Marshall Field



Born: August 18, 1834
Conway, Massachusetts
Died: January 16, 1906
New York, New York
Founder, Marshall Field's department stores

Marshall Field. Reproduced courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Marshall Field.
Reproduced courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Marshall Field is considered to be one of the greatest retailers of all time. He virtually created the modern department store, and he played a large role in Chicago's transformation from a small town to a major city. Field was one of the great American self-made millionaires of the nineteenth century.

A shy and hard-working man, Field's success in business did not guarantee a happy personal life. His first marriage, to Nannie Scott, ended in 1896 with his wife's death in France, where she lived without Field for many years. Field's son, Marshall II, died almost ten years later in a tragic shooting accident. Field's last joy in life was his marriage to long-time friend Delia Caton just a few months before his own death. Sometimes portrayed as lonely and unloved, Field found his deepest happiness in his store.

"If Marshall Field had anything to sell, he would sell it, if a customer came in; if a customer did not come in, he was not above going out and finding one."

—Joseph Field, Marshall Field's brother

The Road to Chicago

Marshall Field was born on August 18, 1834, in Conway, Massachusetts. He was the third of six children. His parents, John and Fidelia, ran a farm just outside of Conway. When he wasn't working on the farm, Field took classes at a nearby school. He became expert at trading with the other boys for their pocketknives. At fifteen, Field began working as a clerk in a local store, after his father sold the family farm to Field's older brother Chandler. He realized he would never have a farm of his own and needed a new career.

At first Field did not seem cut out for retailing. His first employer told Mr. Field that his son would never be able to run a store. Field returned to farm work for several years before leaving Conway to work at a store in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He did better this time, easily memorizing the store's products and prices, and showing a flair for handling customers. After five years, Field's boss offered to make him a partner, but Field declined. He wanted to move west, and by the end of the year he had settled in Chicago, Illinois.

At the time, Chicago was a town of about eight thousand people, with rows of wooden buildings lining dirt roads that turned muddy in the rain. The town, however, was slowly becoming the most important city in the Midwest. Its location on Lake Michigan and the increasing number of railways leading to it made Chicago a center for trade. Field took a job with Cooley, Wadsworth and Company, the largest dry-goods store in the city. By 1860, Field was a junior partner in the company. Five years later, he and another partner at Cooley, Levi Leiter, went into business with one of their competitors, Potter Palmer.

His first year in Chicago, Marshall Field earned just $400, which was an average yearly salary for the time. He slept in the Cooley store where he worked to save money. After he joined forces with Palmer and Leiter to form his own company, Field was worth was more than $250,000.

The Field Way

With his new store, Field followed the practices he had developed at Cooley. He and his partners rarely sold items on credit and paid cash for what they sold. These policies helped the store survive difficult times when business slowed. Field also looked for the best products available and dealt honestly with his customers.

In 1867, Palmer sold his share of the store. Field then brought his brothers Joseph and Henry into the business, which was renamed Field, Leiter and Company. The next year, the company opened a new store in a beautiful downtown building. An impressed reporter for the Chicago Tribune wrote that the store "looked palatial, fairy-like, and for all the world as if it had been brought into existence by some enchanter." The grand building, however, was badly damaged in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Field temporarily set up business in a large barn, then opened a new store in 1872. Business grew again, as Field offered a wide range of goods, many of them imported from Europe. Later, the company set up its own factories to make many of the items sold in the store. Field's signature appeared on the label of many of the clothes, a sign to shoppers they had bought a quality product.

By the end of the decade, Field's partnership with Leiter grew tense. Field bought his share of the business in 1881, and the company was renamed Marshall Field & Company. Going into the 1890s, Field dominated the department store business in Chicago. He introduced several policies copied by stores around the nation, such as free delivery and an easy return policy. Field helped popularize the idea that "the customer is always right."

The company's growth came as Chicago was turning into an industrial center, and more people had money to buy the fine products Marshall Field's offered. Field especially catered to women, creating a pleasing shopping environment. The store was also a tourist attraction for people who had never seen a department store with such splendor.

In 1905, Marshall Field was the largest individual taxpayer in the United States.

Businessman and Philanthropist

As his wealth increased, Field became an important figure in Chicago. He was friendly with the city's other business leaders, including George Pullman (1831-1897), a maker of railroad cars. When Pullman's workers went on strike in 1894, Field suggested the Illinois National Guard be called in to break up the strike. Chicago labor leaders began calling the Guardsmen "Marshall Field's Boys." With his own workers, Field set high standards. His store clerks received less than the standard wage, but they were also rewarded with more responsibility. One new clerk, John Shedd, impressed Field with his intelligence and hard work, so Field promoted him. Shedd became president of the company after Field's death.

Robert Ulrich: Leader of a Retail Giant

"Speed is life" is the motto of Target Corporation chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) Robert J. Ulrich. "Speed has to be our way of life," Ulrich said at Target's 1994 annual corporate meeting, as reported in Discount Store News. "Companies have to run faster just to stay in place. And we have no intention of standing still." Ulrich was true to his word, keeping Target Corporation growing by adding new stores and orchestrating the switch that put the Marshall Field name on the former Dayton's and Hudson's stores.

Born in 1944, Ulrich has spent his entire career at Dayton Hudson/Target. After graduating from the University of Michigan, he started at Dayton's as a management trainee. As he worked his way up through the company, he held a variety of positions, including sales manager, buyer, and group manager. In 1981, Ulrich was made president and CEO of Diamond's, then one of Dayton Hudson's smaller chains. Three years later, after the Dayton's and Hudson's stores were combined into one department-store company, he was named president of the new division.

In 1986, Ulrich took over as president of the Target stores, just as DH was planning to expand its discount division. The next year he was named chairman of Target. In 1994, Ulrich stepped up to chairman and CEO of Dayton Hudson, although he remained committed to Target and promoted several former associates there to key positions in the parent company. In 2000, when Target's revenue represented 80 percent of the company's sales, Ulrich announced DH's name change to Target Corporation. He told Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, "Target Corporation is a more appropriate name for the company and is also a more widely recognized brand name." Ulrich plans to keep Target growing, especially in the Northeast.

For the first part of his career, Field was not particularly active with charities, but starting in the 1890s he became more generous. He donated the land for the University of Chicago and also gave money to the school. In 1893, he gave $1 million for a museum built for the Columbian Exhibition, a world's fair held in Chicago to honor the four-hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus's voyage to America. Today, the Field Museum of Natural History is one of the finest museums in the United States.

By the time Field died in 1906, his fortune was worth about $150 million. Most of this was real estate Field owned in Chicago. In his will, he left money for the Field Museum and several local charities. Most of his money went into a trust for his grandsons, Henry and Marshall III. (The younger Marshall Field later used some of his wealth to enter the newspaper publishing industry.) Field had succeeded in business by following several simple rules. In 1896, he wrote some of them down in a letter, quoted in John Tebbel's book, The Marshall Fields. "Merchants who keep their business well in hand," Field wrote, "sell for cash … keep good habits and give strict attention to business very rarely fail."

For More Information

Books

Foner, Eric, and John A. Garraty, eds. The Reader's Companion to American History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991.

Tebbel, John. The Marshall Fields: A Study in Wealth. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1947.

Periodicals

Berss, Marcia. "Coming Home." Forbes (May 14, 1990): p. 44.

Bodipo-Memba, Alejandro. "Hudson's Gets New Identity." Detroit Free Press (January 13, 2001).

Chakravarty, Subrata N. "Planning for the Upturn." Forbes (December 23, 1991): p. 48.

Chandler, Susan. "Dayton Hudson's Name Change to Target Reflects Discount Retailer's Growth." Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News (January 13, 2000).

Conlin, Michelle. "Mass With Class." Forbes (January 11, 1999): p. 50. Howard, Tammi. "Target: Dayton Hudson's Discount Jewel." Women's Wear Daily (November 14, 1988): p. 92.

"Hudson's in Detroit: A Timeline." Detroit Free Press (January 13, 2001). Karr, Arnold. "Macke Dayton Hudson CEO." Daily News Record (September 16, 1983): p. 2.

Moore, Janet. "Dayton's, Hudson's Department Stores to Use Marshall Field's Name." Minneapolis-SL Paul Star Tribune (January 13, 2001).

Rowley, Cynthia. "Target's Aim: The Designer's Edge." Business Week (February 28, 2002).

Talaski, Karen. "Hudson's: 120 and Still Counting." Detroit News (February 4, 2001).

Trachtenberg, Jeffrey A. "Never Mind the High Road." Forbes (December 3, 1984): p. 174.

"Ulrich Sticks to Generalities at DH Annual Meeting." Discount Store News (June 20, 1994): p. 3.

Web Sites

Target Corporation. [On-line] http://www.targetcorp.com (accessed on August 16, 2002).



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