Carolyn Cross’s great grandparents came to Chicago from Lithuania around the turn of the 20th century. Even as newly arrived immigrants, they participated in a popular Chicago tradition that was emerging at the time: visiting the restaurant inside the Marshall Field’s department store, now known as Macy’s.
“My great-grandmother took my grandmother, then my grandmother took my mom and then my mom took me and so it has been a tradition in the family for a long time,” Carolyn said.
The tradition always involved looking at the famous State Street Christmas windows, visiting with Santa inside and finally feasting on chicken pot pie under the Great Tree in the famous Walnut Room restaurant on the seventh floor.
“We would go have lunch in the Walnut Room and sit by that beautiful tree with those waitresses in their black dresses and their white aprons … It just had such great memories this time of year,” she said.
So this year, when a lot of us are feeling nostalgic about holiday traditions that we miss, Carolyn asked Curious City to tell her more about the Walnut Room, how it became a Christmas tradition and why it persists to this day.
In this episode, reporter Monica Eng answers Carolyn’s questions with the help of McHenry County College history instructor Sarah Sullivan and Illinois history researcher Neil Gale.
Sullivan is currently doing a series of talks across the region about the history of Marshall Field’s and Chicago as part of the Illinois Humanities Road Scholar program.
“I talked to a lot of people who tell me that their grandmothers would take them to Marshall Field’s for Christmas and they would pick out Christmas outfits and have lunch in the Walnut Room. And it was just part of their Christmas experience in the same way that putting up the Christmas tree or, you know, decorating with stockings or any of that might have been part of Christmas for them,” said Sullivan. “The Walnut Room and Marshall Field’s was definitely part of that for a lot of people.”
Digital Research Library of Illinois History founder Neil Gale wrote a piece about the restaurant, but also has his own childhood memory of the store. He says his parents let him travel from Rogers Park to the downtown store alone as an eight-year-old boy.
And during the holidays, he’d make a stop at the Walnut Room where he had a trick to skip the long lines of people.
“Many times there was a really long line for one or two people,” he recalled. “And the line for three or more had ten parties in it. And I was precocious enough to approach a family that looked nice and asked them if I could join them so I wouldn’t have to wait an hour.”
As Curious City dug into the history with Sullivan and Gale, what we found was that the Walnut Room and that Christmas tradition was part of a larger strategy at Marshall Field’s that went way beyond the holidays. It was a plan to make the department store accessible to all kinds of shoppers, to anticipate their needs and make Field’s a nearly indispensable part of people’s lives.
The plan started around the turn of the century and over the years it made Marshall Field’s not just a store, but a Chicago institution.
“In the early days in particular, Marshall Field’s focused on the long game. They didn’t look to sell something to you today; they looked to have you as a customer for life,” Sullivan said.
Despite the sharp decline in department store patronage across the country, both the Christmas windows and the Walnut Room — now within Macy’s — remain big holiday attractions. But the restaurant has made adjustments for the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s closed for indoor dining right now, but open for those who want to take a look at the Great Tree and pre-order a special Walnut Room boxed holiday lunch containing an ornament, festive edible sprinkles, a brownie and that famous chicken pot pie.
Monica Eng is WBEZ’s Curious City reporter. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.