Thursday, December 4, 2014

Eventually Someone Was Going to Do a Novel About Marshall Field and Eventually Boswell Was Going to Host Said Event So We Could use a Small Fraction of the My Memorabilia for Display. More on Renée Rosen's "What the Lady Wants. Rosen Visits Thursday, December 11, 7 pm.

The department store held an allure for me since I was child. From the beautiful emporiums of Manhattan to the more workaday Queens stores (Gertz of Jamaica!), they were meant to be like palaces, well, palaces of commerce. As I got older, I became more and more obsessed with when I'd visit a city, to the point where I had a book of urban maps from the 1950s and I would plan my day out, starting with a visit to the library to look at old ads, and continuing with a walking tour, where I'd visit the survivors, and find out what happened to the fallen.

And while New York had some nice stores, I never really new what a grand emporium was until I visited Marshall Field and Company in Chicago, which honestly put the Herald Square Macy's to shame. Perhaps that's because I had less of a sense of awe about the place--I was a temp at Macy's for a few seasons, which will do much to take the stars out of one's eyes. Plus their stores were always so messy.

So yes, I once took the train to Chicago and spent the entire day at the Marshall Field's State Street store, window shopping, making small purchases, grazing the various restaurants and snack counters, and collecting my beloved handled shopping bags. Back in the 1980s, my sales reps would help out by bringing back department store bags from the various cities they had on their schedule. If it weren't for Alex, our just-retired Penguin-Putnam-Random House rep, I certainly would have no keepsake from DeLendrecie's of Fargo. A very fond thank you to him!

As I've learned more about department store history, I know that some were better than others, but all of them had many of the issues that large chain stores and retail websites have today. They often unfairly compete with smaller merchants and don't always have the best relationships with their employees and had unfair sway on government resources. That said, even though the old stores were often parts of national networks, they each had their distinctive quirks, and were an important part of urban history. And back in the days of May, Federated, Associated, Carter Hawley Hale, Allied, Mercantile, and even Marshall Field's (which owned Frederick and Nelson, Crescent, Iveys, and Halle Brothers), each chain had its quirks. I could spot a charmingly fusty Associated store very quickly.

As I was researching this blog, I finally learned that Marshall Field bought Columbus's The Union, merged it with Halle's and then sold them off to be liquidated so it was kind of coincidental that Field's later opened a store in Columbus's downtown mall. And I forgot the Field's expanded into Texas as early as 1979, before it was even sold off to British American Tobacco. This is one of those subjects where I could detour all day and not get anything else done.

But all this Texas and Columbusiana was well after Marshall Field himself was the man behind the store, and his story is the focus of the new novel by Renée Rosen, What the Lady Wants. It's a bit about the store, but more about the man, and in particular, his thirty year affair with another married Chicago socialite, Delia Spencer Caton. Both Jane and I have read the novel and we both pronounce it classic historical fiction, a lot of research, a touch of speculation, and a heap of juicy gossip, not just about Field but about Palmers (the hotelier), the Armours and Swifts (meat packers) and the Pullmans (train cars). From the Great Fire to the White City, Rosen captures Chicago as it was evolving from a second-rate outpost to a first-class urban center, and how Fields (and probably Delia, at least behind the scenes) were instrumental in that metamorphosis.

What the Lady Wants is just the kind of book that would have sold like crazy in the carriage trade stores, which of course was what you called the folks who shopped at the fancier stores like Marshall Field and Company. You can relive that time with Rosen on Thursday, December 11, 7 pm, where Rosen will talk about the book and offers a Marshall Field's Slide show. If you can't make the event, visit our display window (alas, the photo didn't come out good enough to reprint here), which features several vintage and more recent shopping bags, some mugs, a bear (different from the bear in the photo above) and of course a Frango beach towel. Who could be without one of those?

No comments: