During a 1989 taping of Late Night with David Letterman at the Chicago Theatre, Letterman conducted a tongue-in-cheek Chicago trivia quiz. When a photograph similar to the one below was shown Letterman asked: “Chicagoans recognize this as A) a tribute to Chicago’s historic leaders; B) a salute to the city’s great architects; C) the Pez Hall of Fame” . The Chicago-based audience awarded the punch line referencing the iconic candy dispenser with arguably the largest laugh of the set.
Laughs aside, if this had been a straight forward trivia contest, how many in the audience would have guessed the correct answer? Zero. None of the options were correct. The eight bronze busts comprise the Merchandise Mart Hall of Fame conceived in 1953 to honor prominent American merchants of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Who is included and why tells the story of commerce during those eras.
The Merchandise Mart was constructed between 1928 and 1930 by Marshall Field & Co. to house its growing wholesale business . The Chicago architecture firm Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White designed “the world’s largest business building” with nearly 4,000,000 square feet of floor space . Marshall Field’s wholesale operations occupied a portion of the building and the remaining space was leased to a variety of other tenants . Before the end of the decade, Marshall Field reduced its footprint in the building and found managing the real estate burdensome . Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., former U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain and patriarch of the political Kennedy clan, purchased the Merchandise Mart in 1945 .
In 1953, Kennedy launched the Merchants of America Hall of Fame, as it was originally known, at a black–tie dinner on the roof of the Merchandise Mart attended by hundreds of businessmen and local dignitaries . The goal was to honor “the outstanding merchants of the past, [thereby] pay[ing] long overdue honor to all merchants and to the unequaled American system of distribution” . One speaker highlighted the role merchants played in western expansion. In a letter read aloud, President Eisenhower anticipated merchants would underpin future economic growth . The Hall of Fame celebrated both salesmanship of the past and the future.
The inaugural class nominated by retailers and voted upon by financial and business writers included Marshall Field (1834-1906), John R. Wanamaker (1838-1922), George Huntington Hartford (1833-1917), and Frank Winfield Woolworth (1852-1919). Marshall Field of Chicago and John R. Wanamaker of Philadelphia revolutionized the shopping experience. Their new late-nineteenth century department store concept offered one-stop shopping, a marked price for each good, and full refunds . Field was one of the first to offer services in addition to quality goods to engender customer loyalty . Wanamaker was a pioneer of retail advertising and is credited with the first store restaurant .
Fellow inductees George Huntington Hartford and Frank Winfield Woolworth, both of New York, perfected the chain store concept which allowed a large number of stores to centrally purchase goods and negotiate better prices. In 1863, Huntington cofounded what would become the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (A&P) grocery store chain. Between 1915 and 1965, A&P was the largest retailer in the United States . Woolworth was a pioneer of the five-and-ten cent store and was the first to use self-service display cases .
Over the next few years, bronze busts of the initial inductees and new Hall of Fame members were installed across the street from the Merchandise Mart, perhaps, in Kennedy’s view, conveying approval of this palace of consumerism. President Herbert Hoover delivered the keynote address at the unveiling of the busts by sculptors Charles Umlauf, Milton Horn and Lewis Iselin . Kennedy announced the next two inductees: Edward A. Filene (1960-1937) of William Filene’s Sons & Co., Boston, and Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932) of Sears Roebuck & Co., Chicago . Henry Rox and Charles Umlauf sculpted the new busts . In 1955, General Robert E. Wood (1879-1970), retired chairman of Sears, became the first living inductee . Minna Harkavy created the Wood bust . The Hall of Fame proved to be a good public relations vehicle and a way to strengthen relationships with the retailers that patronized the Merchandise Mart .
The Hall of Fame was well received during the initial years of its existence, but almost twenty years passed before Aaron Montgomery Ward (1843-1913), founder of Montgomery Ward & Company, joined the other merchants as the final inductee . Sculptor Milton Horn created the Ward bust in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Ward’s creation of mail order business . One of the reasons for the gap was that the subject matter of the Hall of Fame expressed antiquated values even when it was erected . In honoring these retail giants, the aging Kennedy engaged in a strong nostalgia for the 1920s, a decade of heightened consumerism ushered in by the self-made salesmen of the Hall of Fame . By the mid 1950s, themes of frustration and alienation appeared in literary works such as The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and according to historian Timothy J. Garvey, “[A]t a time when the dream of business success seemed remote and the ideal of the self-made man seemed increasingly unrealistic, the modern viewer who was encouraged to look to those portraits [the Hall of Fame busts] for inspiration was, no doubt, a good deal less sanguine about the values they represented” .
Hints that a ninth honoree was imminent appeared in a 1977 Chicago Tribune column, but it did not come to be . The Hall of Fame no longer supported the mission of the Merchandise Mart. After having served as a wholesale buying center for retailers, the Merchandise Mart changed focus and became known for its interior design showrooms . The Kennedy family sold the property to the Vornado Realty Trust in 1998 . In 2016 Vornado rebranded the structure as theMART which, in a sign of the times, began offering “lifestyle amenities [to] accommodate[ing] knowledge economy workers” to attract tenants such as Motorola Mobility, Yelp, and a variety of technology startup companies . Brad Zizmor, principal of the New York design firm responsible for the overhaul commented “The shoeshine stands and newsstands of the 1950s are not meaningful anymore” . Neither was the Hall of Fame.
As the Merchandise Mart evolved inside, so did the public space outside. Today, the busts serve as a backdrop to an outdoor restaurant and trash receptacles sit at the base of the columns. The stone marker designating the promenade as the Merchandise Mart Hall of Fame has been removed. In 2019 Art on theMART launched a digital art installation using thirty-four projectors to cast images across the river on to the façade of the building on selected evenings, literally overshadowing the monuments .
Today, people enjoying a coffee below the busts may recognize a few of the names on the plaques, but it is unlikely they know these men laid the foundation of the modern retail world. Except for struggling Sears, the powerhouse retailers of late 19th and early 20th centuries are gone. They were victims of changing consumer habits including the rise of online shopping – the department store, chain store, and mail order business in one. Who would be inducted in the Hall of Fame today if it was resurrected? Amazon’s Jeff Bezos would likely be at the top of list.
Jenny Barry, Loyola University Chicago
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 Clayton Kirkpatrick, “Hoover Calls Nationalism Key to Liberty: Outlines Foreign Policy Guide,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 25, 1954. https://search.proquest.com/docview/178728678?accountid=44868.; Larry Broutman, Chicago Monumental (Chicago, Illinois : Broutman Photography, LLC,  [Chicago, Illinois] : Lake Claremont Press, a Chicago joint, an imprint of Everything Goes Media, LLC, 2016), p.92.
 Kirkpatrick, “Hoover.”
 Broutman, Chicago Monumental, p.92.
 William Clark, “Wood Named to Merchant Hall of Fame,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 24, 1955, https://search.proquest.com/docview/179477701?accountid=44868.
 Broutman, Chicago Monumental, p.92.
 Timothy J. Garvey, “Merchants as Models: The Merchandise Mart Hall of Fame and Changing Values in Postwar Chicago,” Illinois Historical Journal 88, No. 3 (Autumn 1995), p. 163, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40192955.
 Lynn Taylor, “Dedicate Statuary: Honors for Ward’s Founder.” Chicago Tribune, September 27, 1972. https://search.proquest.com/docview/169208637?accountid=44868.
 Ibid.; Broutman, Chicago Monumental, p.92.
 Garvey, “Merchants as Models,” p. 169.
 David E. Koskoff, Joseph P. Kennedy: A Life and Times (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974), p. 340-341.
 Garvey, “Merchants as Models”, p. 172.
 “Action Line.” Chicago Tribune, June 7, 1977. https://search.proquest.com/docview/169609690?accountid=44868.
 Michael Paul Wakeford, “Merchandise Mart.” In The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago, http://encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/812.html.
 Edward Keegan, “Rejuvenating theMART’s public realm,” Contract (July-August 2016), Gale General OneFile, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A460574477/ITOF?u=ccscm&sid=ITOF&xid=f0b254de.
 “Vornado’s theMart: Still relevant at 90,” States News Service (February 3, 2020), Gale General OneFile, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A613099242/ITOF?u=ccscm&sid=ITOF&xid=7738079f.