On July 20, 164 years ago, John Graves Shedd, who was to become one of Chicago’s greatest business and civic leaders, was born in a humble frame farmhouse in Alstead, New Hampshire. With an aversion to farming and a knack for selling, he gained experience at a succession of New England dry goods stores and then, in 1872, set out for the West — Chicago — with the ambition to work at the biggest store in town, co-owned by Marshall Field.
Hired and mentored by Field, who had a similar Yankee background and work ethic, Shedd worked his way up from stock boy to eventually succeed Field as president of Marshall Field & Company — the world’s largest department store, employing 12,000 Chicagoans and doing $25 million in yearly retail sales and nearly $50 million on the wholesale side. In addition to being the Merchant King of Chicago, Shedd was active on the Chicago Plan Commission, sat on many boards and gave generously of his fortune to benefit the people of his adopted city. (He also donated a library to his hometown.)
Today he is remembered solely for his most magnificent gift: an aquarium that eclipsed all others in its animal collection and its design. (He did not, however, live to see it built.) You can read about Mr. Shedd’s gift, and find out even more about the man and the aquarium in our hardcover history, Shedd Aquarium.
Mr. Shedd also features prominently in a riveting read about Marshall Field & Company, Give the Lady What She Wants, by noted Chicago journalists Lloyd Wendt and Herman Kogan. And he is mentioned in a delightful flapper-era memoir about the store, Through Charley’s Door, by Emily Kimbrough.
These resources put a face to the name carved in marble above the aquarium’s entrance, giving us a better picture of the man behind the aquarium.
—Karen Furnweger, web editor