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Why are people still so upset about Marshall Field's?
January 7, 2010

Dear Cecil:

In the "Cool stuff that's gone" thread on the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board, more than one poster mentioned Marshall Field's. It's been four years, and people are still writing letters to the Tribune wishing the Macy's company a slow and painful death. Occasionally, people even picket the State Street Macy's, apparently trying to get them to change the name back to Field's.

There's a Macy's that used to be a Field's at the mall near where I live, and I'll be damned if I can tell any difference other than the name over the door. IMO, the State Street flagship had been getting kind of dumpy in later years; Macy's seems to have spruced the joint up quite a bit. The Walnut Room is still there, Frango Mints are still there. Both chains have a reputation as a good, higher-end store, but beyond that
— a department store is a department store is a department store, right? In fact, if my research is correct, the Field family hadn't owned the store since 1982, and it had changed hands a couple more times before Macy's bought it.

As far as I can tell, Macy's great crime wasn't buying Marshall Field's, it was putting their own name on what are now their stores. I can't think of anything else that's appreciably different. Why is this such a hot-button issue for so many people?

— Wheelz, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil replies:

Macy's management undoubtedly has wondered the same thing. Although they claim to be resigned to it, even now I'm sure the thought crosses their minds: won't these people ever give up?

Personally I'm ambivalent about this renaming business — and I say this as someone who's done his share of Macy's bashing. Other than the name, as you point out, nothing substantive has changed. At the time of the 2005 takeover, Marshall Field's hadn't been owned locally in years. (To correct you, the Field family hadn't owned a significant piece of the company since the 1960s, and no Field had run it in a century.) Macy's retained many of Field's signature symbols, down to the MARSHALL FIELD AND COMPANY plaques on the State Street store's facade, as required by the building's landmark status. For all the complaining you hear, you'd be hard put to claim Macy's has run the place into the ground — when I visited a week before Christmas, the State Street store looked as bright and bustling as ever. Looking at the thing rationally, I ought to acknowledge reality and accept that Field's is a thing of the past. 

I can't do it. "Macy's on State" just sticks in the craw.

A lot of people in Chicago feel that way. What's surprising is they still feel that way after four years. I had a long talk with Jim McKay, co-organizer of FieldsFansChicago.org, which continues to demonstrate and protest, hand out buttons and leaflets, and run a website and blog. I asked the obvious questions: why persist? What do you hope to accomplish? Why not just move on?

"It's not lost on me that there are more important issues," he said. He acknowledged that Terry Lundgren, Macy's president, CEO and chairman, was never going to budge. "We look at the potential for new owners. We think of ourselves as a brand life-support system."  

You have to admire this, up to a point. On the other hand, some southerners have never accepted that the Civil War's over and they lost.

We talked about what accounted for the enduring loyalty of Field's supporters. At first McKay spoke in general terms about the importance of Field's as a cultural institution, but when pressed conceded, "It's all about the State Street store." My thought exactly. Designed in stages by Daniel Burnham and his associates and successors and designated a national historic landmark in 1979, it's one of the great retail emporiums, at two million square feet second only to Macy's flagship Herald Square store in size. The big clocks, the Tiffany ceiling, the Walnut Room — they don't make 'em like that anymore, and they didn't make many of 'em like that back then.  To address your point, Wheelz, it's one thing to reflag a branch in a suburban mall. But rebranding the State Street venue, and what's worse, giving it the name of a store prominently identified with another city but otherwise considered ordinary … please. When a New York hedge fund buys Chicago and renames it Jersey City West, people are going to be pissed.

All that having been said, we need to face some facts:

  • It made, and still makes, perfect sense for Macy's corporate parent (originally known as Federated Department Stores and based in Cincinnati, although there's now also a corporate presence in New York) to rebrand its outlets following the acquisition of its rival, May Department Stores, in 2005. The company's 800-plus stores represented the consolidation of dozens of regional chains. Early attempts to preserve local identity using names like Rich's/Macy's in Atlanta were cumbersome. National advertising is far less complicated when all your stores have the same name. People in other cities may have been unhappy when their local chains were rebranded, but most eventually rolled over. Chicago seems to be the one place where visible if diminishing unhappiness continues.

  • As McKay admits, FieldsFansChicago.org wants a lot of things that aren't going to happen. To clarify, the group doesn't object to the renaming of the old Field's suburban outlets; it simply wants the the State Street store restored "not only in name but also quality and service." A pleasant thought, but — meaning no disrespect — dream on. A Macy's spokesperson confirms no change is contemplated.

What's done is done. I understand that. "Macy's on State" still makes me gag.    

— Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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