In January 1881, Marshall Field I (1834–1906), with his junior partners, bought out Levi Z. Leiter, renaming the business located at State and Washington Streets in Chicago, "Marshall Field & Company."
Marshall Field and Company was a cultural and commercial anchor in Chicago's downtown area known as the 'Loop.' By 1914, it had expanded into the largest department store in the world at that time. Marshall Fields was one of the few major department stores in the United States that was not founded by people of the Jewish faith.
|1839 Illustration of the corner of State and Washington Streets, looking northeast. The future site of Marshall Field's flagship store.|
Using merchandising strategies adapted from the aesthetic movement, Field's produced the "drama of shopping" with social and cultural implications about class, gender, and race in three ways: First, the store's architecture served as a carefully designed theatrical space for seeing being seen shopping. By the degree of luxury and cost, departmentalizing and arranging merchandise by who could afford it is what differentiated Marshall Field and Co. from other department stores.
Field sorted customers according to their social status and what they could afford to buy. Elite shoppers who purchased luxuries did so under the gaze of other shoppers, who watched from across the aisle. Second, Field's merchandising and marketing followed the new profession of domestic science trends. It served as the script for the "drama of shopping," where customers negotiated the cultural hierarchy of artistry and new technology. Third, merchandising resembled the subculture of the aesthetic movement, but without its controversial gender roles, while it privileged predominant Anglo-American culture and rendered other social groups, including people of color, invisible.
In the two decades before World War I, most Americans' knowledge about art and style came from three places where artifacts were displayed: museums, world's fairs, and department stores. In Chicago, commercial magnets and city officials in the Chicago Commercial Club (CCC) built commercial and cultural institutions like banks, museums, libraries, theaters, and concert halls, located in the downtown district. The museums, department stores, and even the streets were places where the Chicago elite and middle-class individuals came to browse and learn by looking at displays of artifacts and each other, creating the drama of seeing and being seen. The department store Marshall Field and Company (Field's) was unique. It was marketed to all classes, creating a complicated drama of wishing, envy, and desire among mostly women shoppers from the upper, middle, and working classes. Shoppers seeking self-improvement watched other shoppers purchase luxuries that, perhaps, they could not afford. Thus, the "drama of shopping" in the Loop is characterized as a vast "promenade of huge glass windows in which mannequins stood as mistresses of taste to teach people how to embody their secret longings for status; with things of great price." Such "secret longings" were part of every shopper's experience, for desire and envy were present, whether shoppers purchased what they saw or not.
It's important to point out patterns of social exclusion, which vary depending on the institution. The social climate of museums and schools differed from department stores: working-class individuals were not expected to associate themselves with the fine arts and were unwelcome in museums and galleries. Since they were places where the wealthy cultivated their tastes. They were dominated by the wealth of benefactors from these same groups; art museums and galleries were usually socially exclusive. Even in Chicago's public high schools, art education was segregated by social fences for the working classes. In a system supported by the CCC, in which Marshall Field was a member, school administrators tracked high school students into vocational strains of art education called manual training.
In contrast, they tracked privileged high school students to professional and college prep programs where they studied fine arts. Art educators like Henry Turner Bailey promoted fine arts as a social uplift for all students. Chicago's school administrators followed technocratic strains of Social Darwinism and scientific management, claiming that most working-class students could become good technicians. They didn't seem to have the potential for academic study or social refinement from the fine arts and fenced them into vocational programs.
However, things were different in the department store and the rest of popular culture. Working-class individuals, especially those from Europe, knew the value of the fine arts from their lives in Europe. Though the fine arts would have been primarily out of their reach in Europe, in coming to the United States, they held new self-improvement aspirations and sought out the art forms they wanted in popular culture. Working-class individuals tended to frequent Dime Museums operated by such impresarios as P.T. Barnum and Sylvester Poli. The division between fine arts (high art) and plebian visual, musical, and dramatic forms was unclear, and theaters programmed entertainment for mixed-class audiences, from working-class on up. Entertainment included freak shows and wax sculpture exhibits to lantern slide shows of art at the Vatican, which played on working-class religious and political sentiments. Harry Houdini performed so many times at dime museums that he earned the nickname "Dime Museum Harry."
Social and economic fences in these establishments were set according to the locations of expensive and cheap seats. Marshall Field also put out a variety of merchandise, from the most expensive luxuries to the most common items, sorted into departments according to the degree of expense and luxury they represented, separated by aisles that served as invisible fences. Their customers were informed middle and working-class individuals, who read newspapers and advice manuals to familiarize themselves with American culture and educate themselves in everything from the English language to artistic sensibilities on decorating deportment, and etiquette. These texts were usually saturated with the term 'artistic' (as in making a creative parlor), all of which they could see at Field's. Thus, the same savvy consumers who knew where to find the classical and folk entertainment they saw in vaudeville (and which section they could afford in the theatre) also knew that Field's was a place to see elite culture and the latest technology. Shopping at Field's was as much learning from window shopping as it was buying merchandise, as shoppers learned from their gaze across the aisle.
Field's was a cultural and educational institution of artistry and popular education through the "drama of shopping." Using merchandising strategies adapted from the aesthetic movement, Field produced the "drama of shopping" with social and cultural implications about class, gender, and race in three ways:
- First, the architecture of the store served as a carefully designed and segregated theatrical space for seeing and being seen in shopping. The departmentalization and arrangement of merchandise by the degree of expense and luxury differentiated and sorted Field's clientele according to their social status and what they could afford to buy. Elite shoppers who purchased luxuries did so under the gaze of other shoppers, who watched from across the aisle.
- Second, Field's merchandising and marketing followed trends of the new profession of domestic science where customers negotiated the cultural hierarchy of artistry and new technology.
- Third, merchandising resembled the subculture of the aesthetic movement, but without its controversial gender roles, while it privileged predominant Anglo-American culture and rendered other social groups, including people of color, invisible.
Today, American department store retail's social and cultural traditions that began in the gilded age remain present as new forms of retail marketing. In turn, the gendered cultural fences that divide retail patrons remain today, though with different names and locations.
Modes of Popular Education and
the Subculture of the Aesthetic Movement
To understand the educational approach of department stores is also to understand the social consequences and contradictions within them. This section reviews research on popular education and the aesthetic movement in the United States, thereby placing the department store in an educational context with schooling and museums. The trope of the "drama of shopping" pulls together the entities of a department store as a form of education. Shoppers acted out shopping rituals and examples of what they could learn from the material culture of retail merchandising.
Historians of the broader field of education have defined education as the transmission of "culture across generations." In the early 20th century, education in the United States extended beyond schooling across a configuration of museums, libraries, the mass media, and popular culture. We know that drawing, book arts, and various crafts were taught in the elementary grades in Chicago Public Schools. As mentioned earlier, in Chicago's public high schools before World War I, students were tracked to either vocational or professional or college-prep programs, fencing out many from learning cultural knowledge that, they believed, would lead to social advancement.
Behind all the palatial architecture of Field's store was a social scientific framework that pervaded education and most human services in the entire city, a system of scientific management that sorted individuals from disparate ethnic and racial groups into social classes. Class divisions, however, were troubling because the differentiation broke along gender, ethnic, and racial lines and created systems of social closure by monopoly and exclusion. Considerations of gender, ethnicity, and race expose the creation of social inequality.
- First, predominant gender roles among elite and middle-class White Chicagoans placed women at home or, following the example of leading community women, in charity work. In contrast, predominant roles for men came from scientific professionalism in business and commerce. Many working-class individuals would aspire to these roles as forms of self-improvement. This article will show that department-store customers who did not fit these predominant gender roles were marginalized or fenced out.
- Second, European immigrants at the turn of the century were primarily working-class, who struggled to advance socially without a working knowledge of the predominant Anglo-American culture. Fields provided these opportunities as forms of popular domestic education for these individuals, enabling working-class immigrants to negotiate the invisible social fences that segregated the store space.
- Third, race turns up particularly troubling issues, however, simply because Negroes were marginalized or even rendered invisible at Field's, and few if any Negroes were likely to shop or be employed there. Before 1900, 90% of Negroes lived in the Southern United States. Because of worsening social and political conditions for Southern Negroes and word of economic opportunities and jobs in the North, a movement to Northern cities called the Great Migration expanded the Negro populations in Northern cities. In addition, employers needed to hire Negroes, as World War I and immigration restrictions disrupted their supply of European immigrant laborers. Though the North offered better conditions and pay than the South, Negroes still faced a groundswell of racist resistance as their presence increased. Very few Negroes ever worked in retail. In fact, only .03% of Negro males and .02% of Negro females in the entire nation had sales jobs, compared to 4.2 White males and 4.1 females. Laws in the South prohibited Negroes from trying on clothes in a department store, let alone allowing them to sell clothing to white customers. Amid these conditions, the democratic gospel of shopping-for-all at Field's fenced out people of color.
Promoting department store shopping as popular education in artistry might seem odd to 21st-century ears. Still, from the late 19th century into the early 20th century, merchants like Marshall Field packaged the latest household wares and artistry as a culture of conveniences and daring fashion to heighten shoppers' desires. The educational aim for the department store shopper was to negotiate her personal tastes toward self-improvement and social advancement. Shoppers purchased new appliances, gadgets, and furniture; attended an art exhibit, a concert, or read a fashionable magazine in the store's elegant library. These activities were meant to associate the retail business with a sensibility of cultural sophistication to attract patrons. There were also contradictions, however: the so-called artistry that merchants promoted was made to resemble the subculture of the aesthetic movement, while it was actually the direct opposite.
Until the 1890s, the subculture of the aesthetic movement was as much about freeing individuals from the fenced-in spaces of puritanical Anglo-American cultural and social conventions as it was meant to elevate beauty in everyday life. Aestheticism, originating in England in the 1850s and 1860s, was a reaction to urbanization and industrialization. The aesthetic movement was influenced by John Ruskin, William Morris, and Henry Cole. In 1876, when handicrafts from the movement were shown at Philadelphia's Centennial Exposition, aestheticism caught on in the United States as the 'aesthetic movement,' or the "new American art craze." Many women of the aesthetic movement were as enamored of science as they were of art. Uncorseted, they wore what was then called 'aesthetic dresses' as an art form adorning their bodies. Their participation in physical fitness was a transgression across the gendered fence into the male sphere of physical fitness, higher education, and the professions. Feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, for example, tutored girls in drawing, painting, and gymnastics. It is also important to note that the aesthetic movement included men who sought an escape from the male scientific profession that predominated American culture after the Civil War. Men practiced their own artistry, ranging from decorating parlors to dressing sometimes in flowing velvet and silk robes, at times with implications of homoeroticism and transvestism. The heterosexual-homosexual binary was already present among the middle and upper classes in the gilded age, but it did not define working-class thinking. For example, "bisexual referred to individuals who combined the physical and/or psychic attributes of both men and women. A bisexual was not attracted to both males and females; a bisexual was male and female." Most puritanical minds would have associated these social roles and the aesthetic fashions that went with them with being radical and immoral.
By the 1890s, things changed, and social and gendered fences shifted. Science and professionalism's strictly defined social roles predominated business and commerce, and aesthetic sensibilities were marginalized. Also, department store merchants co-opted the aesthetic subculture as a sanitized ethos and extinguished women's and men's controversial gender roles. They marketed aesthetic dress as high fashion and provided men with plush, parlor-like libraries and club spaces. The cultural agency for the men and women of the subculture was buried under the structure of merchandising as cultural refinement and artistry for women. The homoeroticism of aesthetic dress that some aesthetic men and women practiced was replaced in traditional minds by the clinical designation of "the homosexual" and "the abnormal." The remnants of the aesthetic subculture "became marginal and suspect by the turn of the 20th century." Aesthetes were eventually fenced out as isolated Bohemian cult groups in high schools and universities. What was left was 'beauty' as entertainment and aesthetic education and as puritanical and moral uplift promoted as education in the department store.
In 1892, the "drama of shopping" was part of the great efforts of the city of Chicago to transform the 'Loop' and the Lake Michigan shore into the fairgrounds for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. In the Loop, the earlier development of State Street as an elite shopping district was underway, with the largest store, Marshall Field and Company, under construction and set to open for the World's Fair. The discussion of Field's as a space designed for education begins with the department store architecture itself, which was the physical embodiment of the conceptual 'fence' into which aesthetic culture was contained as a shopping experience. The palatial architecture with classical ornamentation, wood paneling, and casework masked the building designed to support the sales floor's specialized administrative and technical tasks. The mezzanines, wide aisles, mirrors, and several atria provided an elegant space for strolling and shopping. The centerpiece was a central atrium, which featured a mosaic glass dome by Louis Comfort Tiffany.
The store was designed as a theatrical playground for the self-presentation of shoppers who customarily dressed in their best attire as if they were spending their day in a palace. Late 19th-century buildings such as department stores were organized to accommodate large volumes of business and traffic flow. Social fences were invisible as the store building design directed patrons to the merchandise they could afford while tempting them to roam the vast space of the floor and see more expensive things from afar.
Architects designed the buildings to 'teach' shoppers how to navigate the store's invisible social fences to keep shoppers in the store longer: First, uniform and adequate wide aisles and displays brought customers together with services and artifacts.
Second, wall directories had to be easy to find and served as an index arranged by floor. Even the floorwalkers, guides, clerks, and custodial personnel were virtual extensions of the communication systems of typewriters, pneumatic tubes, and telephones. Third, mechanisms 'taught' users how to find the departments they wanted through automated dynamic information displays like position indicator boards that tracked elevators as they moved from floor to floor. Marshall Field's predecessor, Potter Palmer, saw many of these innovations on his buying trips to Paris, France, and he incorporated those strategies in his own store.
Le Bon Marché Store in Paris, France
The department store building evolved from earlier mercantile organizations and expositions in 17th and 18th-century Paris. By the 1820s and 1830s, what were once centralized open markets had been reorganized as arcades that housed many shops under one roof, and many producers joined forces to increase production in mills and factories. The department store was a specialized building that promoted convenience, novelty, and bigness, drawing upon a psychological ploy of desire. The first building in Paris to be designed and built as a department store was for Jacques-Aristide Boucicaut's Le Bon Marché, LTD.
|Jacques-Aristide Boucicaut's Le Bon Marché Interior, 1875.|
Boucicaut's building was a departure from earlier ones made by remodeling or combining smaller stores. It was the first significant example of architecture designed to be a department store from the ground up. Shopping was a continuation of the European social ritual called 'the promenade.' Shopping had become a social custom where patrons could stop at a department store to observe, relax, use a 'comfort station,' or dine in the store. The store was designed as a theater for the artistic self. The merchant and the architect thought like dramaturges, designing a store building "as a stage set in an elegant theater for the public."
Origins of Marshall Field and Company
From what Potter Palmer observed in Paris, he knew that for Chicago to boast of a world-class downtown, an elite retail establishment was needed to attract women in great numbers to the area. Such a new store would have to be located away from the current retail area on Lake Street, not regarded as a proper area for a woman of means. Knowing that women shoppers would linger on well-lit and clean streets, Palmer chose a location at State and Washington Streets for the new, marble-faced Palmer's Emporium. This choice anchored State Street as the new downtown shopping area. Despite the dirty conditions at the old location on Lake Street, Palmer's dry goods store, P. Palmer & Company, was known for the largest variety of merchandise in the city, with many items imported from Europe. Service was critical because traditionally, a woman would not be acknowledged in public places and receive service unless she was with a man. However, at Palmer's store, women could enter on their own and expect good service whether they bought anything or simply browsed.
In Chicago's climate of fast-paced growth and commercial development, Palmer's Emporium successively changed management and ownership. Palmer's Emporium was soon taken over by Marshall Field and Levi Leiter, only to be consumed in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. While recovering from the fire, Field and Leiter conducted business from several temporary locations. They re-opened the store in a leased building at the Washington and State Street location in 1873. After an expansion, this store was also destroyed by fire. In 1879, the store was rebuilt, and this time, Field and Leiter bought the building that became the first section of the present store. In 1881, Leiter retired from the partnership, and the store was renamed Marshall Field and Company. In 1887, Field expanded his business into wholesale in a notable building designed by Henry Hobson Richardson.
|Marshall Field had purchased all the lots on the block, bordered by Adams, Fifth (now Wells), Quincy, and Franklin, near the Chicago Board of Trade Building location by May 1881. Marshall Field's Wholesale Store opened on June 20, 1887.|
In 1892, the wealth Field had gained from his wholesale venture enabled him to expand his retail business into a new building by Daniel H. Burnham, at the corner of Wabash and Washington Streets. Meanwhile, the store from 1879 was expanded as a nine-story annex to accommodate the crowds from the World's Columbian Exhibition, which opened the following year. In 1901, Field's expanded into a new 12-story building, and a third one was added in 1906.
A fourth building, added in 1914, extended the area of the store across the entire block, between Washington and Randolph and State and Wabash Streets. Thus, what began as P. Palmer and Company on Lake Street grew into the largest department store in the world. The history of Marshall Field & Company's 1st, 2nd, and 3rd State Street Clocks.
Merchandising as Aesthetic Education
in the "Drama of Shopping"
If the architecture of the department store was the segregated theatrical space for the "drama of shopping," the next consideration for this drama was its 'script' of merchandising, and sales strategies are drawn from domestic science (or home economics). Merchandising was treated as if it were dramaturgy to categorize and discuss the various kinds of art forms (merchandise), their interconnectedness, and their styles. Just as the dramaturge researched the historical and cultural aspects of theatrical production, so did merchandisers at Field's promote visual, musical, and literary forms as part of the shoppers' experiences, sorted according to the degree of luxury. When Field's began to market to shoppers of all classes, including men, to expand patronage, he took the dramaturgy from domestic science, a new profession and one of the few populated mostly by women. Thus, Marshall Fields became a place where women could see the latest technologies for the home as science-made-for-them in appliances and gadgets.
Domestic science also pervaded public and private life beyond retail institutions. It constituted everything from knowledge of food service in school cafeterias to pre-prepared food for the home. During the 1870s and 1880s, it also became an increasingly important subject matter for journalists writing advice columns for women readers. One of these journalists was an instructor at the Boston Cooking School, Mary Johnson Bailey Lincoln, co-founder of "The New England Kitchen Magazine" in 1894. The magazine was later retitled "American Kitchen Magazine," that Lincoln was the culinary editor and the syndicated columnist of "Day to Day." Her cookbook, "Mrs. Lincoln's Boston Cook Book: What to Do and Not Do in Cooking," (1884), was the forerunner of the Fannie Farmer's "The Boston Cooking School Cookbook" (1896). On balance, as popular as domestic science was, it was also criticized for assuming that scientific experts knew more about cooking and housework than women who followed their own traditions passed down over generations. Yet, being aware of new scientific trends in popular culture became more important, for some women, at a time when they began to challenge the gendered fences of the male-centered scientific professional realm. It makes perfect sense, then, that Field's would appeal to women as a place to browse and purchase the latest homemaking technologies, as well as clothing and decorative fashions.
In another magazine, "Women's Home Companion," appeared an article by Anna Steese Richardson titled "The Modern Woman's Paradise: Some of the Education and Artistic Advantages that are offered by the Great Department Store of today." Richardson's work as an editor and syndicated columnist helped shape social and cultural issues for the benefit of women. Her article positioned Field as an artistic and educational agency for all women, no matter how small their purchase. Richardson noted that the department store represented "certain luxuries which the shopper had always craved, and which she may enjoy for a few hours without money and without price."
Upon entering the store, shoppers were greeted, and they left their coats and purses in the coat check room. A guide was assigned to the shopper to help her navigate what must have felt like an enormous space. No money was exchanged during the shopping excursion; the guide recorded purchases on a transfer card, and the balance was paid when shopping was done. Once a shopper had found the items on her list, and delivery of purchases was arranged for, she could spend leisure time as if to "give herself up unrestrainedly to the joys of the great store itself," no matter how much or how little she had purchased.
Richardson's article portrays Field's as a store that welcomed women from all classes, as they wanted it to appear to shoppers. Still, the history of department stores has also shown that sales floors were subdivided into departments that catered to particular clientele with social differentiation in mind. Guides and other sales staff would usher shoppers around the store to find what they wanted, but like good real estate agents, they kept shoppers within their own income zones. Just as in theaters, where more expensive seats went for higher prices and kept those with less spending power away from the wealthy audience members, customers were matched with the merchandise they could buy at Field's. However, they could negotiate invisible social fences and observe more luxurious displays and goods in their gaze across the aisle.
Field's stocked seemingly every kind of merchandise and provided every cultural activity in a space where the desire for new technologies and artistry could be easily transposed to educational purposes. Browsing to find new merchandise was an important activity for shoppers as purchasing it. They would see a range of merchandise from the most affordable to the most expensive, based on the simple idea that a shopper will not know she wants an item until she has seen it. An important sales strategy, for example, was the demonstration of appliances. An example of this experience is a shopper who cooked at home on a coal stove and would never consider a modern gas range because it had only one burner, limiting her cooking. However, she came across a cooking demonstration in which the presenter used three triangular pans that fit together in a circle over the single burner. Seeing a solution to her doubts, the shopper purchased the gas stove, a piece of new technology for her home. Owning a gas stove in 1911, much like purchasing a microwave oven in the late 20th century, would likely have been a show of wisdom and an educated decision.
Another merchandising strategy was when merchants displayed items as they might appear in a room at home. By arranging furniture, carpet, and decorative artifacts this way, merchants departed from the convention of sorting furniture into rows by type. In this manner, a woman's shopping trip shows how she negotiated her personal taste. A woman travels to Field's with her mother, who complains that her parlor furniture is overly formal. At Field's, they find the new craftsman-style furniture set up in a new configuration called a 'living room.' The women likely saw the setting advertised as a 'living room,' a term that gradually replaced "parlor" by 1910. The mother was having doubts about craftsman furniture, judging by a catalog illustration, but changed her mind when she saw the room display and bought the furniture. The merchandising strategy worked: the shopper knew what she wanted when she saw it and was convinced it would be self-improvement, just as the owner of a new gas stove saw the wisdom of using the new gas stove technology.
Some locations of the store were designed to introduce shoppers to new experiences. It gives opportunities for women with fewer means to experience artistic and cultural education. Customers could read the most popular books and magazines in the fully-stocked library at Field's. An attendant would bring reading materials while they waited in comfortable, easy chairs. A library made the store familiar, educational, and fun for well-heeled shoppers. For the working or middle-class shopper, these activities might have introduced them to reading materials or even an upholstered chair they had not used before or could not afford. The store's writing rooms and lounges had luxurious mahogany desks where a patron could sit and write notes to friends on fine stationery and mail them.
Chicken Pot Pie with a customer to keep them in the store, shopping. Her now-famous pie launched Marshall Field's Food Service on April 15, 1890. Fifteen tables were set up on the third floor, named the South Tearoom, and became Chicago's first full-service dining establishment within a department store. There were eight waitresses and four cooks. In 1893 the South Tearoom was expanded to the entire 4th floor in the oldest section (Washington & Wabash) of the building – just in time for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, which Marshall Field was a major sponsor. The tearoom then served 1,500 people per day. It grew into the creation of the "South Grill Room" in 1909, later renamed the "Walnut Tearoom," next named the "Walnut Grill," and finally renamed as the "Walnut Room" in 1937.
Lunch was reasonably priced in a plush wood-paneled dining room with mirrors and chandeliers, with music in the background that one would expect at a fine hotel. After lunch, a shopper could attend a free concert in the piano department or an art exhibition in the gallery. Given the opportunity to negotiate the store's social fences and range of merchandise, browsing at Field's was most likely a working-class shopper's only exposure to a concert or art exhibit in the downtown area. Shopping as education was a chance for patrons to think about their taste, negotiate their place in the cultural hierarchy, and perhaps, purchase something to improve their lives.
At times, both men and women had to negotiate fences. The marketing was explicitly pitched to women, not men, who might want to equip a kitchen or decorate a parlor. Advice books about decorating and dress were available to men. One manual written for male followers of the aesthetic movement cautions male readers not to become overly concerned with professional and public duties and to take time to tend to the beauty of their home. Though men probably did not shop in department stores to the extent that women did, they were present in department stores. Earlier in the century, as a way to introduce Parisian men to the store, Le Bon Marché provided a billiard lounge for them to use while their companions shopped. Much later in 1914, Field's six-floor men's store opened, along with separate lounges for men and women, which became important social destinations in the Loop. The lounges were modeled after the tradition of gender-specific rooms and seating used for entertaining guests in most middle and upper-class homes. After dinner, men would retire to a smoking room with easy chairs, while women would use another sitting room with chairs that kept their posture upright. Men would enjoy lounges in public but would not likely decorate a room in their home themselves, for such decoration carried the stigma of a feminized man. Indeed, these public spaces supported the conduct of predominant gender roles associated with the male-dominated scientific professional sphere.
The Roll Architecture Played
Since 1911, Daniel Burnham's architecture was a planned shopping area. Elements of the department-store building type were expanded and redistributed across larger shopping malls and then the virtual architecture of the Internet in contemporary retail spaces. Even though recently many of the influential department stores, such as Dayton Hudson, Lord and Taylor, and even Marshall Field's have merged or gone out of business, the concept of the department store is still present as a 'universe' of seemingly every kind of merchandise available. Stores like Wal-Mart exemplify the abundant one-store-for-all. Amazon.com has the same pervasive scope on the Internet and is now (2021) the world's largest e-commerce store. Wal-Mart's new stores carry a reputation of monopolizing retail and extinguishing small businesses, just as Field's was controversial for taking the lion's share of retail trade in the Loop. But not all department stores have died. Dayton Hudson in Minneapolis successfully re-emerged as Target in 2000, which still carries a whimsical cache of novelty and artistry, but at a lower price than one would have paid at Field's. Shopping malls such as the Mall of America include theaters and even hotels conveniently located from the Minneapolis International Airport. Field's was conveniently near Chicago's hotels and train stations and terminals.
Social and Cultural Issues
In the gilded age, Field's merchandising resembled the subculture of the aesthetic movement concerning gender roles with considerations of ethnicity and race. Today those fences still stand but are negotiated differently. A cultural tension remains between artistry as cultural refinement in retail and subcultural gender roles, though names, places, and signifiers have changed. In appropriating the aesthetic subculture in the early 20th century, Field created stereotypes of the aesthetic movement by filtering out associations with the controversial gender roles, the social roots of the aesthetic movement.
Some of these gilded-age social undercurrents have also carried into the present day. The subculture of aesthetic women and men countered the social constraints of predominant trends in urbanism and mass industry. The department store sanitized this subculture as beauty, entertainment, and aesthetic education and sold it as puritanical and moral uplift. In the 1970s, this amelioration of gender roles also set relationships between artistic subcultures and retail. A new de facto guild system emerged in New York's Greenwich Village and the Garment District, which became centers of late 20th-century fashion aestheticism. Gloria Vanderbilt and Calvin Klein produced designs for blue jeans that were soon mass-produced in Asia and exported worldwide. The subcultural artists became prominent as their identities evolved into names on a designer label; but this time, the gender roles associated with designer artistry were no longer underground; they were were 'defenced' prominently along with the outburst of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) life, which surfaced in New York's Greenwich Village and regions beyond. In time, the sexuality and gender roles of designers, retailers, and entertainers, among other figures, gradually surfaced in the ethos of advertising and marketing in LGBTQ communities in Chicago, New York, and other major cities, which eventually mainstreamed across generations of American culture.
Histories of department stores provide perspective for art education because of schooling's long association with retail. Early 20th-century manual training students in Chicago's public high schools indirectly supported retail by supplying a labor force for manufacturing or as workers in stores. High school graduates took jobs in factories making everything from electronics to fashion. In contrast, other privileged graduates from professional or commercial high school programs could look for clerical and sales jobs. Similarly, today's art students move into jobs that affect design trends and merchandising with digital imagery and other computer-assisted design. These students would benefit from studying merchandising and retail's social and cultural contours to become aware of the popular educational impact.
Because of this relationship and many others between art education and retail, researchers and practitioners in art education explore the visual culture. They prepare students for understanding how identities are composed, which also applies to perceptions of seeing and being seen, even in the drama of retail merchandising. As for advice manuals, for example, were important sources of artistry and social conduct in the gilded age, today's decorating magazines remain essential reading. These publications reveal complicated patterns of gender and serve as sites for art education that is socially and culturally relevant, for students are also consumers. As shoppers did in the early 20th century, today's store patrons continually negotiate the fences of their identities and tastes within the material culture of merchandising. At the same time, they reflect on what their tastes imply about their roles as women or men. Indeed, serious and open-minded attention to the fanciful drama of retail marketing would reveal relationships between retail marketing and shoppers' perceptions that could expand the critical role of art education in research and practice.
Across the cultural landscape, learning is ever-present in department store shopping as popular education in artistry. Through the 20th century, the educational aim of the department store shoppers has been to negotiate their personal tastes toward self-improvement and social advancement. Merchants like Marshall Field understood this desire, and Field's promoted the latest household wares and artistry as a culture of conveniences and daring fashion. Coupling merchandise with fine arts displays would raise the status of merchandise to luxury-as-art and heighten shoppers' desire. In time, Chicago's vocational public high schools would house grass-roots extracurricular activities in the arts and recreation before World War I. Still, the trolley ride to the distant Loop to visit art museums, galleries, and concert halls remained unlikely for the working classes.
Racism at Marshall Field's is still prevalent in the 1950s
In 1952, a complaint was filed against Chicago's famed Marshall Field & Company for discriminatory hiring practices. Field's told the city's Commission on Human Relations that negro salespeople could "negatively affect the character, atmosphere and flavor" of the department store. The company stated that skin color was a "legitimate standard of selection and that they would not consider a dark-skinned person to be fully qualified for a position in the store." The Commission decided to favor the complainant and urged Marshall Field & Company to comply with the mandate. During the 1950s, Field's brought negroes into its workforce, but the positions were limited mainly to telephone sales, warehouse, and clerical staff, out of view of shoppers. Only one or two negro employees worked on the sales floor by the end of the decade. By the end of the 1960s, only 9% of Marshall Field's salesforce were negroes.
Marshall Field and Company was a cultural and retail institution that promoted shopping as artistry and education with its many layers of social roles. Marshall Field knew how to move different classes of shoppers to where they belonged in his store. Department store shopping is a complicated social ritual, more than simply looking and buying. Shoppers knowing what they wanted when they saw it constituted a densely layered negotiation of social and gendered fences of identity. Fields was where individuals came to browse and learn by looking at displays and looking at each other.
Though "Marshall Field's" is no longer in business, trends in retail that started during the gilded age at Field's and other leading stores have evolved into new forms of the traditions though names, places, and signifiers have changed. The architecture of retail, the drama of retail, and the drama of shopping to social and cultural issues and art education have become contemporary phenomena.
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.