Cafe au Lait

Marshal Field’s fading glory

Illinois Times

December 7, 1990

Few places gave the visitors from the rest of Illinois an idea of what Chicago was like in its heyday than Marshal Field’s main store on State Street. This column was inspired by the news that Field’s department stores were going to be sold to the outfit that ran the Target chain. (In 2006 Field’s was to be sold again, to Macy’s, which itself is dying.) The old main store of Field’s was by then less a store than an Olde Chicago exhibit in the urban theme park that the Loop was becoming.

 

The piece is sentimental and foolish, but I got that way about Field’s, which is odd, since while I could afford to shop there I never could afford to buy there.

 

"You didn't see that," said the counter woman in a stage whisper, smiling. She'd just aimed a wet coffee filter brimming with grounds at a waste basket and missed, with spectacularly inconvenient results. I put on a comradely smile. "See what?" I said.

 

L. and I were in Chicago, in a cozy little spot called Café Vienna we'd stumbled upon while shopping. We were seated on bentwood chairs at a marble cafe table separated from the bustle of passersby by an etched glass partition; she was sipping an espresso and I a cafe au lait while we shared an almond croissant.

 

It was pretty elegant for a spot whose menu not too long ago included girdles and handbags by the binful. The Cafe Vienna is located in what used to be the bargain basement of Marshall Field's main store on State Street. Field's has moved upscale, and the bargain basement was converted a couple of years ago into a maze of houseware boutiques and food shops collectively called Down Under. As I sipped I wondered why our little spot wasn't called Cafe Melbourne or Cafe Sydney, given its setting; L. explained that they wouldn't do much business selling Vegemite sandwiches and instant tea.

 

I often contrive to be in Field's on my trips to Chicago. Like any grownup I loathed to shop. But I have come to love—well, to like a lot—shopping at Field's on State Street. I have bought cheesecake there, and a belt, a wallet, pajamas, and shirts. I have eaten Chinese, drunk cafe au lait, and learned how to clean a lobster. It is a store in which you can buy a Bears mug for a buck or a hand-woven Tibetan room rug for $27,000; if you look hard enough you will probably also find Bears rugs and Tibetan mugs. Their lines of store-label goods offer boutique style at mall prices; their pajamas are cut like Diors (if from lesser cloth) and their made-in-Italy men's outer coats sell for half what the same garment would cost in a shop.

 

The store occupies a whole Loop block—thirteen floors of merchandise, fifteen restaurants, and a range of services that would embarrass most malls, from watch repair to cleaning, interior decorating, catering, travel booking, and hair styling. The store will deliver hose to any office in the Loop, mail merchandise anywhere, and offers its own warranties on appliances that often are more generous than those of the manufacturers.

 

Most astounding to someone whose shopping experience has been limited to mall stores manned by teenagers, Field's clerks know what they are selling. A year ago I was in the market for a sharpening steel. All the cookbooks said I ought to use one, but they didn't say why or how. I asked the kitchen guy at Field's and got a demonstration showing how a steel cleans the dulling microscopic burrs from a knife's edge. On another occasion L. asked why German coffee makers deliver much better brew than Mr. Coffees; she was told by a clerk that Mr. Coffee machines heat brewing water only to 120 degrees (or something like that) compared to the Braun or Krups machines, which heat it to 160

degrees.

 

Field's is not perfect. The ink on their otherwise rugged shopping bags bleeds when wet, and its entire selection of men's hats is sized for customers with small heads—the result perhaps of catering to a clientele that includes a high percentage of football fans. But these are quibbles.

 

Michigan Avenue and mistakenly assumed that this branch store was the Marshall Field's. The chain maintains its mall stores as a customer service for customers who can't parallel park or who panic at the prospect of rubbing elbows with people who use American Express cards. But there is only one real Field's. The Water Tower Field's is to its State Street store what the State of Illinois Center is to the statehouse.

 

First-time shoppers should know that the scenes on State Street are grim this time of year in spite of the music and the lights, mainly because of the sheer crush of people. They stand six deep to gawk at the famous windows, and customers—mostly suburban moms with kids in tow—start lining up in mid-morning for seats in the Walnut Room for lunch around a 45-foot Christmas tree festooned with 12,000 lights. (I know the number because I counted each one last year while waiting for a table.) Such rites have become a tradition for thousands people to whom the State Street store is not just a store but a monument to a way of life, indeed to a city they abandoned—or which abandoned them.

 

A town identifies with and is identified by its downtown department store. I remember Myers Brothers as Springfield's Field's. The store enjoyed a national reputation in the 1960s among smaller stores for the sophistication of the its merchandising. I was in high school when it first outfitted its traditional departments into in-store boutiques like the Golden Key Shop. I liked Myers Brothers, even was proud of it in a citizenly way; it made Springfield seem more like a city than a small town, not just because it was in Springfield but because it was of Springfield. When Myers was sold, downtown Springfield became just another market for the chains.

 

Some months ago tremors were felt in Chicago when it was revealed that Field's was going to be sold. An investment group headed by the chain's then-president was in the running, but Dayton-Hudson, the Minneapolis-based chain, made a higher bid.

Such buyouts have ruined many a proud store in the '80s, but Dayton-Hudson was a chain whose taste and customer base was similar to Field's. (Only similar, as it turns out; this year there are dresses in a Randolph Street window that must cause Phil Miller, the ousted Field's president, to wince.) Asked last year what he planned to change, the new boss replied, "Why would we change anything?" Field's lifelong customers wanted to believe him. I was surprised to realize that I wanted to believe him too. □

SITES

OF INTEREST

John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago

 

The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois

 

Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives

 

Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum

 

The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Chicagology

I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

[STILL A-BUILDING]

BOOKS

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Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of

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Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

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The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

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Journal of Illinois HIstory

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Midwestern Microhistory

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Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

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