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Field, Marshall - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Marshall Field

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Marshall Field and Company


Marshall Field, a pioneer in the retail industry, founded what grew to become the world’s largest department store. His innovative ideas and readiness to explore new ways of servicing retail customers distinguished Field from so many other merchants. His motto, “The customer is always right,” not only summarized his business philosophy, but also became a creed for all who entered the retail industry. His unwavering focus on customer satisfaction eventually made him a highly successful and respected merchant.

Personal Life

Marshall Field was born on August 18, 1834, and was the third of six children on a modest farm near the town of Conway, Massachusetts. His parents, John and Fidelia Nash Field, had roots there that dated back to 1630. Field attended the district school in Conway. While he was not a very good student, he excelled athletically; he was the fastest runner in his school. Early on, he exhibited a keen sense of business in trading jack knives with the other boys. Marshall Field was quiet and usually spent most of his time alone, however, a trait that he carried with him in later years. Field matured to become a man of few words, particularly in the home. When he did talk, it was about business. Field was reportedly addicted to work, as he had been since childhood, a value instilled in him early by his father. If he had any relaxation time, it too was filled with thoughts of improving his business.

Field’s personal life included hardship and tragedy. He married his first wife, in 1863 at the age of 29. Nannie was the daughter of a wealthy ironworker from Ohio. However, she left him in the late 1880s to live in France by herself. She complained that her husband was so involved in his business that his continuing absence had driven her away and only apart from him could she find relief from her loneliness. Field and his wife never divorced. When Nannie died in Paris in 1896, he began a secret relationship with Delia Spencer, the wife of a friend of his. After Delia’s husband died in 1905, she and Field were married.

In November of 1905, his only son, shot himself in the abdomen while preparing for a hunting trip. The elder Field was devastated and, at age 71, came down with pneumonia a month after his son died. He died on January 6, 1906.

Career Details

An unexpected closing of the main road that went by the Field farm is what would eventually lead Field to leave farming. Due to the change in property values, John Field sold the family farm and purchased a new piece of property, then turned it over to his son, Chandler, one of Field’s older brothers. The life in farming that Field had come to expect, even if it had not been appealing to him, was now no longer in his future. So he searched for other options, first trying his hand as a clerk at a store. It seemed like an easy job, but at age 15 Field was seen as a miserable failure. The merchant told John Field that his son would never make it in the business world. Marshall was forced to return to his brother’s farm and work as a hired hand. During the next two years working there, Field realized farming was not for him and he longed to be self-employed.

At age 17, with his brother Joseph, he took a job in a dry goods store in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Even into the twentieth century, a dry goods store was the name given to what is now known as a department store that offered a variety of clothing and household goods. This time Marshall knew he had no choice except to stay and work hard at making a career for himself. He remained at the store for five years, living above the store and learning the business. It was said that he was shy, but courteous, and hard working enough to make up for whatever natural talent he might have lacked.

After five years, his employer in Pittsfield offered him a partnership, but Field declined. He decided that the best opportunities for making a fortune were in the West. At that time, prior to the Civil War, the West included the territories west of Ohio. Rapid development and population growth offered endless possibilities for any merchant ambitious enough to relocate to uncharted territory.

Field left New England at age 22 and moved to Chicago, which was a young city at the time. The city was rough, wild, and muddy. Yet, it was a city on the verge of becoming the center of the American Midwest and the hub of travel by rail, land, and water. It was there that Field decided to set up shop.

Upon moving to Chicago, Field obtained work as a clerk in a dry goods store called Cooley, Wadsworth and Company. It was the largest store of its kind in Chicago at that time. The small and serious Marshall Field arranged to live and sleep in the store, managing to save half of his small income by living this way. The man who came to be known as “silent Marsh,” because of his retiring social manner, at this time he became obsessed to become a successful businessmen. By age 28, Field had risen to become a full partner in the company.

Field’s consistently high level of performance at the store prompted another local entrepreneur, Putler Palmer, to ask that Field and his close partner Levi Leiter start a new business. This would be a new and full-range dry goods store in Chicago. Marshall Field, by the age of 30, had risen from a small store clerk to the co-owner of one of the largest department stores in Chicago in only eight years. In 1867, after two years of partnership, Field had arranged to buy out his partner, Levi Leiter and brought his two younger brothers into the business as partners.

Social and Economic Impact

The timing for Field’s business ventures would seem all wrong. He started his partnership in the midst of the Civil War and calamities in Chicago soon followed. The fire of 1871 and the great financial panic of 1873, which impacted the financial stability of the entire nation, were challenges Field had to endure. He remained undaunted and unyielding to these forces, never veering from his goal of being a successful businessman. He worked day and night to rebuild and to refine his business. His efforts would eventually pay off, as he would ultimately create a giant department store that became world renowned.

Field decided to concentrate on retail sales and totally abandoned wholesale aspects of his business. In the meantime, the city was changing every day. A new middle class was emerging with money to spend. He also realized the importance of concentrating on women as his main customers and moved his business to a part of town that was safe and physically accessible to women.

As a merchant, Field was responsible for many innovations. He introduced the one-price system, bought and sold for cash, and permitted exchange of goods. The reliability of his store was well known. Field knew how to capitalize on the latest business trends and tailor them to his needs. He adopted the idea of home delivery and offering an interior decoration department. Field established his store as one for people of good taste and employed European buyers, who brought back the finest china and furniture from Europe. His store was to be the standard against which all others would be measured. Field is given credit for re-inventing the motto, “The customer is always right.” If an article was returned, for any reason, the customer’s money was returned, as well. He was the first to display merchandise in the front-windows to draw pedestrians inside. He also opened a restaurant in the store and initiated free gift-wrapping for customers. It was also Field who started what some may say as the most significant innovation of all: The Bargain Basement. Because of his efforts, sales grew from $12 million annually in 1868 to $25 million by 1881 and $68 million in 1906.

Field’s business earned him millions in his lifetime. He was known to everyone in Chicago, and socialized with the very rich of the city. He had an enormous estate built on Chicago’s prestigious Prairie Avenue. Through it all, Field still held onto the ways of his farming boyhood and had changed little: he was still quiet, socially shy, and known as somewhat reclusive. Interestingly, Field pushed the development of downtown Chicago, so that when he died, half of his fortune, estimated at $100 to $150 million, was in Chicago properties. He wished to make Chicago a great educational and cultural center and gave large sums to various institutions. He helped found the Art Institute, donated the land on which the first building of the University of Chicago was erected, and contributed $1 million for the museum of the World’s Columbian Exposition. This museum became Field’s chief interest; in addition to gifts during his lifetime, his $8 million bequest built the Field (later Chicago) Museum of National History. Even to the present, this museum remains a foremost tourist attraction and significant contribution to the city’s culture.

Field refined and created the model department store. It was a complete store with elaborate displays, a variety of products, in-store cosmetics shops, dining areas, and of course the bargain basement concept. His customer-friendly policy, and the simple vastness of his store offering something for everyone, brought him a shopping center with great customer loyalty. This concept was copied by all who opened department stores in the United States and around the world.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, Marshall Field was known as a workaholic, never sitting idle for a day. His business style was to work constantly. He loved his employees who cared about business as much as he did, and promoted the ambitious and efficient ones to high ranks in the company.

Field ushered in new ideas and initiated whatever seemed to work in other businesses. He took trends and made them work for his store with always an eye to the customer. He created the feeling, without a doubt, that the customer was always right—which had become his company’s most effective business strategy.

Chronology: Marshall Field

1834: Born.

1856: Moved to Chicago and worked as clerk at Cooley, Wadsworth & Co.

1862: Became full partner with Cooley, Wadsworth & Co.

1863: Married first wife, Nannie Scott.

1864: Joined with partner Levi Leiter to start own store.

1867: Bought out Leiter and brought two younger brothers into business.

1881: Company assumed name, Marshall Field and Company.

1906: Died.

The bulk of Marshall Field’s estimated fortune of $150 million was put into a trust fund for his grandson, who was 12 years old when his father, Marshall II, fatally shot himself. His grandson, Marshall III, caused society to talk when it became public that he was going to donate his inheritance. He believed that inherited wealth should go to help ease social problems. Much of his money went into founding the Chicago Sun newspaper. Field’s legacy would be transformed from one of wealth to one of promoting social justice—something Field could not accomplish in his own lifetime.

Fields, Debbi - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Debbi Fields [next] [back] Fibonacci, Leonardo

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