Marshall Field, Storekeeper
ARTHUR E. McFARLANE IN SATURDAY EVENING POST
No man of late years has done more to ennoble the counter and the store than Marshall Field. The success which he attained stands as an encouragement to every young man. His uprightness is an object lesson to all. With unswerving fidelity to principle he lived a useful life and in death all men honor him.
MARSHALL FIELD, like so many of his kind, came of good, tough, Yankee-farmer stock. His father was reckoned a “hard driver;" but if he worked the lad at home, he gave him not only a common-school education, but also several years in the academy at Amherst. Then, when he was seventeen, he put him into the Pittsfield general store.
Deacon Davis, the keeper of that emporium, was a very short time in deciding that his new clerk “would not make a merchant in a thousand years." What young Field replied to that we do not know. He was always reticent enough. But he probably had his own thoughts. In any case, we find him staying with the Deacon until he was twenty-one. Then he drew’ his savings from the bank and took the big road for Chicago.
He used to say, later, that every man has two educations : one which he receives from others, and a second —more important—that he gives himself. We know little about those Pittsfield years; but we may take it for granted that before they were ended his second education had begun. For within four years after his arrival in Chicago he had reached business dignity as the junior partner in a big dry goods house, Cooley, Wadsworth & Co. And five years later we find him joining with two kindred spirits and launching forth independently.
It is significant that Marshall
Field's partners—and partners do not come by accident—were Levi Z. Leiter and Potter Palmer. If to these names we add that of Philip D. Armour, we have Chicago’s “big four." And just in this connection, it is worth saying that a barrel of nonsense has been talked about the intuition with which these men early recognized the illimitable possibilities of Chicago. Illimitable possibilities are not shiningly apparent in marshy land, and a shallow harbor, and a third-rate river to silt into it. They exist in human nerve and brain fibre. Metropolitan sites of unparalleled advantages are only less plentiful in America than boom-time real-estate offices. But when a group of men of a joint and several trading ability to stagger the antique Phoenicians decide to peg down their tent in a given locality, you might as well begin to lay out your county buildings opposite, and give your rod-and-transit men instructions to leave lots of room for parks; for you will soon be face to face with the dangers of overcrowding.
Palmer was the eldest; he was already a kind of Ulysses among the retail merchants of Chicago. To him we can trace the so-called “Field principles" of making a store a public utility and convenience, of selling with the privilege of exchange, and, in general, of giving something for nothing. Leiter supplied an energy which flagged neither by day nor by night. Field, for his part,
evinced three qualities sufficiently rare in the same person—a genius for organization, a yearning for new things, and an eternal caution in trying them. The trio throve from the beginning.
In 1867 Palmer’s health began to worry him. He proposed to the two younger partners That they should buy him out. They were to pay him what they could in cash, and give him their notes for the balance. At this time Field, at least, was still (sleeping above the store, which does not bespeak any superabundance of ready money. But he was as eager as Leiter to grasp the opportunity. Now, one of the erroneous ideas regarding the man which have received very general credence is that he never gave a note. In the case of this retirement of Palmer, along with Leiter he gave some very large ones; and those notes had a series of painful and humiliating renewals. But in experience they paid Field interest for the remainder of his life. He made it the first principle of his financial existence to give no more.
Having planted this shoot from the tree of wisdom, and beheld it already promising him no uncertain /shade and shelter, with his partner’s permission he proceeded to set forth a second sprout. And though, according to Field, it came from the same parent trunk as its predecessor, for a long time it looked to Leiter horribly like a cutting from the deadly upas. They were doing a wholesale as well as a retail trade; and, as a wholesaler, Leiter had often imagined to himself a business paradise in which he could do all his paying on long terms, and always be paid himself in cash. Field, against all the arguments of reason and human nature, reversed this. He and B
his partner were to pay the cash, and their customers were to get the “time.” But, mark it, it was not to be “long time.” It was to be shorter time than any of the other Chicago wholesalers were offering them ! Could any departure be better calculated for the alienation of trade ? We must remember, too, that at that time the small storekeepers of the west were about as cheerfully haphazard in the matter of meeting paper as has ever been a matter of gloomy record in the commercial agencies. In the opinion of Field & Leiter’s competitors, they needed encouragement. Field decided that he could best offer them encouragement by making his firm able, through its cash buying, to put them in goods at prices never listed before; and then to insist that a bargain was a bargain. Thence, in the course of things, failures ensued — which failures might otherwise have been staved off for a year or two. And after that an influence for good business methods—for prudence and forehandedness and punctuality— began to make itself felt from the Mississippi to the Pacific. It extended itself with the extension of what was to be vastly the greatest business ever done upon this or any other continent. And it is the standing legacy of the mighty Chicago bouse to-day. Sometime a chapter of the country’s commercial history will be written under the heading, “Sixty Days Net.”
As for the reflex action of the departure upon the immediate fortunes of Field & Leiter, by 1870 they “were making an annual turnover” of $8,000,000. And although in the great fire of the ensuing year, by the failure of certain insurance companies, they lost a clear million
which they should never have lost at all, theirs was the only Chicago dry goods company which had to ask for no extension of credit. So great an advantage, indeed, did this give them over all rivals that Field himiself confessed that the fire might have been said to be a piece of great good fortune for them.
While the engines were still playing on the embers, they opened up in the old car^barns on the corner of Twentieth and State streets. They had—we have seen—always broken one of the “safe rules for trade” by doing both a wholesale and a retail business at the same time. Now the two were at any rate given separate housing. Upon the old State and Washington site went up that blockfront structure which was to be for twenty years one of the Chicago landmarks. The wholesale business was given a block to expand in at Madison and Market. By 1875 the annual retail trade had grown to $19,000,000—a figure (surpassed only by A. T. Stewart’s famous house in New York. In 1881, the year in which Leiter retired, a “turnover” of $30,000,000 ended Stewart’s preeminence forever. And the big Field “general staff” rejoiced like young lions who have not merely sought their prey, but have found it.
Yet the proper business of this paper is with underlying principles, and not in the glorification of the outward details which make them,manifest. Nor must Leiter’s value to the partnership be passed over too glancingly, for he was steam-ibox, piston-rod and driving-wheel, all in one. But it was Field who gave the “power” its undreamed-of and measureless activities.
In the first place, what was his chosen power ? It was that of abso-
lute honesty and fair dealing. On the surface this must seem the flattest of truisms. But is it f That type of storekeeping cleverness which, taking its standards from the thimblerigger, regards a customer as some one to be done, still survives most plentifully among us. Every town has its examples, and neither starvation nor bankruptcy can teach them anything. To my own knowledge, there is at least one very large and well-known store in New York where you may buy blankets for pure wool which turn out to be largely of very wellprepared cotton. One might, indeed, almost say that all stores divide into those believing that honesty pays and those believing it does not.
Whether Marshall Field made honesty his rule merely because it paid we shall be in a position to judge better later. For the present, a story told by Mayor Dunne may serve as some indication of how far the Field store came in the end to carry its rule of rules. He was buying an umbrella, and upon the end of the counter he noticed several under a reduced-price card. The saleswoman explained that they were damaged. The mayor picked up one which, in honesty, he had to inform her was not damaged at all. Oh, but it must be ! And she went over it, stick, ribs and covering, until she found a tiny place which had been ripped and resewn. She pointed it out in triumph ! It is a kind of triumph which, I venture to say, was signally uncommon in those good old days of non-advertising dignity, which, we are told to believe, possessed principles that our own pushful and aggressive days can never wot of. The principle that a clerk may misrepresent to a certain extent “for the good of the firm” is
hardly a modern one. Under the Field regime, the clerk who misrepresented once for the good of the firm, and was found out, never did it again—for the good of his own soul.
Now for some business tenets in the regular, but narrower, acceptance of the phrase. If Field paid cash, he saw, too, that he received his cash discounts. These discounts he deducted from his retail prices, and he considered that they must always give him one great advantage over his competitors. So they did, until his competitors began to go to school to him.
In the use of money he guided himself at all times by this sweeping assumption : Only that capital which is a man’s in absolute freedom can be of any actual value to him. The most speciously attractive of opportunities could not induce Field to borrow. Fifteen million dollars’ worth of Chicago real estate, while he possessed it, never knew a mortgage—and only those who went through the hard-time years with him can understand what that means. He never bought a share of stock on margin; he did not think he was a g'ood-enough guesser. All short-cuts to wealth he regarded as so many runways over baited traps. Breathing the air of Chicago though he did, “he never put any trust in the future;” he at all times carried a huge reserve. We spoke earlier of his having planted certain shoots from the tree of wisdom. With those herewith added, he was in a few years possessed of a windbreak capable of standing up against a financial cyclone. Many business men should really be window decorators. They never plant anything but pretty boxwood hedges.
Yet upon the attitude of his em-
ployes must the success of every owner of a great retail store ultimately depend. One of Field’s employes tells us that two principles seemed here to govern—one was justice, the other was consideration. Marshall Field early instituted a kind of civil service of his own. Detailed records were kept not merely of the employe’s sales, but of his or her deportment toward the public, his or her disposition, neatness in dress and person, general habits even. To each count certain marks were attached. Averages were cast at the end of the year, and upon these averages depended all promotions.
Thus the store became a kind of great training-school. No employe, however high his salary, was allowed to feel that the firm could not do without him. There were others constantly and zealously preparing themselves to take his place. No employe, too, could feel that his position could normally be a stationary one. “I don’t want to do business if I can’t progress,” Field used to say; and he wanted those farther down the ladder to think in the same way about it. Moreover, there was always a final advancement into the firm itself; every man carried the field-marshal’s baton in his knapsack. This meant, too, that a man could not only graduate from the staff with honors, but with much wealth, in the bargain. Merely in Chicago one might mention John G. and Lafayette McWilliams; H. J. Willing, Thomas Templeton, Harlow N. Higinbotham, H. G. Self ridge, Robert M. Fair, and others—all of whom stepped forth worth from one to five millions. No man ever saved millions on a salary alone.
From the day when he joined for-
tunes with his first famous partners, there has often been comment upon how rarely Field’s judgment failed him in the choice of a man. He read human motives and gauged the particular aptitudes of the individual almost clairvoyantly. He could both pick a good man and put that good man where he could do his best work. And, incidentally, that special wisdom which he had gathered from his experience as an employer he was in the habit of applying very hardEieadedly to larger affairs. When asked why he opposed the municipal ownership of Chicago’s street railways, he said he would believe in the city’s capacity to maintain a good street-railway service when it could maintain a decent elevator service in the municipal buildings; Chicago had not yet merited promotion ! Could Adam Smith himself have made the point with a more searching incisivene$s ?
He was always absolutely the master in his own house. When Mr. Higinbotham wTas offered the presidency of the Columbian Exposition, he had to wait till “the chief” returned from Germany and reluctantly gave him permission to accept. A great compliment had been paid to that State street training-school, but Marshall Field did not view it from that standpoint.
It has been remarked that a Field employe always says “we.” Yet the man was never paternal in his manner. When he walked through the big store he rarely smiled and almost never praised. A portrait painter to whom he sat described his face as “cool and grey.” He was taciturn and unapproachable. But by his two principles of justice and consideration he succeeded in surrounding himself with an atmos-
phere of good will, and implanting in the thousands at his command that spirit of communal dignity and esprit de corps which alone can make a business, however manymillioned, truly great. When about an applicant for a position there was something just a trifle glib, or slick, or shifty, he had one formula of rejection : “I don’t think he is just our kind.” And, be assured, every business has its own “kind,” to make or break it in the end.
In the meantime, from 11881 on, the names on Field’s pay-sheets had been increasing at the astonishing rate of more than five hundred annually. The year 1905 saw his retail store giving employment to 8,000 men and women—a number equal to th'e entire wage-earning population of the Chicago that Field came to in 1856 ! One can follow his progress, too, in the very topography of the block in which he first established that retail store. Annex has shouldered extension, each lifting itself higher than its predecessor. Since 1891 the course of building has been almost uninterrupted. Five storeys were not enough, nor seven, nor nine. The newest structure gazes down upon its forebear from an altitude of twelve. Indeed, the whole block now presents that craggy irregularity which to the foreigner looks so wilfully formless and unguided — but which is in reality a great outward and visible index of the rapidity of the progress made. In the present year, the Field architect was instructed to bring the entire store up to the twelve-storey level—“without, of course, in any way interfering with business !”
In 1887 the wholesale branch was housed in the great stone structure on Adams street. As for the buying
department, there is a study of commercial evolution in that alone. From th'e old custom of working through the commission houses, Marshall Field passed to sending his own travelers to Europe. Then he began to keep “travelers” in Europe all the time. Then he sent similar resident buyers to South America, Africa, India, China and Japan. And, following that, in Bradford, Manchester and Nottingham; in Calais, Paris and Lyons; in Plauen, St. Gall, Chemnitz and Annaberg; in Calcutta. Canton and Yokohama—in all these places did he set up factories of his own ! If he could not bring the skilled native labor to Chicago, he would use it where it had its natural being. In any case no middleman should come between them ! Only in the last few years did he feel that he had got his machine “really running!”
In the last current year his wholesale and retail branches together did a business of $100,000,000. Since 1895 it has never been less than $50,000,000. These great sums mean, even at moderate profits, great dividendis. And if Field made others wealthy, he became vastly rich himself. At his death it is estimated that his holdings of real estate in Chicago alone amounted to $57,000,000; no corporation in Cook county could show the like. His stores represent a value of $25,000,000. He had $17,000,000 in United States Steel; $12,500,000 in the Pullman Palace Car Company (and it used to be said that George M. Pullman was only one of Field’s head clerks); $10,000,000 in St. Paul, and as much more in Baltimore and Ohio, Chicago and Northwestern, and other railroads; $6,000,000 in bank stocks; $5,000,000 in textile factories.
But these are only figures. And there are other men—whom the Republic does not delight to honor— who could show much greater. What else but the financially astounding has Field left behind him ?
There is a great deal else. You may think at once of the million he gave to the Field Columbian Muséum, of the half-million in land to the University of Chicago, of the unnumbered smaller sums to kindred works of help and education; and his will has added its own items to the list. I am not speaking of that kind of philanthropy, however, but of something which last year’s business history has shown us we need much more. If you like that ^sort of thing, you may get yards of wellbalanced rhetoric from smug chambers of commerce and reverend
boards of directors testifying to “the sterling worth of the man,” and “how greatly the world of finance will mourn his loss.” The
world of finance, as represented by these men,# is a pompous, plughatted, grey side-whiskered, pallbearing old hypocrite. I prefer to go for my testimonial to a source much less awe-inspiring. Marshall Field was not the richest man in the United States—but he paid the most taxes. In 1905 Cook county received more than $500,000 from him. He
never “dodged.” “And,” says that
collecting officer whom I choose to bear witness in this brief biography, “I think he paid up just because he wanted to be fair and square with the people !” It is a reason almost to make us rub our eyes. So, too, it may also have been something higher then policy that made honesty his first principle in storekeeping.
His was hardly a happy life, as we understand such things. Or perhaps
it would be stating it more truly to say that he loved the battle of life more than he loved life itself. His final days may well serve as an illustration. When informed of the gravity of his state, he called William G. Beale, his personal counsel, to his bedside, anid gave himself a few last hours of business. Then he bade farewell to his family and friends. And having thus cleared his decks he made a fight against his malady which his doctors would not have looked for in a man twenty years his junior.
He had contracted the disease playing golf; but golf was his sole active diversion. He led his strenuous life among the push-buttons. He cared little for society. He did not take advantage even of that which builds itself about men in the hours of trade. He did not invite intimacy; his associates never called him anything but “Mr. Field.” He had, too, little of that culture which the work of his generation has thrown open to the generation to come. He did not read broadly. Though he traveled much and owned beautiful pictures, he seems to have regarded them merely as things for a tired man to rest his eyes upon. In the collections of fossils brought together in the museum he had established he confessed he could see “only old bones.” The notable thing is that he was entirely honest about it.
And that honesty was something that gave him a power which no accumulation of money ever could give. Twice he was offered the Democratic nomination for vice-president. What other multi-millionaire is there in America whose name could for a moment be thought to add strength to a political ticket ? “He was,” said
a contemporary, “a rich man of whom no one spoke bitterly because of his riches., He had no red silk cushion on the top of his desk, but that desk was a pulpit of a sort we can use a great many more of at the present time.”
Again, in the business world he inspired that confidence which in the last resort only honesty can inspire. When, a few weeks ago, the crisis in the affairs of the Walsh banks threatened Chicago with a general panic, he was called from his bed to advise with the clearing-house committee. Yet he was no banker himself, and as a “financial expert” he did not iqualify at all. In his whole career he had never carried through one of those “brilliant series of speculations” of which the papers tell us.
But what he did do was this—'and the thing was done so quietly and resistlessly that we can hardly realize the completeness of its accomplishment : He was born to a commercial world that still maintained the old snobbish English tradition that the man who sold by wholesale of necessity belonged to a caste far above him who sold over the counter. Field’s life-work broke down those crazy and moth-eaten barriers forever. Not only that. He did much more. He took that sneered-at retail counter, swept it clean of all the meanness and truckling which clung about it, and, by the power of honesty and fair dealing alone, lifted it into the dignity of the great professions.
An industrious Sunday supplement reporter, not satisfied with the commonly accented sources of the Field millions, has hinted that he has inside information to show that Field also owned a great gold mine. AÍ-
though you may not find that gold mine in the Transvaal or California or the Klondike, ^ou need not, therefore, doubt its existence. For an ex-
istence verilv it has ! Furthermore, it is a mine which, by an unwritten codicil in his will, he has left to all other business men whatsoever.