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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 477

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This is the grave of Marshall Field.

Field’s tombstone claims he was born in 1835, but online sources say 1834. You’d be surprised how often the dates on tombstones are inaccurate. Anyway, he was born on a farm in Conway, Massachusetts to old Puritan stock. He moved to Pittsfield when he was 17 and worked in a dry goods store. Adventurous and wanting to make it for himself, he moved to the booming new town of Chicago when he was 21. He lived with his brother and got a job with a dry goods firm there. Very talented and extremely ambitious, he rose in the company’s ranks very quickly and in 1862, became a partner. That lasted until 1865, when Field became a partner at a different firm. Over the next decade, this changed partners, went through some hard times with the Great Chicago Fire and the Panic of 1873, but by 1875, it was fully Field’s and it would become legendary.

Basically, Marshall Field went a very long way to invent modern consumerism. The entire legal framework of early American capitalism was that all responsibility rode downward. If you got hurt on the job, it was on the worker, not the employer, and the courts backed that up consistently. If you were a farmer and an industrialist put up a dam or ran logs down a stream that affected your livelihood and your land, that was your problem. If you were a consumerism and something was poorly made or if it poisoned you, it was your problem.

Marshall Field changed the consumer nature of this relationship, not out of charity but because he realized it would be good business to center the buyer in his store instead of the seller. So he created an amazing palace to shopping in Gilded Age Chicago. He went through several buildings over the decades, but in 1892, he hired the legendary architect Daniel Burnham to raze a bunch of buildings in downtown Chicago and build Field’s dream store. That included the installation of the first of the iconic Marshall Field clocks. Continued work meant that by 1902, Field had a 12-story building that served as a shopping paradise. Each floor was dedicated to different items. There was a grand entrance. Tiffany windows and ceilings blew away visitors. And anyone could go. Even if the poor could not buy anything in the store, they could dream of being consumers. Field was building consumer capitalism and the object of desire as he went.

Moreover, this palace had new consumer-friendly policies, such as refunds for returns from unsatisfied consumers. Field’s workers were told not to push products on customers, instead letting them choose. Perhaps apocryphally, Field is said to have coined the terms “Give the lady what she wants” and “The customer is always right.” Now, Field was a smart guy. Retail was only a minority part of his business, as he also invested heavily in wholesaling. This is less interesting to us today, but it was not until after his death that the retail part of the business became more important.

In other ways, Field was a typical Gilded Age capitalist. He hated unions, for instance. He led public demands to execute the anarchists after Haymarket and called for action against far less radical workers’ movements as well. By 1913, the state of Illinois was investigating the terrible working conditions of women inside the store, but Field had died by this time.

Today, we are widely seen to be at the end of the retail era, with stores closing left and right. That’s probably accurate. But we can definitely date the era’s beginning with Marshall Field.

Field died in 1906 after playing golf with Robert Lincoln, who had quite a tendency to be around famous people right at the time of their deaths. He was 71 or 72 years old.

Marshall Field is buried at Graceland Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois.

If you would like this series to visit more retail capitalists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Richard Warren Sears is in Chicago as is Alvah Curtis Roebeck. Different cemeteries though, and not with Field either. Chicago is truly a cornucopia of capitalist graves. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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