Blog, Commerce and Industry

The Marshall Field & Company Collection

By: Robert Blythe
Dec 14 2016

Collections volunteer Robert Blythe details the history of artifacts in our Marshall Field & Company collection.

In 2006, many Chicago-area residents were crestfallen when all Marshall Field & Company stores were rebranded as Macy’s stores. A local institution, Field’s was the premier Midwestern department store with industry-leading customer service standards. Generations of Chicagoans cherish their memories of the flagship State Street store’s holiday windows, lunching in the Walnut Room, and the lengths the store’s associates would go to ensure customer satisfaction.

Field’s corporate parent in 2006, Federated Department Stores, and its previous owner, Target Corporation, recognized the importance of Field’s history. Shortly after the switch to the Macy’s name, each firm donated a large portion of its Field’s-related materials to the Chicago History Museum. These donations were mammoth in size and rather sudden.

A reproduction of the famous clock, most likely used in a window display, 2007.100.5. All images by CHM staff

There were hundreds of three-dimensional objects that have only recently been more fully processed and catalogued. This collection includes items from every period of the store’s history, such as architectural pieces from the State Street store and its restaurants, figures used in window displays, vintage wooden and cast-iron toys, and labels from Field’s own clothing lines. A highlight from the early years is founder Marshall Field’s roll-top desk.

Robert Blythe and a Collections staffer examine the uncrated roll-top desk purportedly used by Marshall Field, 2007.99.6.

Robert Blythe displays an assortment of Christmas tree ornaments in their newly constructed archival storage boxes.

Some of the artifacts offer glimpses into the lives of store employees, such as the photographs of the shoe department sales force c. 1900, a trophy won by members of the Field’s Choral Society, and twenty-five-year service pins that became obsolete with the name change.

The Marshall Field & Co. archival collection comprises nearly one thousand boxes. Throughout its history, Field’s was conscious of its role as a leading US retailer, so it retained company records; catalogues, advertisements, and other promotional items; records from its subsidiaries; internal communications; and thousands of photographs.

To help researchers navigate this large collection, archives staff in the Collections department recently created a finding aid that provides a high-level inventory of some of the collection. These materials show how Field’s sought to position itself in the marketplace over the years and respond to changing consumer preferences. Field’s kept scrapbooks of its newspaper advertisements, and an enterprising scholar would find much material for a history of twentieth-century advertising. Promotional material from the early twentieth century was often aimed at more affluent customers—the “carriage trade.” After World War II, Field’s shifted its marketing toward the burgeoning middle class.

Field’s commissioned original art for the covers of Fashions of the Hour such as this one from 1926. [Folder 14053(5)]

The home goods catalogue from spring 1967 features a then-popular fondue set. [Folder 14060 (8)]

The Dayton-Hudson Corporation owned Field’s from 1990 to 2004, as indicated here on the Winter 1996 catalogue. [Folder 14172(14)]

The collection contains a complete run of Fashions of the Hour, a large format magazine/catalogue that Field’s published, dating from 1916 to 1978. Press kits and press releases by the thousand are present, including those prepared for store visits by the likes of author Carl Sandburg and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. We may never see another retail giant like Field’s, but we can savor its memory through the collection.

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