HISTORY OF THE GREAT AMERICAN FORTUNES

CHAPTER IX

THE FIELD FORTUNE IN EXTENSO



In cluse similarity to the start of the Astors and many other founders of great land fortunes, commerce was the original means by which Marshall Field obtained the money which he invested in land.  Consecutively came a ramification of other revenue-producing properties.  Once in motion, the process worked in the same admixed, interconnected way as it did in the amassing of contemporary large fortunes.  It may be literally compared to hundreds of golden streams flowing from as many sources to one central point.  From land, business, railroads, street railways, public utility and industrial corporations — from these and many other channels, prodigious profits kept, and still keep, pouring in ceaselessly.  In turn, these formed ever newer and widening distributing radii of investments.  The process, by its own resistless volition, became one of continuous compound progression.


LAND FOR ALMOST NOTHING.


Long before the business of the firm of Marshall Field & Co. had reached the annual total of $50,000,000, Field, Leiter and their associates had begun buying land in Chicago.  Little capital was needed for the purpose.  The material growth of Chicago explains sufficiently how a few dollars put in land fifty or sixty years ago became in time an automatically-increasing fund of millions.  A century or so ago the log cabin of John Kinzie was the only habitation on a site now occupied by a swarming, conglomerate, rushing population of 1,700,000.1  Where the prairie land once stretched in solitude, a huge, roaring, choking city now stands, black with factories, the habitat of nearly two millions of human beings, living in a whirlpool of excitement and tumult, presenting extremes of wealth and poverty, the many existing in dire straits, the few rolling in sovereign luxury.  A saying prevails in Chicago that the city now holds more millionaires than it did voters in 1840.

Land, in the infancy of the city, was cheap ;  few settlers there were, and the future could not be foreseen.  In 1830 one-quarter of an acre could be bought for $20; a few bits of silver, or any currency whatsoever, would secure to the buyer a deed carrying with it a title forever, with a perpetual right of exclusive ownership and a perpetual hold upon all succeeding generations.  The more population grew, the greater the value their labor gave the land ;  and the keener their need, the more difficult it became for them to get land.

Within ten years — by about the beginning of the year 1840 — the price of a quarter of an acre in the center of the city had risen to $1,500.  A decade later the established value was $17,500, and in 1860, $28,000.  Chicago was growing with great rapidity ;  a network of railroads converged there ;  mammoth factories, mills, grain elevators, packing houses :  — a vast variety of manufacturing and mercantile concerns set up in business, and brought thither swarms of workingmen and their families, led on by the need of food and the prospects of work.  The greater the influx of workers, the more augmented became the value of land.  Inevitably the greatest congestion of living resulted.

By 1870 the price of a quarter of an acre in the heart of the city bounded to $120,000, and by 1880, to $130,000.


IT BECOMES WORTH MILLIONS.


During the next decade — a decade full of bitter distress to the working population of the United States, and marked by widespread suffering — the price shot up to $900,000.  By 1894 — a panic year, in which millions of men were out of work and in a state of appalling destitution — a quarter of an acre reached the gigantic value of $1,250,000.2  At this identical time large numbers of the working class, which had so largely created this value, were begging vainly for work, and were being evicted by the tens of thousands in Chicago because they could not pay rent for their miserable, cramped habitations.

By exchanging a few hundred, or a few thousand dollars, in Chicago’s extreme youth, for a scrap of paper called a deed, the buyer of this land found himself after the lapse of years, a millionaire.  It did not matter where or how he obtained the purchase money :  whether he swindled, or stole, or inherited it, or made it honestly ; — so long as it was not counterfeit, the law was observed.  After he got the land he was under no necessity of doing anything more than hold on to it, which same he could do equally well, whether in Chicago or buried in the depths of Kamschatka.  If he chose, he could get chronically drunk ;  he could gamble, or drone in laziness ;  he could do anything but work.  Nevertheless, the land and all its values which others created, were his forever, to enjoy and dispose of as suited his individual pleasure.

This was, and is still, the system.  Thoroughly riveted in law, it was regarded as a rational, beneficent and everlasting fixture of civilized life — by the beneficiaries.  And as these latter happened to be, by virtue of their possessions, among the real rulers of government, their conceptions and interests were embodied in law, thought and custom as the edict of civilization.  The whole concurrent institutions of society, which were but the echo of property interests, pronounced the system wise and just, and, as a reigning force, do still so proclaim it.  In such a state there was nothing abnormal in any man monopolizing land and exclusively appropriating its revenues.  On the contrary, it was considered a superior stroke of business, a splendid example of astuteness.  Marshall Field was looked upon as a very sagacious business man.


FIELD’S REAL ESTATE TRACTS.


Field bought much land when it was of comparatively inconsequential value, and held on to it with a tenacious grip.  In the last years of his life, his revenues from his real estate were uninterruptedly enormous.

“ Downtown real estate in Chicago,” wrote “ a popular writer ” in a typically effusive biographical account of Field, published in 1901, “ is about as valuable, foot for foot, as that in the best locations in New York City.  From $8,000 to $15,000 a front foot are not uncommon figures for property north of Congress street, in the Chicago business district.  Marshall Field owns not less than twenty choice sites and buildings in this section ;  not including those used for his drygoods business.  In the vicinity of the Chicago University buildings he owns square block after block of valuable land.  Yet farther south he owns hundreds of acres of land in the Calumet region — land invaluable for manufacturing purposes.”

This extension and centralization of land ownership were accompanied by precisely the same results as were witnessed in other cities, although these results were the sequence of the whole social and industrial system, and not solely of any one phase.  Poverty grew in exact proportion to the growth of large fortunes ;  the one presupposed, and was built upon, the existence of the other.  Chicago became full of slums and fetid, overcrowded districts ;  and if the density and congestion of population are not as great as in New York, Boston and Cincinnati, it is only because of more favorable geographical conditions.

Field’s fortune was heaped up in about the last twenty years of his life.  The celerity of its progress arose from the prolific variety and nature of his possessions.  To form even an approximate idea of how fast wealth came in to him, it is necessary to picture millions of men, women and children toiling clay after day, year in and year out, getting a little less than two parts of the value of what they produced, while almost nine portions either went to him entirely or in part.  But this was not all.  Add to these millions of workers the rest of the population of the United States who had to buy from, or in some other way pay tribute to, the many corporations in which Field held stock, and you get some adequate conception of the innumerable influxions of gold which poured into Field’s coffers every minute, every second of the day, whether he were awake or asleep ;  whether sick or well, whether traveling or sitting stock still.


HIS INCOME :  $500 TO $700 AN HOUR.


This one man had the legal power of taking over to himself, as his inalienable property, his to enjoy, hoard, squander, bury, or throw in the ocean, if his fancy so dictated, the revenue produced by the labor of millions of beings as human as he, with the same born capacity for eating, drinking, breathing, sleeping and dying.  Many of his workers had a better digestive apparatus which had to put up with inferior food, and, at times, no food at all.  He could eat no more than three meals a day, but his daily income was enough to have afforded him ten thousand sumptuous daily meals, with exquisite “ trimmings,” while periods came when those who drudged for him were fortunate to have any meals at all.  Few of his workers received as much as $2 a day ;  Field’s income was estimated to be at the rate of about $500 to $100 an hour.

First — and of prime importance — was his wholesale and retail drygoods business.  This was, and is, a line of business in which frantic competition survived long after the manufacturing field had passed over into concentrated trust control.  To keep apace with competitors and make high profits, it was imperative not only to resort to shifts, expedients and policies followed by competitors, but to improve upon, and surpass, those methods if possible.  Field at all times proved that it was possible.  No competing firm would pay a certain rate of wages but what Field instantly outgeneraled it by cutting his workers’ wages to a point enabling him to make his goods as cheap or cheaper.


HIS EMPLOYEES’ WRETCHED WAGES.


In his wholesale and retail stores he employed not less than ten thousand men, women and children.  He compelled them to work for wages which, in a large number of cases, were inadequate even for a bare subsistence.  Ninety-five per cent. received $12 a week or less.  The female sewing-machine operators who bent over their tasks the long day, making the clothes sold in the Field stores, were paid the miserable wages of $6.75 a week.  Makers of socks and stockings were paid from $4.57 to $4.75 a week.  The working hours consisted variously of from fifty-nine to fifty-nine and a half a week.  Field also manufactured his own furniture as well as many other articles.  Furniture workers were paid :  Machine workers, $11.02, and upholsterers $12.47 a week.  All of Field’s wage workers were paid by the hour ;  should they fall sick, or work become slack, their pay was proportionately reduced.

The wretchedness in which many of these workers lived, and in which they still live (for the same conditions obtain), was pitiful in the extreme.  Even in a small town where rent is not so high, these paltry wages would have been insufficient for an existence of partial decency.  But in Chicago, with its forbidding rents, the increasing cost of all necessaries, and all of the other expenses incident to life in a large city, their wages were notoriously scanty.

Large numbers of them were driven to herding in foul tenements or evil dwellings, the inducements of which was the rent, a little lighter than could be had elsewhere.  Every cent economized meant much.  If an investigator (as often happened) had observed them, and had followed them to their wretched homes after their day’s work, he would have noted, or learned of, these conditions :  Their food was circumscribed and coarse — the very cheapest forms of meat, and usually stale bread.  Butter was a superfluous luxury.  The morning meal was made up of a chunk of bread washed down with “ coffee ” — adulterated stuff with just a faint odor of real coffee.  At noon, bread and an onion, or a bit of herring, or a slice of cheap cheese composed their dinner, with perhaps a dash of dessert in the shape of sweetened substance, artificially colored, sold as “ cake.”  For supper, cheap pork, or a soup bone, garnished occasionally in the season by stale vegetables, and accompanied by a concoction resembling tea.  Few of these workers ever had more than one suit of clothes, or more than one dress.  They could not afford amusements, and were too fatigued to read or converse.  At night bunches of them bunked together — sometimes eight or ten in a single room ;  by this arrangement the rent of each was proportionately reduced.

It is now we come to a sinister result of these methods of exploiting the wage-working girls and women.  The subject is one that cannot be approached with other than considerable hesitancy, not because the facts are untrue, but because its statistical nature has not been officially investigated.  Nevertheless, the facts are known ;  stern, inflexible facts.  For true historical accuracy, as well as for purposes of humanity, they must be given ;  that delicacy would be false, misleading and palliative which would refrain from tearing away the veil and from exposing the putridity beneath.

Field was repeatedly charged with employing his workers at such desperately low wages as to drive large numbers of girls and women, by the terrifying force of poverty, into the alternative of prostitution.  How large the number has been, or precisely what the economic or psychologic factors have been, we have no means of knowing.  It is worth noting that many official investigations, futile though their results, have probed into many other phases of capitalist fraud.  But the department stores over the country have been a singular exception.

Why this partiality ?  Because the public is never allowed to get agitated over the methods and practices of the department stores.  Hence the politicians are neither forced, for the sake of appearance, to investigate, nor can they make political capital from a thing over which the people are not aroused.  Not a line of the horrors taking place in the large department stores is ever reported in the newspapers, not a mention of the treatment of girls and women, not a word of the injunctions frequently obtained restraining these stores from continuing to sell this or that brand of spurious goods in imitation of those of some complaining capitalist, or of the seizures by Health Boards of adulterated drugs or foods.

Wherefore this silence ?  Because, unsophisticated reader, these same department stores are the largest and steadiest advertisers.  The newspapers, which solemnly set themselves up as moral, ethical, and political instructors to the public, sell all the space desired to advertise goods many of which are fraudulent in nature or weight.  Not a line objectionable to these department stores ever gets into newspaper print ;  on the contrary, the owners of these stores, by the bludgeon of their immense advertising, have the power, within certain limitations, of virtually acting as censors.  The newspapers, whatever their pretensions, make no attempt to antagonize the powers from whom so large a portion of their revenue comes.  It is a standing rule in newspaper offices in the cities, that not a specific mention of any unfavorable or discreditable matter occuring in department stores, or affecting the interests of the proprietors of those stores, is allowed to get into print.  Thus it is that the general public are studiously kept in ignorance of the abominations incessantly going on in the large department stores.


OUTCASTS RATHER THAN SLAVES.


Notwithstanding this community of silence, in some respects akin to a huge compounded system of blackmail, it is generally known that department stores are often breeding stations of prostitution by reason of two factors — extremely low wages and environment.  There can be no disputing the fact that these two working together, and perhaps superinduced by other compelling influences, do bring about a condition the upshot of which is prostitution.  Such supine reports as those of the Consumers’ League, an organization of well-disposed dilletantes, and of superficial purposes, give no insight into the real estate of affairs.  In his rather sensational and vitriolic raking of Chicago, W.T. Stead strongly deals with the effects of department store conditions in filling the ranks of prostitutes.  He quotes Dora Claflin, the proprietress of a brothel, as saying that such houses as hers obtained their inmates from the stores, those in particular where hours were long and the pay small.3

Mockery of mockeries that in this era of civilization, so-called, a system should prevail that yields far greater returns from selling the body than from honest industry !

It has been estimated that the number of young women who receive $2,500 in one year by the sale of their persons is larger than the number of women of all ages, in all businesses and professions, who make a similar sum by work of mind or hand.4  But one of the most significant recognitions of the responsibility of department stores for the prevalence of prostitution, was the act of a member of the Illinois legislature, a few years ago, in introducing a resolution (which failed to pass) to investigate the department stores of Chicago on the ground that conditions in them led to a shocking state of immorality.  The statement has been repeatedly made that nearly one-half of the outcast girls and women of Chicago have come from the department stores.5

It was not only by these methods that the firm of Marshall Field & Co. was so phenomenally successful in making money.  In the background were other methods which belong to a different category.  Whatever Field’s practices — and they were venal and unscrupulous to a great degree, as will be shown — he was an astute organizer.  He understood how to manipulate and use other men, and how to centralize business, and cut out the waste and junket of mercantile operations.  In the evolutionary scheme of business he played his important part and a very necessary part it was, for which he must be given full credit.  His methods, base as they were, were in no respect different from those of the rest of the commercial world, as a whole.  The only difference was that he was more conspicuous and more successful.


CENTERING ALL PROFITS IN HIMSELF.


At a time when all business was run on the chaotic and desultory lines characteristic of the purely competitive age, he had the foresight and shrewdness to perceive that the storekeeper who depended upon the jobber and the manufacturer for his goods was largely at the mercy of those elements.  Even if he were not, there were two sets of profits between him and the making of the goods — the jobber’s profits and the manufacturer’s.

Years before this vital fact was impressed upon the minds of the floundering retailers, Field understood, and acted upon, it.  He became his own manufacturer and jobber.  Thus he was complacently able to supply his department store with many goods at cost, and pocket the profits that otherwise would have gone to jobber and manufacturer.  In, however, the very act of making three sets of profits, while many other stores made only one set, Field paid his employees at the retail store rate ;  that is to say, he paid no more in wages than the store which had to buy often from the jobber, who in turn, purchased from the manufacturer.  With this salient fact in mind, one begins to get a clear insight into some of the reasons why Field made such enormous profits, and an understanding of the consequent contrast of his firm doing a business of $50,000,000 a year while thousands of his employees had to work for a wretched pittance.  He could have afforded to have paid them many times more than they were getting and still would have made large profits.  But this would have been an imbecilic violation of that established canon of business :  Pay your employees as little as you can, and sell your goods for the highest price you can get.

Field was one of the biggest dry goods manufacturers in the world.  He owned, says a writer, scores of enormous factories in England, Ireland and Scotland.  “ The provinces of France,” this eulogist goes on, “ are dotted with his mills.  The clatter of the Marshall Field looms is heard in Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria and Russia.  Nor is the Orient neglected by this master of fabrics.  Plodding Chinese and the skilled Japs are numbered by the thousands on the payroll of the Chicago merchant and manufacturer.  On the other side of the equator are vast woolen mills in Australia, and the chain extends to South America, with factories in Brazil and in other of our neighboring republics.”

In all of these factories the labor of men, women and children was harshly exploited ;  in nearly all of them the workers were in an unorganized state, and therefore deprived of every vestige of self-protection.  Boys and girls of tenderest age were mercilessly ground into dollars ;  their young life’s blood dyed deep the fabrics which brought Field riches.  In this dehumanizing business Field was only doing what the entire commercial aristocracy the world over was doing.

How extraordinarily profitable the business of Marshall Field & Co. was (and is), may be seen in the fact that its shares (it became an incorporated stock company) were worth $1,000 each.  At his death Marshall Field owned 3,400 of these shares, which the executors of his estate valued at $3,400,000.  That the exploitation of labor, the sale of sweatshop and adulterated goods, and many other forms of oppression or fraud were a consecutive and integral part of his business methods is undeniable.  But other factors, distinctly under the ban of the law, afford an additional explanation of how he was able to undersell petty competitors, situated even at a distance.  What all of these factors were is not a matter of public knowledge.  At least one of them came to light when, on December 4, 1907, D.R. Anthony, a representative in Congress from Kansas, supplied evidence to Postmaster-General Meyer that the house of Marshall Field & Co. had enjoyed, and still had, the privilege of secret discriminatory express rates in the shipment of goods.  This charge, if sustained, was a clear violation of the law ;  but these violations by the great propertied interests were common, and entailed, at the worst, no other penalty than a nominal fine.

From such sources came the money with which he became a large landowner.  Also, from the sources enumerated, came the money with which he and his associates debauched politics, and bribed common councils and legislatures to present them with public franchises for street and elevated railways, gas, telephone and electric light projects — franchises intrinsically worth incalculable sums.6  With the money squeezed out of his legions of poverty-stricken employees and out of his rent-racked tenants he became an industrial monarch.  The inventory of his estates filed in court by his executors revealed that he owned stocks and bonds in about one hundred and fifty corporations.  This itemized list showed that he owned many millions of bonds and stocks in railroads with the construction and operation of which he had nothing to do.  The history of practically all of them reeks with thefts of public and private money ;  corruption of common councils, of legislatures, Congress and of administrative officials ;  land grabbing, fraud, illegal transactions, violence, and oppression not only of their immediate workers, but of the entire population.7  He owned — to give a few instances — $1,500,000 of Baltimore and Ohio stock ;  $600,000 of Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe ;  $1,860,000 of Chicago and Northwestern, and tens of millions more of the stock or bonds of about fifteen other railroads.

He also owned an immense assortment of the stocks of a large number of trusts.  The affairs of these trusts have been shown in court, at some time or other, as overflowing with fraud, the most glaring oppressions, and violations of law.  He had $450,000 in stock of the Corn Products Company (the Glucose Trust) ;  $370,000 of the stock of the notorious Harvester Trust, which charges the farmer, $75 for a machine that perhaps costs $16 in all to make and market, and which holds a great part of the farming population bound hand and foot ;  $350,000 of Biscuit Trust stock ;  $200,000 of American Tin Can Company (Tin Can Trust) stock ;  and large amounts of stock in other trusts.  All of these stocks and bonds Field owned outright ;  he made it a rule never to buy a share of stock on margin or for speculative purposes.  All told, he owned more than $55,000,000 in stocks and bonds.

A very considerable part of these were securities of Chicago surface and elevated railway, gas, electric light and telephone companies.  In the corruption attending the securing of the franchises of these corporations he was a direct principal.  The narrative of this part of his fortune, however, more pertinently belongs to subsequent chapters of this work.



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1 Census of 1900.

2 Eighth Annual Report, Illinois Labor Bureau: 370.

3 See his work, “If Christ Came to Chicago.”  Much more specific and reliable is the report of the U.S. Industrial Commission.  After giving the low wages paid to women in the different cities, it says :  “It is manifest from the figures given that the amout of earnings in many cases is less than the actual cost of the necessities of life.  The existence of such a state of affairs must inevitably lead in many cases to the adoption of a life of immorality and, in fact, there is no doubt that the low rate of wages paid to women is one of the most frequent causes of prostitution.  The fact that the great mass of working women maintain their virtue in spite of low wages and dangerous environment is highly creditable to them.”—Final Report of the Industrial Commission, 1902, xix:927.

4 See an article on this point by the Rev. F.M. Goodchild in the “Arena” Magazine for March, 1896.

5 In the course of inquiries among the Chicago religious missions in 1909, the author was everywhere informed that the great majority of native prostitutes were products of the department stores.  Some of the conditions in these department stores, and how their owners have fought every effort to better these conditions, have been revealed in many official reports.  The appended description is from the Annual Report of the Factory Inspectors of Illinois, 1903-04, pp. ix and x :
      “ In this regard, and worthy of mention, reference might be made to the large dry goods houses and department stores located in Chicago and other cities, in which places it has been customary to employ a great number of children under the age of sixteen as messenger boys, bundle wrappers, or as cash boys or cash girls, wagon boys, etc.  In previous years these children were required to come to work early in the morning and remain until late at night, or as long as the establishment was open for business, which frequently required the youngsters to remain anywhere from 8:00 to 9:00 o’clock in the morning until 10:00 and 11:00 p.m., their weak and immature bodies tired and worn out under the strain of the customary holiday rush.  In the putting a stop to this practice of employing small children ten and thirteen hours per day, the department found it necessary to institute frequent prosecutions.  While our efforts were successful, we met with serious opposition, and in some cases almost continuous litigation, some 300 arrests being necessary to bring about the desired results, which finally secured the eight hour day and a good night’s rest for the small army of toilers engaged in the candy and paper box manufacturing establishments and department stores.
      “ In conducting these investigations and crusades the inspectors met with some surprises in the way of unique excuses.  In Chicago a manager of a very representative first class department store, one of the largest of its kind, gave as his reason for not obeying the law, that they had never been interfered with before.  Another, that the children preferred to be in the store rather than at home.  The unnaturalness of this latter excuse can be readily realized by anyone who has stepped into a large department store during the holiday season, when the clerks are tired and cross and little consideration is shown to the cash boy or cash girl who, because he or she may be tired or physically frail, might be a little tardy in running an errand or wrapping a bundle.  This character of work for long hours is deleterious to a child, as are the employments in many branches of the garment trade or other industries, which labor is so openly condemned by those who have been interested in anti-child labor movements.”

6 For detailed particulars see that part of this work comprising “Great Fortunes from Public Franchises.”

7 The acts here summarized are narrated specifically in Part III, “Great Fortunes from Railroads.”