I don’t know what’s more shocking: that the clueless honchos at the Federated Stores corporation would make the asinine decision to change the name of Marshall Field’s department store on Chicago’s State Street to Macy’s, or the hysterical cries of treason from thousands of current and former Chicagoans (myself included). I do realize that in the grand scheme of things, exchanging one corporate name for another is not a tragedy on par with wars, natural disasters, and other forms of human suffering. But the death of Marshall Field’s evokes a sense of loss that extends far beyond commercial signage and brand identity.
I’ve never seen a store that maintains such an emotional resonance with its customer base. I’m the perfect example. I loathe shopping and you’d have a very hard time dragging me into any of the department stores in southern California. Keep your Nordstroms, Bloomingdales, Lord & Taylors, Saks, Neiman Marcuses, and Barneys. I’ve been to the mouth-watering Food Hall at Harrod’s in London, I’ve found relief from the frigid winter temperatures at the elegant GUM Department Store in Moscow, and I’ve made many a purchase at the Galeries Lafayette in Paris. But for me not a single commercial entity on the planet holds a candle to the 153-year-old legacy that is Marshall Field’s.
It would never occur to me to visit Chicago without a stop at Marshall Field’s behemoth downtown store. Even Leah, who has never lived in Chicago a day in her life, can’t wait to go to Field’s whenever we’re in town. It was while my sister was buying two lamps in the well appointed store a few weeks ago that our sales associate Sheneeska told me about the impending decision by the new owners to change the name. I was quickly able to foment a rising panic in the lighting department with my cries of horror and outrage. By the time I left I was promising to join Sheneeska on a picket line if Marshall Field’s were to morph into Macy’s. I’ve yet to come across a single person who is supportive or even neutral on the subject of this name change. On the contrary, anyone who has ever stepped foot in Chicago reacts to the news with the same level of emotion usually reserved for items like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Last week, on the day after the announcement, the Chicago Tribune featured a front-page headline about the decision in the size of type used to herald the end of World War II.
I’m well aware that the store has not been owned by the Field’s family for many years and that some say the quality of the merchandise and service has plummeted from the old days. I’m not sure I agree with this last assessment, especially after having stopped by the once venerable Carson Pirie Scott store on State Street during my trip last month and finding that despite its 1906 signature cast-iron entrance designed by Louis Sullivan, the interior of this landmark is now a total dump, with decaying walls, garish fluorescent lighting, and indifferent salespeople. To be fair, I was only making a quick dash through the store to find the post office on the 2nd floor, but when I returned to Field’s, Sheneeska told me how Carson’s had gone to hell in a handbag in recent years and that of the grand State Street stores, only Marshall Field’s still puts the money and care into its displays.
While I do whip out the credit card at Field’s more than any other department store, the reverence I feel for the place is obviously not about the merchandise—it’s about the memories and the role that Marshall Field’s has played in the lives of so many Chicagoans. Who doesn’t remember their first trip downtown to see the magical Christmas windows at Field’s? In my house this event was anticipated with the same excitement as the annual TV viewing of “The Wizard of Oz.” We dressed in our finest clothes for the visit which was usually followed by dinner at Fritzel’s and a screening at one of the downtown movie palaces such as the Oriental, Roosevelt, or Michael Todd Theatre. Marshall Field’s was not just a store, it was a destination.
Marshall Field's was the first American department store to have its own buyers in European cities. It was the first store to open a fine restaurant on the premises and the first to offer a bridal registry. The incredible Tiffany Ceiling is the largest glass mosaic of its kind, containing over 1,600,000 separate pieces, and the Great Clock at the corner of State and Washington streets which has been keeping time for over a century was immortalized by Norman Rockwell on the cover of “The Saturday Evening Post.”
I feel like my family is intricately connected to Marshall Field’s. For one thing, the flagship of my grandfather’s own chain of clothing stores, Karoll’s Red Hanger Shops, was directly across the street from Marshall Field’s. Though the store and landmark Karoll’s Building started getting a little seedy towards the end of my family’s half-century reign, we used to watch the Christmas Parade on State Street every year from my grandfather’s mezzanine office and gaze across at stately Marshall Field’s, feeling a part of that legacy. When I think of Field’s I especially think of my mother and grandmother and the countless times I visited this store with them. “Give the lady what she wants” was the famous Marshall Field’s slogan, and that they did. During our shopping days we’d always stop in the stunning Walnut Room on the 7th Floor to gorge on Field’s Specials. This lunchtime item hasn’t been on the menu in years but Field’s loyalists can still order it and the longtime waiters will respectfully comply. A Field’s Special consists of a piece of buttered rye bread on top of which is placed a thick slice of swiss cheese and almost an entire head lettuce. Olives, bacon, hard-boiled eggs, and tomatoes are affixed to the green base with toothpicks, like ornaments on the gigantic Christmas tree that sits in the center of the elegant restaurant during the holiday season. The plate is then covered with a thick creamy layer of Field’s own phosphorescent Thousand Island dressing. Yum. Top that off with a slice of Frango Mint Ice Cream Pie and you have a quintessential Chicago lunch.
I think every piece of furniture and every tchotchke in my grandparents’ Lake Shore Drive apartment came from Marshall Field’s, as did my grandmother’s couture wardrobe, fur coat, and hats. When I picture my mother, the image in my mind more often than not includes a forest green Marshall Field’s shopping bag. How many times did I meet her under that famous clock? Marshall Field’s was the site of my first elevator ride (did you know that Dorothy Lamour was an elevator operator at Field’s when she was discovered?), my first trip up an escalator (I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to step off properly and I’d get sucked into the mechanism), my favorite raspberry juice/coconut milk concoction at the third floor snack counter, my first book purchase (Shirley MacLaine’s “You Can Get There From Here”), and my first set of china when I moved out. My aunt worked at Field’s as did my friend Helena whose stint at the 7th floor bakery afforded me huge bags of free baked goods including the most delicious pecan cookies stuffed with whole Frango mints. For years my brother ran the audiovisual department at Marshall Field’s making all the training videos for the army of employees and many of the promotional videos seen around the store. I used to love visiting him at work because I got to go to the floors that were not open to the public. Bruce’s office was heady with the luscious aromas from the Frango mint kitchens which were one floor above. The old ladies making the chocolates used to send down trays of new flavors they were trying out. Bruce’s girlfriend at the time was one of the first women vice presidents at the male-dominated company. We were definitely a Field’s family.
It’s not that I have anything against Macy’s. I’d be the last person to begrudge the company its place in the world, especially on its own turf. Watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade has become a ritual in this country on par with overcooked turkey and Aunt Esther’s sweet potato-burnt marshmallow casserole. Macy’s is so much a part of our culture that you could organize a film festival around all the movies that have incorporated the store into their plots. One of my favorite Woody Allen moments is when he and Mia Farrow are trying to escape a band of murdering mafia thugs in “Broadway Danny Rose” and they duck into the warehouse where the gigantic character balloons for the Macy’s parade are being stored. Gunshots fired by the mafiosos puncture the huge helium-filled balloons causing the cast to play out the violent scene in high-pitched Munchkin voices.
The most famous Macy’s movie, of course, is 1947’s “Miracle on 34th Street” starring Maureen O’Hara as a no-nonsense Macy executive who hires an old man to play the store Santa. Finding out that the man (played by Edmund Gwenn) actually believes he is Kris Kringle, she thinks him a total nut. When O’Hara’s daughter Susan, played by 8-year-old Natalie Wood, starts to believe that this man really may be Santa Claus, O’Hara will have none of it.
Natalie Wood: But mother, he spoke Dutch to that girl!
Maureen O’Hara: Darling, I speak French, but that doesn’t make me Joan of Arc.
After the store psychologist gets the old man committed to Bellevue, Gwenn’s character goes to court to prove that he is, in fact, the real Santa. In the end, he wins over Macy’s, New York, and even cynical Maureen O’Hara. Who wouldn’t love Macy’s after watching this heartwarming tale? Founder R.H. Macy is portrayed kindly in the film by character actor Harry Antrim, whose previous claim to fame was starring in the 1938 exploitation flick “Sex Madness”—a cautionary tale about a man who contracts gonorrhea from a sleazy burlesque performer. Was that a premonition, Mr. Macy?
But no matter how good Macy’s looks in the movies, Macy’s ain’t Marshall Field’s and Marshall Field’s ain’t Macy’s. This insane decision to obliterate such an important piece of Chicago history only exacerbates the cliché of Chicago’s rivalry with New York. For a New York institution to take over one of the most iconic, recognized names in the Windy City is as horrifying for Chicagoans as it would be for New Yorkers if the Yankees were rechristened the New York Cubs.
When my mother was dying of cancer six years ago we had some poignant discussions about the existence of an afterlife and how we believed that we’d one day see each other again. We talked about where our astral selves should meet up following my own death. I won't reveal the exact location but I will say that we both simultaneously came up with a favorite spot inside Marshall Field’s State Street store as our meeting place. Among the many reasons why I find this decision to change the name of Marshall Field’s terribly upsetting is the fear that my mom will no longer be able to find me.