Once upon a time, people did not race to the malls in order to dash from store to store in search of the perfect gift, or even an acceptable one. They did not face crammed parking lots, overburdened clerks, uninspiring displays, and a lunch of greasy fries or sugary treats that invariably led to a bad case of acid reflux. Once upon a time, we went to grand department stores and, as we used to say, made a day of it.
These big stores, most of them built between 1870 and 1925, were often baroque-style structures. Most featured high, mosaic ceilings and tile floors, wide aisles, crystal chandeliers, and any number of fine restaurants and tea rooms. Every major city seemed to have at least one of these “grand dames”: Seattle (Frederick and Nelson), San Francisco (the Emporium), Boston (Jordan Marsh), Dallas (Neiman Marcus), Miami (Burdine’s), New York (Saks, Lord and Taylor, Bloomingdale’s), St. Louis (Famous Barr), Philadelphia (Wannamaker’s) and Chicago (Marshall Field’s), to name a few. Many were modeled after their European counterparts, Harrod’s of London or Printemps in Paris, but always with an American twist.
As a little girl, I eagerly anticipated our yearly holiday department store outing because it involved much more than dropping in on our respectably staid local department store, Gimbel’s. Instead, our day would consist of a trip to Chicago by train, where we’d invariably visit the renowned Chicago Art Museum and then head to Marshall Field’s.
In the years since, I’ve been in many department stores. But in my six-year-old Midwestern eyes, Marshall Field’s was the grandest store imaginable.
The man behind the business, Marshall Field, was an entrepreneur who described his enterprise as an “emporium.” His motto was “give the lady what she wants,” not exactly pc but an accurate reflection of his loyal customer base for many years. In its heyday, Marshall Field’s was a formidable brand that included well-known confectionaries* and a popular cookbook. The store itself was a temple to consumer goods with some stunning architecture: the clock at the State Street entrance, the stunning Tiffany Mosaic Dome, and the elegant Walnut Room. Field’s, as it was sometimes called, featured six well-regarded restaurants, including a Men’s Grill Room and place for afternoon tea. At Christmastime, an area was set off for “Santa-land,” a fantasy concoction of elves and trees, fake snow and twinkly lights and a path that led directly to a real-looking Santa with a real beard (being a department store Santa was once an honorable profession). The entire store looked like a gigantic gift package, from the extravagant window displays to the festooned crystal chandeliers.
*Marshall Field’s world-famous Frango mints, (chocolate mint truffles) actually originated with Seattle’s Frederick and Nelson but Field’s broadly expanded the market. Marshall Field’s also sold caramel turtle candy in competition with its Chicago rival, Fannie May.)
Our trip to Chicago was a dress-up occasion; we wore jumpers or dresses with gloves and hats (my mother kept us in matching outfits until I rebelled shortly after my eighth birthday) and patent-leather shoes unless an early snowstorm necessitated boots. We ate breakfast on the train and went to the museum when we arrived. Then it was time for lunch in the Walnut Room and sometimes a fashion show. Although I was only mildly interested in clothes and shopping, I loved those lunches; they provided me with a window into what it might mean to be a grownup. After lunch, we’d walk the store and look—and look and look. We bought candy, of course, and sometimes a gift for my father, if for no other reason than to have it gift-wrapped by people whose magic transformed a gift box into a work of art.
There was, I realize, as much ostentatiousness on parade in the old department stores as in the new. We really weren’t as a people any less acquisitive one hundred or fifty years ago than we are now; but perhaps we were more inquisitive. And I’m sure there were hurried, harried shoppers then as now. But there was, I’m fairly certain, more wandering going on, more watching and looking and taking it all in with a sense of wonder. Of course I was very young and many things were wonderous to me.
A number of the grand department stores have been bought by Federated, which owns Macy’s. There’s a sameness about them that’s a little dispiriting, not to mention all those people with bent heads barreling through the store. But the grand architecture remains, as do some old traditions and perhaps some new ones, such as this event that took place recently at the former Wannamaker’s (now a Macy’s) in Philadelphia. Christmastime may be commerce time but that doesn’t mean we can’t all look up and take in some wonder.
Marshall Field’s cookbook
History of deparment stores
Bring Back Marshall Field’s
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