Author and historian Leslie Godard’s fascination with department stores runs in her family. His grandfather was a department store lifer, working first at Marshall Field and then at Carson Pirie Scott. His stepmother and father-in-law worked at Montgomery Ward. For her bohemian immigrant grandmother, it was thrift retailer The Fair or Bust, whose store at Adams and State was taken over by Montgomery Ward in 1957.
Goddard already had plenty of personal experience to draw on for his 2022 book, “Lost Chicagoland Malls.” Now the Elmhurst Historical Museum is displaying an exhibit based on his book; Just in time for the holidays.
“People had a real identity with these stores. “They were a huge part of people’s lives,” Goddard says.
The Elmhurst exhibit is modest, taking visitors less than an hour to tour. But the objects on display will delight nostalgic enthusiasts: Credit cards from Montgomery Ward, old Sears catalogs and Marshall Field’s animatronic Christmas window from 2004 depicts a scene from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” There’s even a smellable Frango mint display.
The Elmhurst Historical Museum was able to construct “Lost Stores of Chicagoland” entirely from its own collection and that of Goddard, who also collected collectibles and other artifacts during his research for the book, says exhibition curator Sarah Cox. He finds it remarkable and significant that so many museum donors stick to the ephemera of their department stores.
“We had so much stuff that I only got a loan from Macy’s for the animatronic figurines and the ornaments in the old Walnut Room (Christmas trees),” Cox says.
The all-in-one business model of department stores predated the mail-order catalogs that dominated the market in the late 19th century. Mail order companies could fulfill orders and ship them to both urban and rural customers within a few days; This upset local stores in rural areas. Located at the nexus of the nation’s rail lines, Chicago was an obvious home base for these retailers. Aaron Montgomery Ward published the first mail order catalog in 1872; Richard Sears followed in 1893.
Chicago was poised to become the department store capital for the same reason. When the Great Chicago Fire occurred in 1871, the city’s rebuilding boom paved the way for department stores on State Street. The fair was the first to open in 1873. It was an architectural celebrity no less than Daniel Burnham who designed Marshall Field’s, with its now-iconic grand granite columns, massive clocks, and Tiffany glass mosaic ceiling. Louis Sullivan was likewise commissioned to design the Schlesinger & Meyer building at Madison and State; immediately recognizable by its complex cast-iron insert; It was later taken over by Carson Pirie Scott in 1904.
The Arena magazine declared in 1897: “In no other city has the department store exercised such influence over the people as in Chicago.” of the eastern cities.”
Although Chicago’s many department stores certainly competed for customer attention, State Street was able to support them all during the prosperous interwar and postwar years. The businessmen at their head became the richest men in the city; Their philanthropy also shaped the city’s landscape in ways that are difficult to imagine today. In a video included in the installation, Marshall Field V is depicted in a video bearing his name. end of century Jeff Bezos actually looks like Ebenezer Scrooge.
The stores’ mutual windfall was helped in part by the fact that they self-selected their customer bases. Marshall Field’s radiating luxury, with its majestic flagship store and pampering customer service; “Give the woman what she wants,” Field’s version of “the customer is always right,” became an internal company slogan. Meanwhile, Goldblatt Bros., between Jackson and Van Buren, gravitated toward working-class shoppers. Carson Pirie Scott fell somewhere in between, emulating Marshall Field’s attentive customer service and expansion strategies but without the allegations of collapse. In his first advertisement for Carson’s, printed shortly after he moved into his home at Madison and State, it described itself as “A Store of Smallness, Convenience, Comfort and Quality Products.”
The Elmhurst Historical Museum’s exhibit properly explores how department store shoppers have fallen in class. But race was an equally important factor, which was not examined in the exhibition. Goddard’s book acknowledges Marshall Field’s history of hiring discrimination and mistreatment of black customers during its heyday. In 1952, the company defended its exclusionary hiring practices to the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, writing that Black salespeople would “adversely affect the character, atmosphere, and taste” of the store. The commission ruled against the company, but Traci Parker, author of the 2019 book “Department Stores and the Black Liberation Movement,” found that over the next two decades, Black employees at Field’s were still underrepresented among the workforce. Moreover, Black Field employees tended to work in non-sales—and therefore less visible—roles at the store. By comparison, Carson’s led department stores on State Street in integrating their staff and opening early locations in shopping districts frequented by black consumers.
The exhibition attempts to offer a brief bird’s eye view of the department store’s collapse. Post-war prosperity declined; The wealth gap has widened and widened. Retailers who bargained gave the department store a run for its money. The exhibition posits shopping malls as their successors; Even this seems strange, now the American shopping mall is also a endangered species.
State Street is still busy, of course, but department stores are no longer its mainstay. Now the internet has become a consumer’s one-stop shop; The return to the mail order companies of the past is like a boomerang. Of the stores from State Street’s heyday, only the Macy’s in the former Marshall Field’s remains as a department store. The building that housed The Fair and Montgomery Ward was demolished in the 1980s, and the former Sears and Goldblatt’s buildings were sold to Robert Morris and DePaul universities, respectively, in the ’90s. And to teenagers and college students in the Loop, the old Carson’s is better known as — yes, really. “Gothic Target.”
Goddard’s nephew, Gen Z, is too young to remember when Macy’s was Marshall Field’s. But when Goddard asked him about his favorite holiday memory, he was quick to answer: eating under the Big Tree in the Walnut Room.
“This is incredible, considering I’ve also spoken to women in their eighties who say the same thing,” says Goddard. “A lot of people have done this for decades and are still doing it today.”
“Lost Chicagoland Malls” through Jan. 28, 2024, at the Elmhurst Historical Museum, 120 E. Park Ave., Elmhurst; Open Sunday, Tue-Fri 13:00-17:00 and Saturday. 10:00-17:00; There is no entrance fee; www.elmhursthistory.org
Hannah Edgar is a freelance writer.