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Remembering John G. Shedd on His Birthday

A black-and-white portrait of John G. Shedd, the aquarium's founder.

Originally published July 20, 2010

His name is chiseled in stone over the entrance to the aquarium. But who was John Graves Shedd? According to his boss, department store founder Marshall Field, Shedd was "the greatest merchant in the United States." He was also, as we know, a magnanimous philanthropist, donating $3 million to build the world’s finest aquarium in his adopted city of Chicago. John G. Shedd was born 160 years ago today. Although he came from humble beginnings, he always aimed high.

Shedd was born in a frame farmhouse in Alstead, New Hampshire, on July 20, 1850. The youngest of eight children, he turned his back on farm work when he was 16 and set his sights on a business career. He gained experience at several dry goods stores in Vermont and New Hampshire; then, in 1872, he headed for Chicago.

Starting as a salesman and stock boy at what would become Marshall Field & Company, he rose through the ranks and used his merchandising genius to build Field’s into the largest department store in the world. Upon Mr. Field’s death in 1906, Shedd became president of the company, which employed 12,000 Chicagoans and did $25 million in retail sales and $50 million in wholesale business every year.

Shedd was part of a cadre of civic-minded business leaders that shaped Chicago into a world-class city at the beginning of the 20th century. And because every world-class city had an aquarium, Shedd chose that as his legacy to the city that had given him so much. He was excited about the project as the plans developed, but he did not live to see his aquarium built. Shedd died on Oct. 22, 1926. His business colleagues, who were on the aquarium’s board of directors, carried out his vision, and construction began in November 1927.

Find out more about John G. Shedd in the new edition of Shedd Aquarium, the fact- and photo-filled hardcover history of Chicago’s world-famous aquarium, available in Shedd’s gift store.