It’s Twelfth Night, fellow roadies! Are you having revels and drinking wassail? Thank heavens for 12 days of Christmas: it means you still have time before the Epiphany to see those Christmas windows on State Street! You may not be aware of just how much Chicago has contributed to some of those traditions we commonly associate with the winter holidays, but we’re here to fix that.
For many people throughout the Midwest – and Midwestern expatriates all over the globe – the Christmas season in Chicago always meant a trip downtown to see the window displays at Marshall Field & Company’s State Street store, usually followed by lunch at the store’s famous Walnut Room. Many are those over the last century and more for whom this is a treasured childhood memory. Sure, they hung around to check out the windows at other stores like Carson Pirie Scott, Wieboldt’s, Montgomery Ward’s, and the Fair (and, much later, Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor on North Michigan Avenue across the river), but Marshall Field’s windows were always the big deal. Those were the windows that began the tradition here and set the standard. And there’s nothing else like the Walnut Room for a follow-up.
So here’s the story of how all that began. First, a little history. Back in 1852, Potter Palmer, one of a long line of expatriate upstate New Yorkers who were drawn to the early Chicago, opened P. Palmer & Co., a dry goods store. By the end of the Civil War, the canny Palmer – who had bought up tons of cotton goods before the war, knowing that they’d sell at a premium once access to cotton from the South was cut off by the war – had become the big dry goods millionaire of the era. He was only 39 when his doctor scolded him and told him to start taking it easy. Field, Leiter & Co. was founded in 1865 when Palmer sold a 60-percent interest in his dry goods store to two ambitious young men working for a rival store and then took off for a few years to Europe to take a rest cure, enjoy his money, and start formulating new plans (giant real estate mogul was to be his next job description). Those two young Turks were the young Marshall Field and Levi Z. Leiter, a salesman and bookkeeper, respectively, who jumped at the opportunity Palmer offered them. By 1867, they had bought out Palmer’s remaining share.
Cut to the late 1860s. The Lake Street business district was gridlocked, unable to expand in any direction, and upon his return Palmer bought up nearly a mile of storefronts along State Street – a process he’d actually begun before leaving for Europe – and began transforming the street into the primary retail district it is today. To provide an anchor to attract other businesses, Palmer did two things: he built a hotel (which he fully expected to rent out to someone else, who’d run it), and he built a new, magnificent, marble-bedecked store building on the northeast corner of State and Washington Streets for Field, Leiter & Co. Both were designed by John M. Van Osdel, Chicago’s first architect, and both were totaled in 1871 by the Great Fire, but Palmer promptly rebuilt. So did Field, Leiter. The department store operated in makeshift quarters in an old railway horse barn up the street for a while, then moved into a building owned by the Singer Sewing Machine Co. on that same corner of State and Washington (Palmer had sold the land there to finance the rebuilding of his hotel). That building burned down in 1877, after which the store moved to a second building on State Street owned by Singer, which Singer sold to the department store after a good deal of negotiation (Field was determined never to be beholden to a landlord again).
However, by then Field was finding his partner to be increasingly irksome. The pugnacious, uncooperative Leiter had nearly bungled the move to the second Singer building while Field was out of town, and Field had to rescue that deal at the last minute, paying more for the building as a result (and still more to buy out a lease held by rivals Carson and Pirie). Field never forgot that. Worse, Leiter flatly disbelieved that retail trade was the future and insisted on emphasizing their warehouse store instead, whereas Field knew the future lay in urban retail directed primarily at women. By 1880, Field’s temper had frayed enough, and he forced Leiter to sell him his share of the store – reportedly for an extremely low price, too, which must have infuriated Leiter (Field was already the majority owner and had been since they’d bought out Palmer). By early 1881, the store was known as Marshall Field & Company, and Field proceeded to put his stamp on it.
Field was first, last, and always a merchant, always thinking of ways to make his store attractive to customers and increase sales. He constantly strategized about better merchandising. Eventually, that meant building an entirely new store building, one parcel at a time, that would cover an entire square block between Washington and Randolph Streets, State Street to Wabash Avenue. It also meant creating trademark objects and concepts that would be exclusively associated with his store, starting with beautiful display windows. In 1895, Arthur Valair Fraser, Field’s genius of a display manager, began creating set pieces for the first-floor windows, each with its own theme. Other stores merely used their front windows to display samples of their wares. Not Fraser: he created miniature slice-of-life scenes to draw in customers and would spend months in advance doing research and creating scale models. For example, to show off a silver service, he once recreated one room of a millionaire’s mansion, right down to the beautifully paneled walls and thousands of dollars’ worth of furniture. Visitors and people passing on the street were intrigued by these displays and lingered over them; word got around, and more people flocked to see the windows, thus giving birth to the concept of ‘window shopping.’ Window display merchandising was never the same again.
Mr. Field’s chipper young assistant, Harry G. Selfridge, was supposedly the one who coined the slogan “Only __ shopping days until Christmas,” giving shoppers a sense of urgency and beckoning them to the store. When later Selfridge opened his own department store in London, he created similar lavish window displays to attract customers and forced his competitors, including the venerable if staid Harrods, to follow suit. (BTW, have you ever noticed that Harrods uses the same dark green signature color as Marshall Field’s? Sorry, blokes: we had it first. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, though. Thanks!)
One of the earliest of those signature items was the Great Clock, which was installed at the corner of State and Washington on November 26, 1897. Mr. Field envisioned the clock as “a beacon that could be seen for miles” that would also bring more people to the store (it did; its mate was installed 10 years later at State and Randolph). The clock has been a trademark ever since, a symbol of both the store and the city. Decades later, Norman Rockwell immortalized the clock in a painting called “The Clock Mender,” which ran on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on November 3, 1945. The painting, which shows a repairman atop a ladder adjusting the clock at State and Randolph to correspond with the time on his own pocket watch, was donated to the store in 1948 by Rockwell himself; it hung in an upper-floor gallery near the special-event meeting rooms for many years, not far from a modern neon interpretation of the Great Clock.
The same year that the Great Clock made its appearance – in fact, the same month – Arthur Fraser premiered Marshall Field’s first annual Christmas windows by creating a display of toys for the season. The Christmas windows were a great success and became a visitor destination in and of themselves, bringing more people into the downtown retail district and prompting imitation by other stores, thus fueling bigger crowds for all of them. It also fueled annual competition between the stores for who had the most beautiful and interesting Christmas windows that year – a challenge that Marshall Field’s usually won. Memorable windows kept Field’s in the minds of shoppers year after year.
This concept got a critical twist during World War II, when the store’s visual team designed theme windows that spanned the entire length of the building’s State Street side. As people walked from one end of the windows to the other, the displays told a story, with each window scene telling a different part of that story. Field’s was the first store ever to use this concept, and both customers and passers-by were fascinated. That made the Christmas windows a bigger hit than ever and fueled speculation every autumn about what the next season’s window theme would be. Over the years, the windows have had variations of the usual traditional themes, such as Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker ballet, but there have also been more unusual and inventive themes as well, some of which reflect contemporary culture. The year 2000 windows, for example, took advantage of the popularity of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book series.
Meanwhile, when the current State Street store was designed by D.H. Burnham & Co. (1897-1907; NE section 1914 by Graham, Burnham & Co.) and the State Street side was completed in 1907, it included the impressive Walnut Room on the seventh floor. Field’s had pioneered the concept of a restaurant inside a department store in 1890 with its South Tearoom, which began with only 15 tables. Its much larger successor, the Walnut Room with its more than 17,000 square feet of space, was created to best all imitators. Named for the Circassian walnut from Russia that paneled its walls, the restaurant was lushly decorated and had white-tablecloth-covered tables and primly uniformed waitresses, as well as its own signature dishes – starting with Mrs. Hering’s famous chicken pot pie (still the most popular menu item after more than a century). Unlike at other ‘in’ dining spots in Chicago, anyone and everyone was welcome at the Walnut Room. Best of all, the Walnut Room soon had its own Christmas tradition: the Great Tree and Christmas brunch throughout the holiday season, along with seasonal menu items such as holiday Frango-mint desserts and hot chocolate.
Moreover, like the Christmas windows, the Great Tree in the Walnut Room’s two-story atrium has always been impressively decorated. In recent years, it’s been laden with more than 6,000 white twinkling lights and more than 3,000 shiny, sparkling ornaments plus LED lights. The tree tradition began in 1907, when a Walnut Room busboy was sent out to find a Christmas tree to pretty up the restaurant. Soon, the holiday tree in question had vastly increased in size. Right up until the 1960s, when fire codes required the store to begin using an artificial tree, the store’s own Tree Design Bureau would go out in late autumn to the Wisconsin forests along Lake Superior and find a 70-foot tall, suitably symmetrical balsam fir tree. The top 45-foot section would be cut off, bundled and hauled by sled through the snow to a waiting railway flatcar, then shipped back to Chicago, where it was delivered to the store. Once it arrived, the bundled tree had to be very carefully brought in through the store’s front entrance on State Street, which required removing the revolving doors (!), after which it was hoisted up seven stories through the light well in the store’s center and delivered to the Walnut Room, where it was erected on a platform set over the atrium fountain and decorated by the tree design team. And that’s exactly where the fake one sits today, minus that evocative fresh balsam scent of the season. Many are those who’ve had brunch around the Great Tree.
Not to be outdone, other Chicago department stores dreamed up marketing strategies to try to steal some of Marshall Field’s holiday thunder. In 1938, Wieboldt’s Department Stores sponsored a radio series on WGN Radio about “The Cinnamon Bear,” which turned into an annual radio classic for many years (only two weeks ago, WDCB 90.9 FM, the public radio station at College of Du Page in Glen Ellyn, broadcast an episode of “The Cinnamon Bear” on its syndicated nostalgia-radio program, Those Were The Days with Steve Darnall and Ken Alexander, just in time for Christmas). Undaunted, in 1939 Montgomery Ward’s – the world’s first retail catalog company, which had expanded into retail stores by then – introduced its own creation, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer – along with the song of the same name, sung by cowboy star Gene Autry, which became a runaway hit (you didn’t realize ol’ Rudy was a merchandising invention, did you? Neither did we). People have long since forgotten the connection to Ward’s, much to that store management’s chagrin, but everyone knows the song by now. It continues to be a perennial holiday favorite, recorded even more times than Bobby Troup’s Route 66 anthem and in many languages.
It took Marshall Field’s a few years to respond, but in 1946 it created the character Uncle Mistletoe to compete with Rudolph – and succeeded for a number of years: Uncle Mistletoe’s popularity soared, so much so that it was soon turned into a television program entitled The Adventures of Uncle Mistletoe, seen three times a week during the holiday shopping season. Although Uncle Mistletoe as an advertising vehicle was a great success at the time, the show only lasted for four seasons, and Uncle Mistletoe eventually faded from shoppers’ consciousness, though the figure itself did pop up here and there at Field’s over the years. And ever since the late 1940s, a figure of Uncle Mistletoe remained near the top of the tree in the Walnut Room for as long as Field’s was Field’s.
Note: At this point, we should note the contribution of R.H. Macy & Co. of New York City, better known today as Macy’s, the current owner of Marshall Field’s and occupant of the State Street store building (which remains forever known as the Marshall Field & Company Building because it’s a National Historic Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings that way, even though the store inside is now known as Macy’s on State Street). It seems that Macy’s was one of the first department stores anywhere to have special holiday displays inside the store and in 1862 was the first to have an in-store Santa Claus for children to visit. In 1874, Macy’s created one of the first major holiday window displays with a collection of porcelain dolls from around the world and scenes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (uh, we’re still trying to figure out why that anti-slavery tract with its somber theme was thought appropriate for the holidays; but we suppose that with Reconstruction grudgingly ongoing in the South at the time, it might still have been a topic of conversation up North … who knows; Chicago that year was still rebuilding after the Great Fire).
Much as I love the (former) Marshall Field’s Christmas windows and the Walnut Room, the Great Tree, the special holiday Frango-flavored items, the lighting of the holiday lights along State Street and North Michigan Avenue, the opening of the ice-skating rink in Grant Park, the Do-It-Yourself Messiah, and even ol’ Rudy, however, my favorite Chicago winter event is seeing the lions in front of the Art Institute of Chicago wearing their wreaths of evergreens trimmed with dashing red bows. And aren’t they handsome in their holiday finery! Reindeer?? We don’t need no stinking reindeer!!! We’ve got The Lions on Michigan Avenue – right where Route 66 begins! And that’s a fitting start and end to the holidays for route roadies everywhere.
Wishing you a beautiful, fun-filled winter and the Happiest New Year for 2015,
Your joyful 66 guide, Marie