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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Thursday, June 20

Gapers Block

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"Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."

Eight bronze busts, each one at least four times life size, sit atop stone pillars. They are perched on the edge of the wide drive bordering the Chicago River, as orderly as sentinels, and I began to have some unpleasant thoughts as I stood observing them.

The busts collectively make up the Merchandise Mart Hall of Fame, established in 1953 by Joseph P. Kennedy, then the owner of The Mart building. Sculptors Milton Horn, Henry Rox, Minna Harkavy, Lewis Iselin and Charles Umlauf contributed to the monument, each responsible for different busts. The Hall of Fame was erected to commemorate in bronze the contributions to American commerce of the eight men represented. But is it a tribute or a warning?


Arranged outside the main entrance of the Art Deco fortress of the Merchandise Mart, the giant heads begin to resemble a kind of gruesome war trophy, the heads of enemies mounted on pikes. The stone pillars are stained with streaks of verdigris, washed from the bronze busts, which have turned shades of green. And as I read the name plaques on the pillars, I realized most of the companies these men built are now gone, or soon will be. It is the curse of the Hall of Fame.

Going, Going, Gone

Frank Winfield Woolworth was born in Rodman, Jefferson County, New York in 1852. He revolutionized modern retailing with the concept of the five-and-ten-cent store. F.W. Woolworth & Co. became a successful national chain, but in the later part of the 20th century the stores began to lose ground to larger discount competitors like Kmart and Wal-Mart. In 1997, the last of the Woolworth stores closed their doors forever.

Aaron Montgomery Ward, born in 1844, is credited with the invention of the mail-order business. He started his business in 1872 in Chicago, selling and shipping goods primarily to Midwestern farmers. Montgomery Ward & Company went on to open retail stores, becoming one of the largest retailers in the country. But in 2000 the company declared bankrupcy, and nearly overnight the stores were closed, although the familiar name recently has reappeared as an online retailer.

Julius Rosenwald is as well remembered for his philanthropy as he is for his business acumen. He rose to fame in business with Sears, Roebuck and Company, serving as vice-president of the company from 1895 to 1910, president from 1910 to 1925, and then serving as chairman of the board of directors until his death in 1932. He also gave generously to many organizations, institutions and charities throughout his life.

The next Hall of Fame member, Robert Elkington Wood, is a fellow Sears executive. He first made his name as merchandising vice-president at Montgomery Ward after World War I, but Rosenwald appointed him vice-president of Sears, Roebuck around 1925. From there, Wood followed in Rosenwald's footsteps, becoming president of Sears in 1928, and serving as chairman of the board after 1939. Sears stores still soldier on today, although the company's recent financial challenges have been well-documented.

John Wanamaker was another retail pioneer, who developed the original department store concept. His first store opened in 1861 in Philadelphia, and Wanamaker's went on to mark several merchandising "firsts," including the first merchant to take out a full-page newspaper advertisement and the first retail store to use electric lights. Wanamaker's survived until, in a story familiar to Chicagoans, it was sold to May Department Stores in 1995. Wanamaker's disappeared forever when May changed the historic name to Hecht's.

Edward Albert Filene, born in 1860, opened his first store with his father in Boston in 1881. In addition to his retail success, Filene was a prominent political and economic reformer. His Boston store, Filene's, is well-known for pioneering the idea of the bargain basement, with automatic markdowns taken on slow-selling merchandise in order to in order to reduce stock. But ownership of Filene's was tossed around in recent years, and it is now owned by Federated Department Stores. This Boston institution is scheduled to disappear next year to become Macy's.


Marshall Field needs no introduction in this town. He came to Chicago in 1856 and took work as a clerk in a wholesale dry-goods firm, working his way up to partner. In 1864 he went into business with Levi Z. Leiter until, in 1881, Leiter left and the store was reestablished as Marshall Field & Company. Field, like Wanamaker in Philadephia, was a department store pioneer who emphasized quality merchandise and high standards of customer service. But now, like Filene's, Field's will be only a memory next year when current owner Federated Department Stores eradicates the Field's name in favor of Macy's.

The final man represented in the Hall of Fame is George Huntington Hartford, co-founder of the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company chain of grocery stores. The company got its start in New York City in 1859, and is still a well-known grocery chain, better-known as A&P, and located primarily on the East Coast. Hang tough, A&P.

But Not Forgotten

Many of these retail empires may be gone or diminished, but these men's names will not soon be forgotten. Although they were not all saints in business, their innovations and accomplishments pass not into obscurity, but into history. And who can say that of the CEOs of today's mega-retailers? Maybe that's the real curse.


Join the Gapers Block Book Club! Just sign up for the email list for news, announcements and more. This month we are reading I'm Not the New Me by Wendy McClure. We will be meeting to discuss the book with the author, Wendy McClure, on Monday, November 14, at The Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave. The meeting will begin at 7:30pm.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a Chicago librarian. She welcomes questions and topic suggestions for her column at . Due to the volume of email received, she may not reply to every query, but you may be contacted if your question is selected for the column.

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