I reached my version of adulthood, Marshall Field’s book department was a home for me. It’s the place where Jan and I bought, on layaway, a letter signed by A. Lincoln.
From the 20s thru the 50s, Field’s State Street bookstore was the place to see and hear authors. Carl Sandburg, Amelia Earhart, Admiral Richard E. Byrd, Bing Crosby, Norman Rockwell, Shirley Temple, and Dear Abby (Abigail Van Buren) were some of the authors who entertained throngs of men in suits and women in hats and gloves.
Most memorable of all was Eddie the Elephant. In 1944, Eddie, a full grown elephant, was transported by freight elevator to the third floor book department. He was taught to hold and use an ink stamp to “sign” his book. When it was over, he refused to get back into the elevator, stampeded into the adjoining rug department, and then waited hours for workmen to construct a ramp down the main staircase. This prompted a second book, Eddie Elephant Has A Party, which told the story of the romp in Field’s.
Inevitably, at some point in the 70s or 80s, the Field’s book department was removed from its dominantly large space on the 3rd floor and banished to a shriveled and out of the way corner of the lower level – warehousing its rapidly aging inventory of books and salespeople. Then, in 1990, Marshall Field’s was purchased by Target Corporation.
After struggling with declining interest in stately retailers like Field’s, Target hit upon the idea of bringing in outside retailers to operate under their own name. It was modeled after London’s iconic Selfridge & Co. Harry Selfridge started his British adventure after retiring as a partner in -- Marshall Field & Company. In another head smacking set of facts, both Marshall Field’s on State Street (designated a National Historic Monument in 1978) and Selfridges on London’s Oxford Street were designed by Daniel Burnham, the creator of Chicago’s master plan. That plan defines Chicago to this day.
Imagine then how Jan and I felt when, sometime in 2002 or early 2003, a call from an imposing Target Corporation V-P proposed that Barbara’s take over the Field’s State Street book department. In September 2003, Barbara’s opened a new lower level bookstore.
Today, fifteen years later, with the store now operated by Macy’s, we have opened a new and expanded space which, after decades of absence, will let us bring today’s noted authors to Chicago’s State Street.
Oh yes, the now dated and jarring “Give the Lady What She Wants” was the prime Marshall Field’s marketing strategy – a successful and true statement of the Field’s brand.
Donald Barliant, co-owner