Little Visits with Great Americans

by Orison Swett Marden

Marshall Field, Determined not to Remain Poor, a Farmer Boy Becomes a Merchant Prince

MARSHALL FIELD, one of the greatest merchants of the United States, and that means of the world, is not readily accessible to interviewers. He probably feels, like most men of real prominence, that his place in the history of his time is established, and he is not seeking for the fame that is certain to attend his name and his business achievements. No more significant story, none more full of stimulus, of encouragement, of brain-inspiring and pulse-thrilling potency has been told in any romance. It is grand in its very simplicity, in its very lack of assumption of special gifts or extraordinary foresight. The Phenix-like revival from the ashes of ruined Chicago is spoken of by Mr. Field as an incident in the natural and to be expected in the order of events. In Marshall Field it was no doubt natural and to be expected, and it touches the very keynote of the character of the celebrated western merchant, sprung from rugged eastern soil, whose career is an example to be studied with profit by every farmer boy, by every office boy, by every clerk and artisan, —yes, and by every middle-aged business man, whether going along smoothly or confronted by apparently ruinous circumstances, throughout our broad land.

I was introduced to Mr. Field in the private office of Mr. Harry G. Selfridge, his most trusted lieutenant, and this first of interviews with the head of Chicago's greatest mercantile house followed.

"My object," I said to Mr. Field, "is to obtain your opinion as to what makes for and constitutes success in life."

"That can be quickly given," said Mr. Field ; "what would you like to know?"

"I wish to know something of your early life, and under what conditions you began it."

"I was born in Conway, Massachusetts, in 1835. My father's farm was among the rocks and hills of that section, and not very fertile."

"And the conditions were?"


"You mean that you were poor?"

"Yes, as all people were in those days, more or less. My father was a farmer. I was brought up under farming conditions, such as they were at that time."


"Did the character and condition of your parents tend in any way to form your ambition for commercial distinction?"

"Yes, somewhat. My father was a man who, I consider had good judgment. He made a success out of the farming business. My mother was more intellectually bent, if anything, and, naturally, both my parents were anxious that their boys should amount to something in life. Their interest and care helped me."

"Had you early access to books ?"

"No, I had but few books, scarcely any to speak of. There was not much time for literature. Such books as we had, though, I made use of."

"Were you so placed that your commercial instincts could be nourished by contact with that side of life ?" I asked.

"Yes, in a measure. Not any more so than any other boy raised in that neighborhood. I had a leaning toward business, and took up with it as early as possible."

"Were you naturally of a saving disposition ?"

"Oh, yes. I had to be. Those were saving times. A dollar looked very big to us boys in those days, and as we had difficult labor earning it, it was not quickly spent. I may say I was naturally saving, however, and was determined not to remain poor."

"Did you attend both school and college?"

"Only the common and high schools at home, but not for long. I had no college training. Indeed, I cannot say that I had much of any public school education. I left home when I was seventeen years of age, and, of course, had not time to study closely."

"What was the nature of your first venture in trade, Mr. Field?"

"My first venture was made as a clerk in a country store at Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where all things were sold, including dry goods, and there I remained for four years. There I picked up my first knowledge of that business."

"Do you consider those years well spent?"

"I think my employer did, anyway." He laughed.

"I saved my earnings and attended strictly to business, and so made them valuable years to me."

"Was there no inducement to remain there as you were?"

"Yes, before I went west, my employer offered me a quarter interest in his business if I would remain with him. Even after I had been here several years, he wrote and offered me a third interest if I would go back. But I was already too well placed."

"Did you fancy that you were destined for some other field than that in which you have since distinguished yourself?"


"No, I think not. I was always interested in the commercial side of life, and always thought I would be a merchant. To this end, I bent my energies, and soon realized that, successful or not, my labor would always be of a commercial nature."

"When did you come to Chicago?" I inquired.

"I caught what was then the prevalent fever to come west, and grow up with the country, and west I came. I entered as a clerk in the dry goods house of Cooley, Woodsworth & Co., in South Water street."

"Did you foresee Chicago's growth in any way?"

"No, there was no guarantee at that time that place would ever become the western metropolis. The town had plenty of ambition and pluck, but the possibilities of greatness were hardly visible."

It is interesting to note in this connection that the story of Mr. Field's progress is a wonderfully close index of Chicago's marvelous growth. An almost exact parallel may be drawn between the career of the individual and the growth of the town. Chicago was organized in 1837, two years after Mr. Field was born on the far-off farm in New England, and the place then had a population of a little more than four thousand. In 1856, when Mr. Field, fully equipped for a successful mercantile career, became a resident of the future metropolis of the west, the population had grown to little more than eighty-four thousand. Mr. Field's prosperity advanced in strides parallel to those of the city; with Chicago he was stricken but not crushed by the great fire of 1871, and with Chicago he advanced again to higher achievement and far greater prosperity than before the calamity.

"What were your equipments for success when you started as a clerk here in Chicago, in 1856?"

"Health, sound principles, I hope, and ambition," answered Mr. Field.

"And brains," I suggested; but he only smiled.

"What were the conditions here?"

"Well, merit did not have to wait for dead men's shoes in a growing town, of course. Good qualities were usually promptly discovered, and men were pushed forward rapidly."

"How long did you remain a clerk ?"

"Only four years. In 1860, I was made a partner, and in 1865, there was a partial reorganization, and the firm consisted after that of Mr. Leiter, Mr. Palmer and myself (Field, Palmer & Leiter). Two years later Mr.Palmer withdrew, and until 1881 the style of the firm was Field, Leiter & Co. Mr. Leiter retired in that year, and since then it has been as at present: (Marshall Field & Co.)

"What contributed most to the great growth of your business ?" I asked.

"To answer that question," said Mr. Field, "would be to review the condition of the west from the time Chicago began until the fire in 1871. Everything was coming this way: immigration, railways and water traffic, and Chicago was enjoying what was called 'flush'times.' There were things to learn about the country, and the man who learned the quickest fared the best. For instance, the comparative newness of rural communities and settlements made a knowledge of local solvency impossible. The old state banking system prevailed, and speculation of every kind was rampant.The panic of 1857 swept almost everything away except the house I worked for, and I learned that the reason they survived was because they understood the nature of the new country, and did a cash business. That is, they bought for cash, and sold on thirty and sixty days, instead of giving the customers, whose financial condition you could hardly tell anything about, all the time they wanted. When the panic came, they had no debts,and little owing to them, and so they weathered it all right. I learned what I consider my best lesson, and that was to do a cash business."


"What were some of the principles you applied to your business?" I questioned.

"Well, I made it a point that all goods should be exactly what they were represented to be. It was a rule of the house that an exact scrutiny of the quality of all goods purchased should be maintained, and that nothing was to induce the house to place upon the market any line of goods at a shade of variation from their real value. Every article sold must be regarded as warranted, and every purchaser must be enabled to feel secure."

"Did you suffer any losses or reverses during your career?"

"No loss except by the fire of 1871. It swept away everything, —about three and a half millions. We were, of course, protected by insurance, which would have been sufficient against any ordinary calamity of the kind. But the disaster was so sweeping that some of the companies which had insured our property were blotted out, and a long time passed before our claims against others were settled. We managed, however, to start again. There were no buildings of brick or stone left standing, but there were some great shells of horse car barns at State and Twentieth streets which were not burned, and I hired those. We put up signs announcing that we would continue business uninterruptedly,and then rushed the work of fitting things up and getting in the stock."

"Did the panic of 1873 effect your business?"

"Not at all. We didn't have any debts."

"May I ask what you consider to have been the turning-point in your career, —the point after which there was no more danger of poverty ?"

"Saving the first five thousand dollars I ever had, when I might just as well have spent the moderate salary I made. Possession of that sum, once I had it, gave me the ability to meet opportunities. That I consider the turning-point."


"What one trait of your character do you look upon as having been the most essential to your successful career?"

"Perseverance," said Mr. Field; but another at hand insisted upon the addition of "good judgment" to this, which IMr. Field indifferently acknowledged. "If I am compelled to lay claim to these traits," he went on, "it is simply because I have tried to practice them, and because the trying has availed me much, I suppose. I have always tried to make all my acts and commercial.moves the result of definite consideration and sound judgment. There were never any great ventures or risks, —nothing exciting whatever. I simply practiced honest, slow-growing business methods, and tried to back them with energy and good system."

"Have you always been a hard-worker?"

"No," Mr. Field said, with the shadow of a smile.

"I have never believed in overworking, either as applied to myself or others. It is always paid for with a short life, and I do not believe in it."

"Has there ever been a time in your life when you gave as much as eighteen hours a day to your work?"

"Never. That is, never as a steady practice. During the time of the fire in 1871, there was a short period in which I worked very hard. For several weeks then I worked the greater part of night and day, as almost anyone would have done in my place. My fortune, however, has not been made in that manner, and, as I have said, I believe in reasonable hours for everyone, but close attention during those hours."

"Do you work as much as you once did ?"

"I never worked very many hours a day. Besides, people do not work as many hours a day now as they once did. The day's labor has shortened in the last twenty years for everyone. Still, granting that, I cannot say that I work as much as I once did, and I frankly admit that I do not feel the need of it."

"Do you believe," I went on, "that a man should cease laboring before his period of usefulness is over, so that he may enjoy some of the results of his labor before death, or do you believe in retaining constant interest in affairs while strength lasts ?"

"As to that, I hold the French idea, that a man ought to retire when he has gained a competence wherewith to do so. I think that is a very good idea. But I do not believe that when a man retires, or no longer attends to his private business in person every day, he has given up interest in the affairs of the world. He maybe, in fact should be, doing wider and greater work when he has abandoned his private business, so far as personal attention is concerned."


"What, Mr. Field," I said, "do you consider to be the first requisite for success in life, so far as the young beginner is concerned?"

"The qualities of honesty, energy, frugality, integrity, are more necessary than ever to-day, and there is no success without them. They are so often urged that they have become commonplace, but they are really more prized than ever."

"I should like to know what you believe should be the aim of the young man of today?"

"He should aim," said Mr. Field, "to possess the qualities I have mentioned."

"By some, however," I suggested, "these are looked upon as a means to an aim only. Would you say to the young man, 'get wealth ?'"

"Not," Mr. Field answered, "without practicing unflinchingly these virtues."

"Would you say to him, 'acquire distinction?'"

"Not at any expense to his moral character. I can only say, 'practice these virtues and do the best you can.' Any good fortune that comes by such methods is deserved and admirable."

"Do you believe a college education for the young man to be a necessity in the future?"

"Not for business purposes. Better training will become more and more a necessity. The truth is, with most young men, a college education means that just at the time when they should be having business principles instilled into them, and be getting themselves energetically pulled together for their life's work, they are sent to college. Then intervenes what many ayoung man looks back on as the joiliest time of his life, —four years of college. Often when he comes out of college the young man is unfitted by this good time to buckle down to hard work, and the result is a failure to grasp opportunities that would have opened the way for a successful career."

"Would you say that happiness consists in labor, or in contemplation of labor well done, or in increased possibility of doing more labor ?"

"I should say," said Mr. Field, "that a man finds happiness in all three. There certainly is no pleasure in idleness. I believe, as I have said, that a man, upon giving up business, does not necessarily cease laboring, but really does, or should do, more in a larger sense. He should interest himself in public affairs. There is no happiness in mere dollars. After they are had one cannot use but a moderate amount of them. It is given a man to eat so much, to wear so much, and to have so much shelter, and more he cannot use. When money has supplied these, its mission, so far as the individual is concerned, is fulfilled, and man must look further and higher. It is only in the wider public affairs, where money is a moving force toward the general welfare, that the possessor of it can possibly find pleasure, and that only in doing constantly more."

"What," I said, "in your estimation, is the greatest good a man can do?"

"The greatest good he can do is to cultivate himself in order that he may be of greater use to humanity."

"What one suggestion," I said, in conclusion, "can you give to the young men of today, that will be most useful to them, if observed ?"

"Regardless," said Mr. Field, "of any opinion of mine, or any wish on the part of the young men for wealth, distinction or praise, we know that to be honest is best. There is nothing better, and we also know that nothing can be more helpful than this when combined with other essential qualities."

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