Editorial: Chicago pioneered the department store

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A Chicago icon, the Marshall Field’s clock on State Street. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

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Macy’s is talking about renting out or selling space.

Maybe for offices or residences, or for boutique shops or restaurants. It’s up in the air.

Nobody should be surprised. Macy’s 12-story store on State Street — formerly Marshall Field’s — is a lot of space, and department stores, like everybody in retail, must change with the times.

But we sure hope Macy’s finds a way to preserve something of that inviting, eventful, department store panache. It is so Chicago, especially at Christmastime.


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Chicago was a pioneer in the creation of the department store, which itself became a symbol of America’s new consumerism.

It was here that Marshall Field perfected the art of pampering customers. He sent his elevator operators to charm school — really, he did — and he was the first retailer to offer personal shopping service.

It was here that Harry Gordon Selfridge is said to have popularized the phrase “Only (fill the blank) shopping days until Christmas” before he took the lessons he learned at Field’s across the Atlantic to London.

Also thriving in the early heyday of Chicago, reports the Encylopedia of Chicago, were Mandel Brothers, the Fair and Schlesinger & Meyer. And, of course, we’ve got Field’s great State Street rival — Carson, Pirie Scott & Company.

The department store was a destination, where a shopper might spend a good part of a day amid opulent settings.

The department store brought women into the workforce, with managers reasoning that many specialized positions, especially in sales and clerical work, required no skills peculiar to men — and, unfortunately, they paid women less.

The department store made State Street that Great Street.

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