Free Republic
Browse · Search
Bloggers & Personal
Topics · Post Article

Skip to comments.

A Farewell to Carson's, and the Assignment of Blame
Illinois Review ^ | April 20, 2018 A.D. | John F. Di Leo

Posted on 04/20/2018 6:13:02 PM PDT by jfd1776

For over a century, Chicagoans grew up with a signature memory: special days downtown, shopping at Marshall Field’s and Carson’s, the great rival retail giants down the block from each other on State Street. (shown here: Carson's longtime downtown landmark by Louis Sullivan, sold off years ago).

Smaller stores came and went, but Field’s and Carson’s were the giants, the dominant figures in Midwestern retail for generations.

Macy’s bought out the struggling Field’s chain over a decade ago and cremated the brand name while keeping the stores. Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co. wasn’t so lucky; its current holding company, Bon-Ton, is giving up the ghost for good this spring.

Unable to find a buyer or investor to keep the chain alive, Bon-Ton is shuttering its 200 stores and terminating its many brands. Along with Carson’s, we’re likely saying goodbye to Bergner’s, Boston Store, Younkers, Elder-Beerman, and Herberger’s (though there’s still a chance that the liquidation might leave one or two of these names standing, God willing).

Many Americans grew up with these same memories… Milwaukee kids shopped at Younkers or Boston Store; Rice Lake and Eau Claire kids headed to Herberger’s… there was a time when the department store – the anchor of the local mall – was the big draw. You bought your parents’ anniversary presents there, and your siblings’ Christmas presents, and your girlfriend’s birthday present too. Ever since the days of Montgomery Ward and Marshall Field, a century and a half ago, the department store has towered above the rest of the retail world in our communal memory.

And today, it is all but gone.


Read the business pages, searching for the reason for the long slow death of traditional retail, and they will have answers that are difficult to challenge:

It’s the full-on assault by Amazon and other online retailers; why pay more for the same thing at an expensive building, when you can get it by mail-order without leaving your house? Seems a logical enough position, until we recall that catalog sales provided just as easy an option for 150 years without killing the brick-and-mortar alternatives. So it can’t really be that.

Or… It’s the lack of a genuine brand nowadays. When Field’s, Carson’s, and the rest stopped really making their own products, and just started slapping their private label on products made in the same Chinese factory as everybody else’s, that took a toll. Why spend $40 for this Chinese shirt when I can buy a Chinese shirt at Walmart or Meijer for $20? That argument may be stronger.

Or… It’s the bad individual decisions made by some of these retailers. Penney’s famously switched out their entire menswear lines in favor of all-extra-slim sizes a few years ago; the error lasted less than a year, but the damage was done. Similarly, some retailers target the wrong demographic, or hire the wrong decorator, or hitch their wagons to the wrong fad, and lose a season or two that they otherwise wouldn’t have lost. But are such errors enough to kill a century-old name?

Industry experts have plenty of reasons for these failures. They see a bankruptcy, identify the company’s last three mistakes, or the company’s biggest competitors, and lay the blame there. It’s how analysts think… they have to… in order to figure out which stocks to recommend and which stocks to flee.

But if every retailer is struggling, even in an economic recovery, mightn’t there be some other reason for these doldrums? Some over-arching problem with our economy that we need to tackle before it gets too late? With the way that the analysts talk, one would think that the weak stores’ problems are their own fault, but strong stores will survive. And yet, only the low-priced stores are really thriving – the Walmarts, the Meijers. Is that really because they’re so well-run, or might it perchance just be because they are low-priced?

Other industries don’t have this problem. There’s room for both well-run fast food chains and poorly-run fast food chains, well-run homebuilders and poorly-run homebuilders, well-run landscape companies and poorly-run landscape companies, well-run radio stations and poorly-run radio stations. The economy is big enough to support all of these. You do better if you invest in the well-run ones, of course, but there are still jobs and profits to be made in the imperfect ones.

Why is it that only in retail have we begun to unquestioningly accept the premise that any business that’s less than perfect is now expected to go bankrupt?

The retail sector – especially every big department store that anchors a mall – has an outsize role in the economic climate of our cities and towns. Retail draws tourists and suburbanites to our downtowns and to our malls. Retail provides the part-time jobs that high school and college students depend upon. Retail provides tax revenue for the community. And big retail makes small retail possible – because without the anchors, people don’t walk into the mall to get attracted to the smaller stores either.


Retail’s plight has followed a demographic and economic change in America.

The retail world built up in the 20th century to respond to population growth, the same way it did in the 19th. As cities grew up, department stores came to the downtowns. As suburbs grew, the stores built branches in the suburbs too. Even small towns became hubs for the surrounding rural areas, and gained their own department stores as well. As American population grew, the feeling went, it would need – and be able to support – more stores.

But that’s not how it turned out. The growth of the internet since the early 1990s has served as a handy scapegoat for our real problem, but the enemy is demographic, not digital. The long, slow death of department stores is caused by a transformation in who makes up the American population.

When America was on its great period of growth – in the 1800s – Americans prided themselves in being able to shop, to be able to own more than the single Sunday suit of clothes, the single wedding ring, the single pot or pan to which poor people had been limited since time immemorial. All of a sudden, a middle class was growing, a class of people who could enjoy plenty. Even those who were far from rich could afford to "go shopping," for the first time in history.

Henry Ford famously focused on producing a mass-produced vehicle that was affordable enough for his own employees to buy. Instead of the makers of luxury goods doing their manufacturing for members of an upper class, the American economy of a century ago enabled workmen to do their manufacturing for themselves. This was earth-shattering in economic history; it was a wonderful snapshot of the American promise that Washington, Hamilton and Morris had envisioned for us at our nation’s dawn.

But then came three big changes as the twentieth century progressed.

- The American government turned on its manufacturing sector. With high taxes, crippling employment regulations, union supremacy, corrupt government and a litigation culture, our manufacturers were driven away. The great American clothing and footwear and sporting goods and home appliance industries, one by one, were pushed overseas to foreign shores. Today, you can’t buy an American iron, radio, or TV. You can’t afford an American pair of shoes. You can’t even find an American shirt or sport coat. The jobs aren’t there, so the people who would have worked those jobs can’t afford to shop in the stores that would have sold them.

- The American public stopped marrying and having children. The average age of first marriages has skyrocketed; the average number of kids per family has plummeted. So the people who grew up in that department store culture we remember haven’t passed on that culture to many, or even any. (This writer’s grandmother worked at Field’s in her 60s; both the writer and his father worked at Field’s while in college. It was a part of our lives then; it is no longer). If you didn’t grow up with both a special respect for the shelves of the department store, and an ability to afford what they sold, you won’t shop there “if you can buy the same thing for less somewhere else.”

- Seeing the plummeting birthrates, the powers that be decided – half a century ago – to import their replacements. As we allowed late marriage, nihilism, selfishness and abortion to reduce our natural American population, we opened up our borders to a flood of immigrants, both legal and illegal – as if numbers were numbers, and everyone was identical. But where has this left us? Our nation has nearly doubled its population since the last year of the Baby Boom, but with so much of that growth coming from poor foreign immigrants, this new demographic mix obviously cannot and will not support the same economy that the old demographic mix could (nothing against immigrants, by the way; this writer is a grandchild of immigrants… but we are talking about undeniable statistics here, and cultural differences, in the big picture).

Just imagine. What if America had been allowed to continue, over the past century, the same way it grew in its first century? With limited government and minimal obstructions to manufacturing, our economy would have been able to continue to produce both domestic goods to fill the store shelves and an affluent enough populace to buy them. With an America that grew its population organically, with a gentle, controlled assist from abroad, rather than an America that stopped having children and had to import tens of millions wholesale, we would have a people who were raised from birth to participate in this domestic consumer economy.

The challenges of retail are real… and this writer is not trying to overlay a political spin where none belongs. But as one peels this onion and studies these challenges, the real answer is undeniable. The causes of retail’s problems – like the causes of most of our societal problems, from crime to wage stagnation to the unaffordable welfare state burden to urban flight – lie in the errant liberal policies that have been practiced at the local, state, and federal level for a century now, and were then turbo-charged in the 1960s.

We have much to correct if we are to save this country. It can be done, but the first step is to acknowledge reality. It’s the departure from the Founding vision of limited government that put us in this mess, and only a return to the Founders’ vision can help to bring us back.

Copyright 2018 John F. Di Leo

John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based trade compliance trainer, writer and actor. A former board member of the Illinois Small Business Men’s Association, the Illinois Right To Work Committee, and other such groups in the 1980s, he served as Milwaukee County Republican Chairman in the 1990s, and his columns are found regularly in Illinois Review.

Permission is hereby granted to forward freely, provided it is uncut and the IR URL and byline are included.

TOPICS: Business/Economy; Government; Miscellaneous; Politics
KEYWORDS: carsons; chicago; departmentstores; immigration; malls; retail
Navigation: use the links below to view more comments.
first 1-2021-4041-6061-68 next last

1 posted on 04/20/2018 6:13:02 PM PDT by jfd1776
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | View Replies]

To: jfd1776

Thanks John.

I remember my mother taking me downtown on the North Shore line and the L to to Christmas shopping at Marshall-Fields and Carson’s Sad.

2 posted on 04/20/2018 6:19:07 PM PDT by Pete from Shawnee Mission
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: jfd1776

John, you hit it out of the ballpark today.

Well written!

3 posted on 04/20/2018 6:22:17 PM PDT by ConservativeMind (Trump: Befuddling Democrats, Republicans, and the Media for the benefit of the US and all mankind.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Pete from Shawnee Mission

Yup, same here. My grandmother worked at Fields, and we lived in Evanston, so we’d go downtown (Field’s had its own underground subway stop) and hit both Field’s and Carson’s. It was an event. But it’s part of a distant past.

4 posted on 04/20/2018 6:23:10 PM PDT by jfd1776 (John F. Di Leo, Illinois Review Columnist)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 2 | View Replies]

To: ConservativeMind

Thank you, ConservativeMind; you’re too kind!

5 posted on 04/20/2018 6:23:51 PM PDT by jfd1776 (John F. Di Leo, Illinois Review Columnist)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 3 | View Replies]

To: jfd1776
I live near a large,well known mall in suburbia...a mall surrounded by very wealthy towns.This mall features Gucci as well as other stores...obviously very high end...that I've never heard of.It also has Sears,Macy's and other well known stores.

Particularly in the last year more and more stores are closing up.At least a third of the retail floor space in this mall is currently vacant.I go there regularly because it's a great place to walk but there's never anyone there...even on Saturdays.

Brick and mortar retail stores are dying...for better or for worse.

6 posted on 04/20/2018 6:28:24 PM PDT by Gay State Conservative (You Say "White Privilege"...I Say "Protestant Work Ethic")
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: jfd1776

Macy’s was stupid to kill the Marshall Field brand. It was a Chicago icon.

7 posted on 04/20/2018 6:41:36 PM PDT by beethovenfan (I always try to maximize my carbon footprint.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: jfd1776

Good post.

8 posted on 04/20/2018 6:48:16 PM PDT by Southside_Chicago_Republican (If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: jfd1776
Chicagoans grew up with a signature memory: special days downtown, shopping at Marshall Field’s and Carson’s

I was one of those Chicagoans. Many times we took the L downtown and got off at the stop where you could walk into the lower level of Carson's. I remember the café there, the Tartan Tray. Going downtown was always a big treat.

9 posted on 04/20/2018 6:57:01 PM PDT by Charles Henrickson (Chicago native, north side of the city, now living in St. Louis)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Charles Henrickson

Younkers was a brand from Des Moines, Iowa that spread over the midwest.

My mom always looked forward to visiting Younkers store for homes at Merle Hay Mall and the Younkers tea room in their downtown store.
All gone now...

10 posted on 04/20/2018 7:01:43 PM PDT by Eric in the Ozarks (Baseball players, gangsters and musicians are remembered. But journalists are forgotten.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 9 | View Replies]

To: jfd1776

In Boston it was Jordan Marsh and Filenes.


11 posted on 04/20/2018 7:03:49 PM PDT by Mears
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: jfd1776
Not a bad article; however, one MAJOR thing is missing from it!

What is it?


Even before there were department store, even long before the Victorian era introduced "consumerism" for everyone, people of all stripes, extremely wealthy to the very poor had "special" clothes to wear to church or temple. Special clothing for different events...confirmations, weddings, funerals. And then the "modern" era of consumerism hit!

The department stores of the 19th century, both in Europe and in America, were not just a place to buy many different things, all in one place, they represented adventure, a special trip/day out, a place to meet friends, and yes, many of them also had tea rooms and/or restaurants.

Christmas and Easter offered a time to do up the stores big time, offer special lunches, breakfast with Santa and yes, picture taken with Santa and the Easter Bunny.

Until relatively recently, kids had school clothes, play clothes, Sunday "best", and some had work clothes.

For adults, the more wealth, the more one used to need many different outfits for day and evening.

Then, in the late 1960s, the Commies, using the damned "HIPPY MOVEMENT", began, with much force, to get rid of all traditions, manners, normal families ( and by extension, families doing things together ), religion, and the whole idea of GROWING UP!

Today, almost NOBODY wears anything suitable; let alone proper for different occasions!

Then throw in the fact that as the years go by, whomever is designing clothes, are making ugly, unsuitable, every level!

The whole idea of "special clothes" has long ago gone by the wayside and so, you have people wearing T-shirts and stupid dungarees ( that's "jeans" for you youngsters )to the theatre, to work, everywhere. Heck, there are even people who wear pajamas to grocery stores and on airplanes!

Also, people are far more isolated; they no longer join clubs and spend far more time, all alone, but hooked up to cell phones, laptops, etc. and don't feel the need to bother to look "nice"...even when they ARE out of society.

12 posted on 04/20/2018 7:16:58 PM PDT by nopardons
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: beethovenfan

So was Carson’s! :-)

13 posted on 04/20/2018 7:17:53 PM PDT by nopardons
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 7 | View Replies]

To: Eric in the Ozarks; jfd1776
My mother also looked forward to going to the Des Moines Younkers, and in those bygone days it was actually pretty upscale for Iowans of our antecedents. Mom has long said that the latter-day Younkers was not a patch on the fanny of the pre-"Proffitt's" Younkers

(Mom had some knowledge of the fashion and home decoration fields.)

Our closest Younkers has always been a reliable place for finding nice things needed at the last minute, and it will be sorely missed.

14 posted on 04/20/2018 7:29:09 PM PDT by niteowl77
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 10 | View Replies]

To: jfd1776

I remember traveling with my parents as a child. Chicago - we visited Carson, Pirie, Scott and Marshall Field’s. Dallas and trip to Neiman Marcus (I still remember the triple screen TV and the one with a reel-to-reel video recorder built in.) Boston, and an eye opening trip to Filene’s basement - when it really was the basement.

And of course, the Pink Pig the Crystal Bridge at Rich’s in Atlanta.

15 posted on 04/20/2018 7:29:41 PM PDT by PAR35
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: nopardons

Nopardons, you’re absolutely right.

The Left has attacked everything that is American, in every way, right down to how we dress.

All an effort to ensure that the America of our ancestors - the nation of the protestant work ethic, the rugged individual, the limited government, the Judeo-Christian tradition - would be scrubbed from the historical record.

And it has left us with the current cultural and economic desert.

16 posted on 04/20/2018 8:29:43 PM PDT by jfd1776 (John F. Di Leo, Illinois Review Columnist)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 12 | View Replies]

To: jfd1776
Thank you and I'm so glad that you agree!

We lived in Chicago for a while and when we first moved there, one of our first stops was the downtown ( the one on the Miracle Mile, in Watertower didn't exist yet ) Fields and then Carson's. They were once great stores and their passing hurts my heart!

My mother always said that: YOU BEHAVED THE WAY YOU WERE DRESSED!" and she was correct.

Today, sadly, most people dress like slobs and behave badly.

Men don't shave and imagine that looking like they constantly need a shave is somehow alluring. It is NOT and neither are "man buns" !

Women aren't any better and many look like they just rolled out of bed, when they appear in public.

Kids? Don't get me started and college students look like the very dregs of the Earth and behave like the filthy mobs during the aftermath of the French Revolution.

So called celebrities? Beneath the bottom of the barrel and their behavior follows suit.

Me and mine?

We all refuse to be members of this uncouth rabble and stick with the "old ways", as much as we can.

17 posted on 04/20/2018 8:45:52 PM PDT by nopardons
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 16 | View Replies]

To: nopardons


i still wear many different special clothes for many different activities. I have special clothes for painting - ones that already have spilled paint on them. Special clothes for using with 2-cycle engines like string trimmers and chain saws. special clothes for auto repair and oil changing. special clothes for hot weather like shorts and t-shirts. special clothes for cold weather like goose down jackets, insulated gloves, insulated headgear, and Sorrel boots for deep snow. special clothes for indoor activities in my own home like plain underwear and sometimes a fuzzy robe if it’s chilly. the list of my special clothes for special activities is nearly endless.

18 posted on 04/20/2018 8:59:01 PM PDT by catnipman ( Cat Nipman: Vote Republican in 2012 and only be called racist one more time!)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 12 | View Replies]

To: nopardons

I went to a local bank this AM and the teller was a very nice young man WEARING A BOSTON CELTICS SWEATSHIRT.

I called their main office when I got home-——asking why not business attire. They said that they would look into it.


19 posted on 04/20/2018 9:04:59 PM PDT by Mears
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 12 | View Replies]

To: Mears
Oh for crying out loud! :-(

Good for you! A bank is a "formal place of business" and as such, the tellers not only represent the institution, but should dress in a suitable way, which means BUSINESS ATTIRE; i.e. a suit and tie for men and something similar for women.

Cripes...I remember when bank employees, even those whom the public never saw/came in contact with, had a dress code, which most assuredly did NOT include a damned sweatshirt!

20 posted on 04/20/2018 9:14:28 PM PDT by nopardons
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 19 | View Replies]

Navigation: use the links below to view more comments.
first 1-2021-4041-6061-68 next last

Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.

Free Republic
Browse · Search
Bloggers & Personal
Topics · Post Article

FreeRepublic, LLC, PO BOX 9771, FRESNO, CA 93794 is powered by software copyright 2000-2008 John Robinson