The development of the department store posed a serious threat to smaller retailers. Many small merchants tried to rally the public against the new behemoths, but they failed to gain much support. Rather than rally to the side of traditional merchants, Chicago shoppers embraced the new form of retail. The opening of the new Marshall Field's State Street store in 1902, only a few years after anti–department store protests, signaled that this newer type of institution had won the admiration of consumers. The opening was a sensational event, and the store decided not to start selling items on its first day of business so that more of the eager public would be able to pass through.
Service was yet another part of the department store allure. More than any other establishment, Marshall Field's gained a reputation for pampering its customers. Field's sent all its elevator operators to charm school, was the first to offer a personal shopping service, and even maintained an information desk with personnel who spoke several languages and answered any question about the store or about the city in general.
With few other options available to them, many women coveted work in department stores, even though the industry paid them extremely low wages. As women came to dominate many of the sales and clerical positions, the department stores received increasing criticism for the way they treated these employees. In 1913, executives from Marshall Field and Carson Pirie Scott found themselves involved in state legislative hearings on a proposed minimum wage. The stores' labor practices gained even more notoriety as the executives testified that they could double the pay of their female employees and still make a profit, yet they still refused to pay women a living wage.
Along with continuing decentralization, the influx of stores based in other parts of the country has become the most noticeable recent development in Chicago's department store industry. Many of these new stores that have opened in Chicago have come from New York, such as Bloomingdale's and Saks Fifth Avenue, as well as from other parts of the country, such as Neiman-Marcus of Dallas and Nordstrom of Seattle. After a century of development, department stores seem to have lost none of their popularity, but today Chicago has far fewer locally owned department stores than it did in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Benson, Susan Porter. Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers in American Department Stores, 1890–1940. 1986.
Siry, Joseph. Carson Pirie Scott: Louis Sullivan and the Chicago Department Store. 1988.
Wendt, Lloyd, and Herman Kogan. Give the Lady What She Wants! The Story of Marshall Field & Company. 1952.
The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago © 2005 Chicago Historical Society.
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