Julian Leonard Street (left)was an author and playwright with an engaging and witty writing style. If you are unfamiliar with his work this might be a good time to become acquainted. Many of his books are available on Internet Archive. The following excerpt comes from his book Abroad at Home and it documents a visit to America by and American, coast to coast. Street was born in Chicago and the section on his birth city is well worth reading. As an introduction to Street, I offer his notes on his visit to Marshall Field's when he visited his hometown.
Of course we visited Marshall Field's.
The very obliging gentleman who showed us about the inconceivably enormous buildings, rushing from floor to floor, poking in and out through mysterious, baffling doors and passageways, now in the public part of the store where goods are sold, now be hind the scenes where they are made this gentleman seemed to have, the whole place in his head almost as great a feat as knowing the whole world by heart.
"How much time can you spare?" he asked as we set out from the top floor, where he had shown us a huge recreation room, gymnasium, and dining room, all for the use of the employees.
"How long should it take?"
"It can be done in two hours," he said, "if we keep moving all the time."
"All right," I said and we did keep moving. Through great rooms full of trunks, of brass beds, through vast galleries of furniture, through restaurants, grilles, afternoon tea rooms, rooms full of curtains and coverings and cushions and corsets and waists and hats and carpets and rugs and linoleum and lamps and toys and stationery and silver, and Heaven only knows what else, over miles and miles of pleasant, soft, green carpet, I trotted along beside the amazing man who not only knew the way, but seemed even to know the clerks. Part of the time I tried to look about me at the phantasmagoria of things with which civilization has encumbered the human race; part of the time I listened to our cicerone; part of the time I walked blindly, scribbling notes, while my companion guided my steps.
Here are some of the notes:
Ten thousand employees in retail store Choral society, two hundred members, made up of sales-people Twelve baseball teams in retail store; twelve in wholesale; play during season, and, finally, for championship cup, on "Marshall Field Day"
Lectures on various topics, fabrics, etc., for employees, also for outsiders: women's clubs, etc. Employees lunch: soup, meat, vegetables, etc., sixteen cents. Largest retail custom dressmaking business in the country Largest business in ready-made apparel. Largest retail millinery business. Largest retail shoe business. Largest branch of Chicago public library (for employees). Largest postal sub-station in .Largest largest largest!
Now and then when something interested me particularly we would pause and catch our breath. Once we stopped for two or three minutes in a fine schoolroom, where some stock-boys and stock-girls were having a lesson in fractions "to fit them for better positions/ Again we paused in a children's playroom, where mothers left their youngsters while they went to do their shopping, and where certain youngsters, thus deposited, were having a gorgeous time, sliding down things, and running around other things, and crawling over and under still other things. Still again we paused at the telephone switchboard a switchboard large enough to take care of the entire business of a city of the size of Springfield, the capital of Illinois. And still again we paused at the postal sub-station, where fifty to sixty thousand dollars worth of stamps are sold in a year, and which does as great a postal business, in the holiday season, as the whole city of Milwaukee does at the same period.
At one time we would be walking through a great shirt factory, set off in one corner of that endless building, all unknown to the shoppers who never get behind the scenes; then we would pop out again into the dressed-up part of the store, just as one goes from the kitchen and the pantry of a house into the formality of dining room and drawing room. And as we appeared thus, and our guide was recognized as the assistant manager of all that kingdom, with its population often thousand, saleswomen would rise suddenly from seats, little gossiping groups would disperse quickly, and floor men, who had been talking with saleswomen, would begin to occupy themselves with other matters. I remember coming upon a "silence room" for saleswomen a large, dark, quiet chamber, in which was an attendant; also a
saleswoman who was restlessly resting by rocking herself in a chair.
And as we moved through the store we kept taking off our hats as we went behind the scenes, and putting them on as we emerged into the public parts. Never before had I realized how much of a department store is a world unseen by shoppers. At one point, in that hidden world, a vast number of women were sewing upon dresses. I had hardly time to look upon this picture when, rushing through a little door, in pursuit of my active guide, I found myself in a maze of glass, and long-piled carpets, and mahogany, and electric light, and pretty frocks, disposed about on forms. Also disposed about were many "perfect thirty-sixes/ with piles of taffy-colored hair, doing the "debutante slouch" in their trim black costumes, so slinky and alluring.
Here I had a strong impulse to halt, to pause and examine the carpets and woodwork, and one thing and another. But no! Our guardian had a professional pride in getting us through the store within two hours, according to his promise. I would gladly
have allowed him an extra ten minutes if I could have spent it in that place, but on we went my companion and I dragging be hind a little and looking backward at the Lorelei I remember that, because I ran into a man and knocked my hat off.
At last we came to the information bureau, and as there was a particularly attractive young person behind the desk, it occurred to me that this would be a fine time to get a little information.
"I wonder if I can stump that sinuous sibyl," I said.
"Try it," said our conductor.
So I went over to her and asked: "How large is this store, please?"
"You mean the building?"
"There is fifty acres of floor space under this roof," she said. "There are sixteen floors: Thirteen stories rising two hundred and fifty-eight feet above the street, and three basements, extending forty-three and a half feet below. The building takes up one entire block. The new building devoted exclusively to men's goods is just across Washington Street. That building is..."
"Thank you very much," I said. "That's all I want to know about that. Can you tell me the population of Chicago?"
"Two million three hundred and eighty-eight thousand five hundred," she said glibly, showing me her pretty teeth.
Then I racked my brains for a difficult question.
"Now, I said, "will you please tell me where Charles Towne was born?"
"Do you mean Charles A. Towne, the lawyer; Charles Wayland Towne, the author; or Charles Hanson Towne, the poet?" she demanded.
I managed to say that I meant the poet Towne.
"He was born in Louisville, Kentucky," she informed me sweetly. She even gave me the date of his birth, too, but as the poet is a friend of mine, I will suppress that.
"Is that all?" she inquired presently, seeing that I was merely gazing at her.
"Yes, you adorable creature." The first word of that sentence is all that I really uttered. I only thought the rest.
"Very well," she replied, shutting the book in which she had looked up the Townes.
"Thanks very much," I said.
"Don't mention it," said she and went about her business in a way that sent me about mine.
Aside from its vastness and the variety of its activities, two things about Marshall Fields store interested me particularly. One is the attitude maintained by the company with regard to claims made in the advertising of "sales." When there is a
"sale" at Field s comparisons of values are not made. It may be said that certain articles are cheap at the price at which they are being offered, but it is never put in the form: "Was $5. Now 12.50." Fields does not believe in that.
"We take the position," an official explained to me, "that things are worth what they will bring. For instance, if some manufacturer has made too many overcoats, and we are able to get them at a bargain, or there is a mild winter and overcoats do not sell well, we may place on sale a lot of coats which were meant to be sold at $40, but which we are willing to sell at $22.50. In such a case we never advertise Worth $40. We just point out that these are exceptionally good coats for the money.
And, when we say that, it is invariably true. This advertising is not so sensational as it could be made, of course, but we think that in the long run it teaches people to rely upon us."
Another thing which interested me in Fields was the appearance of the saleswomen. They do not look like New York sales women. In the aggregate they look happier, simpler, and more natural. I saw no women behind the counters there who had the haughty, indifferent bearing, the nose-in-the-air, to which the New York shopper is accustomed. Among these women, no less than among the rich, the Chicago spirit seemed to show itself. It is everywhere, that spirit. I admit that, perhaps, it does not go with omnipresent taxicabs. I admit that there are more effete cities than Chicago. The East is full of them. But that any city in the country has more sterling simplicity, greater freedom from sham and affectation among all classes, more vigorous cultivation, or more well-bred wealth, I respectfully beg to doubt.
JULIAN STREET (1879-1947)
From: Abroad at Home (1914)
Reprinted in As Others See Chicago edited by Bessie Louise Pierce (1933)
Author Julian Street and artist Wallace Morgan standing at the base of a statue of a lion in front of the Art Institute, located at 111 South Michigan Avenue, in the Loop community area of Chicago, Illinois. DN-0062149, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago Historical Society
Marshall Field's Interior, 1910, Wikipedia