Marshall Field was born August 18, 1834 on a farm in Conway, Massachusetts.
Around the age of 17, Marshall moved to Pittsfield, Massachusetts where he worked in dry goods store.
Lured by the expanding Western frontier, he headed west in 1856 to live with his brother in Chicago, Illinois.
Marshal obtained a job with leading dry goods merchant Cooley, Wadsworth and Company.
This company became Cooley, Farwell & Company in 1857.
Then in 1862, Marshall purchased a partnership and the company became Farwell, Field & Company.
Potter Palmer then asked Marshall Field and Levi Leiter to become senior partners of his dry goods company Potter Palmer in January of 1865.
The new firm became known as “Field, Palmer, Leiter & Company.”
By 1867, Marshall and Leiter bought Palmer out, resulting in Palmer leaving the firm.
They renamed their new firm, “Field, Leiter & Company.”
Like many other Chicago businessmen, Marshall Field’s company was badly affected by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, but reopened relatively quickly.
The company also survived the Panic of 1873 because of their relatively low levels of debt.
By 1881, Marshall had forced Leiter to sell his share of the business, changing the store’s name to “Marshall Field and Company“.
Marshall Field took an early 19th-century consumer landscape that was centered around the principle of caveat emptor, or “buyer beware”, and transformed it into a plush shopping experience fit for the Gilded Age.
Unconditional refunds, consistent pricing and international imports were among the Marshall Field innovations that became standards in quality retailing.
Field’s employees were also instructed not to push products on uninterested customers as was common practice in stores of the period.
Today the quotes “Give the lady what she wants” and “The customer is always right” are attributed to Marshall Field, though the latter may be a slogan created by Harry Gordon Selfridge while employed by Marshall Field.
Marshall was highly suspicious of organized labor throughout his career, and prohibited unionization among his employees.
All of these business policies allowed Marshall Field to become the wealthiest and most powerful businessman in Chicago.
Marshall avoided political and social intrigue, instead focusing on his family and his favorite philanthropies.
He married Nannie Scott in 1863 and raised two children, Marshall Field, Jr., and Ethel Field.
After his wife Nannie died in 1896, Marshall married longtime friend Delia Spencer.
The Field Museum of Natural History was named after Marshall in 1894 after he donated an endowment of one million dollars.
Marshall was initially reluctant to do so, reportedly saying “I don’t know anything about a museum and I don’t care to know anything about a museum. I’m not going to give you a million dollars.”
However he relented after railroad supplies magnate Edward E. Ayer, another early benefactor (and later first president) of the museum, convinced Marshall that his everlasting legacy would be achieved by financing the project.
The University of Chicago was founded by both Marshall Field and New York’s John D. Rockefeller, to rival nearby Evanston’s Northwestern University.
Marshall Field died in New York City, New York, on January 16, 1906 at age 71 from a case of pneumonia contracted while playing golf on New Year’s Day with his nephew, his secretary and Abraham Lincoln’s oldest son Robert Todd.
Marshall was buried on January 19th.
The year after his death the Field Museum received a further $8,000,000 in accordance with his will.
Marshall Field was interred in the Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.
A bust of Marshall Field stands aside other early 20th century Chicago industry magnates on the north riverbank on the Chicago River facing the Merchandise Mart.
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