Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Few Thoughts about Marshall Field

On March 2, the History Club will have a special guest. Leslie Goddard will present an illustrated lecture entitled Remembering Marshall Field’s. She will concentrate on the business and how it developed into a world-class department store. The presentation is made possible by June H. Steele and the Halverson Fund.

There is no evidence that Marshall Field had any Scottish connection but he used many Scots in his operation. His first wife was Nannie Douglas Scott from Ironton, Ohio. (With a name like that there must be a Scottish connection.) They were married in 1863. She was 22 and very attractive. He was 28. There are pictures on the Internet.

Mrs. Field had many health problems and spent her later years living in France. She gave birth to three children. One baby died rather early in life but a son and daughter lived to maturity. Some have written that it was an unhappy marriage, but I don’t know for sure. Mr. Field ordered that all his personal letters be buried upon his death and a faithful servant followed his wishes. Many of those letters were between himself and his wife, Nannie Douglas.  Mrs. Field’s died in Nice, France on February 23, 1896. After a period of time, her body was brought back to Chicago and buried in Graceland Cemetery.

Marshall Field later married a longtime friend, Delia Caton a few months before his death in 1906.

The Field Mansion at 1905 Prairie Avenue was designed by Richard Morris Hunt with walls of brick and a slate mansard roof. It was the first house in Chicago to have electric lights. It had “noble rooms” and the circular staircase was a masterpiece in woodcraft. Standing at the end of the hall was a clock built in England in 1793 that required winding only once a year.  Marshall Field III, who lived on Long Island, later gave the home to the Association of Arts & Industry. The Tribune reports: “Practically all of the furniture has been given to old family servants - with the stipulations that nothing ever be sold, claimed by the Field grandchildren or assembled in preparation for a Marshall Field & Co. Exhibit.”

The elegant old house was destroyed in 1955.

“Every morning at a regular hour Marshall Field left his home in his carriage for his store. But on arriving at State Street, he would get out of the carriage a short distance from the store and walk the rest of the way. He thought it both bad taste and bad business to arrive at work in a fancy carriage with a coachman on the box.”

In 1886, Mrs. Nannie Field decided to have a Christmas party for her two children and used as a theme the “Mikado Ball.” The house was turned into a miniature Japanese village. The supplies, linen, silver and food were all purchased in New York and transported to Chicago in two private railroad cars. The cost was $75,000.

On the night of the ball, Prairie Avenue was lit for blocks around with special calcium lights. “A long line of polished carriages drawn by meticulously groomed horses began delivering the first of the five-hundred invited guests at 6:00 p.m.” Everyone was dressed in Japanese costume. The walls of every hall were obscured behind satin and bamboo screens and expensive bronzes, tapestries and porcelain had been purchased to carry out the oriental motif.

“There were imported favors for every guest, Mrs. Field having scored a social and diplomatic coup by persuading the iconoclastic James McNeill Whistler to design the favors.”

As I mentioned earlier, many prominent Scots were involved in the operations of Marshall Field & Co. Here is a short list of people with a Scottish heritage.

James Simpson - President, born in Glasgow, Scotland
John McKinlay - 4th President, born in Greenwich, Scotland. Died 3/14/1953
James O. McKinsey - Chairman and senior executive officer of Marshall Field. Died 1937 while in office.
Hughston M. McBain - President, 1943. Clan Chief, McBain of McBain
John McKinlay, Jr. - Champion golfer, died, 1992 in Florida. Retired, 1964 from Marshall Field
David W. Davidson - (Scottish name?) Senior vice-president. Lived at 140 Oxford Road, Kenilworth, and 678 Sheridan Road, Wilmette.
When I drive down State Street, I still expect to see the Marshall Field sign. The famous old clock is still there, but there is another name. It’s a mystery to me why a company would give up that name with its traditions and history. I guess I’m too old to understand the modern day trend.

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois St. Andrew Society

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March 2, 2013 - You are invited to attend the next meeting of the Scottish-American History Club and hear a presentation by Leslie Goddard. Her presentation will be “Remembering Marshall Field’s.” For more than 150 years, Marshall Field and Co. reigned as Chicago’s leading department store. This illustrated talk traces the store’s history from its beginnings into a world-class trendsetter.

There is no charge but reservations are helpful. Call 708-408-5591.

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