Whether your family arrived in Chicago in the 1850s or last year, it’s almost certain you have one thing in common: A love for the windows at the store on State Street formerly known as Marshall Field’s. Many of us who have been in this city for quite some time still can’t bring ourselves to refer to it as, well, the “M-Word.” Although credit must be given to the New York-based retailer for preserving the Walnut Room, Frango Mints, and yes, the magical window displays. Getting to State Street, whether by car, El, bus, commuter train or on foot might be one of the few times each year that die-hard suburbanites or out-of-towners traipse into The City to engage in a beloved ritual. You know it will be crowded, that you will have to wait your turn to inch up to the windows, and that the line for the Walnut Room will be beastly. But somehow, you find the patience because after all, this is the holiday season, and this is one of the few experiences that you simply cannot capture online.
It is hard to imagine a holiday season in which the windows and their bewitching designs did not exist. Were it not for technological developments that yielded large, durable plate glass, department stores would not have one of their most compelling marketing tools, let alone sufficient daylight to permeate their huge spaces. Not until the late 1800s did the manufacture of plate glass allow for a product that could provide for virtually wrap-around window displays. Once this became available, retailers realized the vast potential of windows and the space just inside them to promote the new, the stylish, the best they had to offer.
Marshall Field possessed the vision and work ethic behind what became one of the most successful department stores in the world. He also knew how to hire the best in the business. Harry Selfridge, the one-day owner of the legendary London emporium bearing his name, was a junior partner at Field’s when, according to the book, Give the Lady What She Wants, he became aware of the extraordinary window displays seen in a Creston, Iowa store. Selfridge obtained the name of the designer, and one Arthur Fraser instantly became Marshall Field’s window genius.
At the time of this writing, red has re-emerged as an It Color for fall and winter fashion. Red was also enjoying a surge in popularity in 1897, so much so that Fraser decided that six of Field’s windows would succumb to what was then called the “Red Epidemic.” Some windows featured voluptuous silks, others displayed decadent gowns. One window touted red laces, trims, wraps, hats, and – gasp – petticoats. Shoppers were smitten, and Marshall Field’s windows became a merchandising miracle.
With a huge merchandising budget in hand, Fraser designed hundreds of the most spectacular window displays imaginable. When Field opened its new building in 1907, its windows became a focal point.
Fraser understood the joyful impact of Christmas, especially on children. He started to showcase Field’s unprecedented variety of toys in the store’s windows. The displays worked wonders for sales, and a window-shopping tradition was born. The practice of holiday window dressing continued into the early 1940s when there was a significant change. For the first time ever, Field’s created a unified holiday theme that extended through every window on State Street. The windows told a story that would change every year. And every year brought more crowds from all over the Midwest to see the mesmerizing displays. The creator of this marvelous YouTube video brings Field’s to life with scenes from Christmases past.
Other retailers knew how to harness the magic of Christmas. One of competitor Montgomery Ward’s advertising men dreamed up a certain character known as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Rudolph, and the catchy song that bears his name, became an instant classic. Looking for its own Christmas mascot, Field’s marketing team created Uncle Mistletoe, and later, Aunt Holly. “Born” in 1946, Uncle Mistletoe was a huge hit with customers. He even had his own television show that ran during the holiday season for four years. He hasn’t changed a bit, as seen by a 1953 Golden Book and his presence in the windows under Macy’s ownership.
Although Macy’s took ownership of Marshall Field’s in 2006, the chain has seen to it that the windows continue to fascinate Chicagoans. Enjoy more windows!