November 15, 2007
Once Upon a Time in "The Loop": The Dream Merchants of State Street Part 1
Three days after the start of the Great Chicago Fire on October 8, 1871, Joseph Medill’s editorial in the Chicago Tribune triumphantly proclaimed, “ CHEER UP…looking upon the ashes of thirty years’ accumulations, the people of this once beautiful city have resolved that CHICAGO SHALL RISE AGAIN.” (Chicago Days, 39) Putting its grief aside, the city started over.
But, Chicago did much more than rebuild the rubble. Where small business dry goods storefronts had once stood, giant stone temples grew. Where bawdy brothels, beer halls and nickelodeons had beckoned, lavish entertainment palaces would rise. Nine years after The Fire a “concentrated business district, called “The Loop” emerged in downtown Chicago,” and it not only defined Chicago’s commercial core, but it’s retail residents wrote, by example, an advertising and marketing manual that would later be adopted by the movie palace owners and promoters across the country. (Historical Atlas,) And if a center of The Loop had to be defined, it would have to be the corner of State Street and Randolph Street; the location of Marshall Field’s and The Chicago Theater.
Marshall Field had already opened a lavish State Street store in 1868. With his partner, Levi Z. Leiter, Field had purchased a dry goods business owned by real estate developer Potter Palmer in 1865. The forward thinking Palmer had already built a marble store on State Street, convinced that the location was destined to become the commercial heart of the city, and encouraged Field and Leiter to occupy that building. Field, Leiter and Company, as they were known at the time, moved in on October 12, 1868, and the first step was taken in turning a muddy thoroughfare into one of the world’s busiest streets.
When the six-story structure was destroyed in 1871 by the Chicago Fire, “the company merely rebuilt a similar building, palatial in size and French in character, with stately mansard roofs. In 1902, Marshall Field employed D. H. Burnham & Co. to build a more modern looking 12-story steel frame building with a grand two-story neoclassical State Street entrance -- to remind the shopper that Fields was the grandest of the grand emporiums.” (http://www.greaterstatestreet.com/TOUR.HTM)
Marshall Field and Company, as it came to be known 13 years after its opening, continued to grow, finally swallowing the entire block surrounded by State, Randolph, Wabash and Washington streets in 1914. But, it wasn’t just the building that made Marshall Field’s unique among retailers. It was the attitude towards the clientele that most attracted shoppers. “Marshall Field prided itself on serving the discriminating customer, offering the world's first personal shopping service and initiating a multilingual information desk.” (http://www.greaterstatestreet.com/TOUR.HTM). The latter innovation was particularly appealing since Chicago was quickly becoming a city of satellite ethnic neighborhoods. It is interesting to note that Field is also credited with pioneering the “bargain basement” in the 1880s. Marshall Field was a salesman and he knew his territory.
“The theater manager is [also] a retail salesman. Retail selling in every business requires analysis of the product, analysis of the customer traffic within the neighborhood of the institution, and the use of those advertising means most efficient for reaching potential customers.” (Waller, 112) These were concepts Marshall Field had already mastered, and “movie exhibitors followed the lead of department store and grocery chains, which had precipitated significant changes in mass selling in the United States in the years preceding the First World War…[and] the most successful regional movie chain was Chicago’s Balaban & Katz.” (Gomery, 34)
By 1919, the Chicago Loop already boasted twenty theaters. (Belcher and Knox, 2)
But, the golden age of the Chicago movie palaces actually began when Barny Balaban and Sam Katz opened the magnificant Chicago Theater less than a block away from Marshall Field's & Company on State Street. It was the second major dream merchant in The Loop and they had much in common.
The awareness of a symbiotic relationship between culture and commerce is not a new concept and helps to understand why the theater district evolved in The Loop. Even the ancient Romans built theaters and amphitheaters in close proximity to their civic centers and marketplaces because they understood that. “…cultural vitality stimulates social and economic vitality. The arts help business, create jobs, and make money far in excess of their cost.” (Von Eckardt, II)
But, neither the store (Marshall Field & Company – sometimes called a “palace of desire”) nor the theater (often called a “palace of the people,”) was for royalty nor for the millionaires of Prairie Avenue. While it could be argued that Marshall Field’s catered to the women of the social elite in the early part of the twentieth century, shoppers from all social classes did have access. Field initiated the idea of “credit” in his store so that refined ladies wouldn’t have to deal with handling money, considered quite crass at the time.
The theaters however were a different story. They were “built for working-class men, women, children.” (Heise, 61) George Rapp, who along with his brother Cornelius formed the famous Rapp & Rapp architectural firm that designed The Chicago Theater, once said that “their theaters were a shrine to democracy.” (http://cinematreasures.org/firm/51/) And, in fact, “the United States pioneered an economy based on mass production and was the first country to create mass consumer institutions and mass consumer entertainments.” (Halnon)
NEXT TIME: Once Upon a Time in "The Loop" Part 2: Rise of a Consumer Class, The Chicago Theater and Bibliography for further reading.