Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘Chicago’

The Customer Is Always Right

Posted by Admin on January 30, 2021

Many of us have grown up hearing adults say the customer is always right (which may or may not be true) and not given that expression a second thought. It means that if someone is unhappy about a product, a service, or a situation, whoever is responsible for providing that product, service or creating that situation is responsible for fixing the problem so the unhappy person is happy once again.  It usually applies to businesses, but occasionally someone will use the idiom about a social situation.

In 1944, an article titled “Are Customers Always Right” appeared in The Rotarian magazine, authored by Hughston M. McBain (9 February 1902 – 19 May 1977), then-President of Marshall Field & Co in Chicago.

War, with all its ersatz goods and shortages of competent help, has vastly multiplied these problems — raising anew the old question: Is the customer always right?

My own answer — based on statistic involving some 500,000 regular patrons of our Chicago store — is that 85 to 90 percent of complaining customers are definitely and demonstrably right, that 90 percent believe they are right, and that less than one percent are bent on “gypping” the merchant.

The article stated that while sellers had an obligation to the buyer, so too did the buyer have an obligation to the seller. While Mr. McBain was quick to point out that WWII had put the relationship under “almost unendurable strains,” sellers were still running with unwavering policy that the customer is always right even in the face of taking “terrible losses on returns” they were also “holding customer confidence” through liberal adjustments and credits.

So the customer may not always be right, but a good business will leave the impression that this is true even when it isn’t.

In January 1911, the Kansas City Star reported on a local country store modeled after Marshall Field’s in Chicago and Selfridge’s in London.

Scott has done in the country what Marshall Field did in Chicago, Wannamaker did in New York and Selfridge in London. In his store he follows the Field rule and assumes that the customer is always right.

The phrase “the customer is always right” is oftentimes claimed to have been originally coined in 1909 by Harry Gordon Selfridge (11 January 1858 – 8 May 1947), the founder of Selfridge’s department store in London (and former Marshall Field’s employee). It’s said though that he never intended for the expression to be taken literally. What he was striving for was to sell people on the idea that customers shopping at his department store were special — more special than if they were shopping at some other department store — and by virtue of being special, the staff treated them better than staff would treat them at some other department store.

But did Selfridge really coin the expression? The December 1909 edition of “Good Housekeeping Magazine” is certainly familiar with the expression.

We have made a deep study of all this and our policy of regarding the customer as always right, no matter how wrong she may be in any transaction in the store, is the principle that builds up the trade. She is wrong, of course, lots of times. She takes advantage of privileges accorded her; she is inconsiderate of the earnest efforts of sales people; she causes delay and loss through carelessness or ignorance, but it all goes down in the budget of expenses for running the store and is covered, like other expenses, in the price of the goods.

It’s doubtful, if Selfridge coined the phrase in London, that it would be so casually discussed in an American magazine in 1909. So perhaps the idiom wasn’t coined by Selfridge after all.

A year earlier in 1908, the Swiss hotelier César Ritz (23 February 1850 – 24 October 1918) was quoted as saying le client n’a jamais tort which translates into the customer is never wrong.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: César Ritz founded the Hôtel Ritz in Paris as well as the Ritz and Carlton Hotels in London. His last name is the origin of the word ritzy and what it means.

However, it was Marshall Fields (18 August 1834 – 16 January 1906) who was famous for saying, “Give the lady what she wants” as well as “The customer is always right” when he partnered with Potter Palmer at his first department store in the US. He was quoted by the Boston Herald on 3 September 1905 using that exact saying. A few weeks later on 24 September 1905, he was quoted using the same idiom in the Boston Daily Globe. In fact, what was reported was this:

Every employe, from cash boy up, is taught absolute respect for and compliance with the business principles which Mr. Field practices. Broadly speaking, Mr. Field adheres to the theory that “the customer is always right.” He must be a very untrustworthy trader to whom this concession is not granted.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Harry Gordon Selfridge began his career working for the Marshall Field store in Chicago before building his London store. At the time, it was well-known that Marshall Field’s stores prided themselves in putting the customer first.

In fact, in the November 1919 edition of “System: The Magazine of Business” the history of Marshall Field’s use of the idiom was given a clear explanation as to how it came about.

Field, it is well known, was the first to say “the customer is always right.” It was Potter Palmer, Field’s predecessor and for a time his partner, who had originated the practice of accepting returns from any customer who was not satisfied, and refunding the purchase price. This made the customer the sole judge whether he should keep the merchandise. Field’s policy went a long step farther and made the customer the sole judge, or practically the sole judge, of all issues between himself and the house.

Except that the idiom was the first to not only say “the customer is always right” but to put it into practice as the central creed of the Palmer system. Having opened a small store on Lake Street in Chicago in 1852, he set about creating a business unlike any other.

Because he didn’t have much credit or money, and unable to have a large stock for his store, he found a different way to attract customers. He took the time to display his goods in the most attractive way on store shelves and tables, and gook to using the overlooked space in the store’s windows. He catered primarily to women and took the time the educate himself on what items were of special interest to women even if their husbands and fathers disagreed with their wives and daughters.

He hired sales staff and instructed them to memorize the names and preferences of their customers. They were not allowed to use pressure tactics to induce a sale, and were directed to attend to the purchasing needs of their customers. And no matter how difficult or demanding a customer might be, he directed his staff to remember the customer was always right.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: Potter Palmer (20 May 1826 – 4 May 1902) was an American businessman who was responsible for most of the development of most of the downtown district and Lake Shore Drive areas of Chicago after the great fire of 1871.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 4: Potter Palmer was responsible for a number of innovations in retail business including “bargain days” (which were the predecessors to “sales days”), money back guarantees, and free home delivery of all purchases made at his store.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 1: Potter Palmer’s store was the one store in Chicago at the time where women could go unescorted without concern whether their person or their reputation might be damaged in shopping at a store unescorted.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 2: Potter Palmer built a ball field in 1868 for the Chicago White Stocking baseball club which later became the Chicago Cubs baseball club (not to be confused with the Chicago White Sox which adopted the abandoned Chicago White Stocking name originally in a completely different baseball league).

The spirit of the expression exists in Germany where businesses insist der Kunde ist König or the customer is king. In Japan, the saying is okyakusama wa kamisama desu (お客様は神様です) which means the customer is god.  That expression was made popular by Haruo Minami (19 July 1923 – 14 April 2001).

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier account of the expression than that dating back to Potter Palmer and his store in Chicago in 1852, and acknowledges that the first print version of the adage is credited to Potter Palmer’s protégé Marshall Field. Idiomation therefore puts this expression to 1852 with a nod to Marshall Field with a secondary nod to Harry Gordon Selfridge who worked for Marshall Field before opening his own store in London.

One last note: Remember that when you live by the adage the customer is always right, you are also defaulting to giving that customer the benefit of the doubt which is another idiom for another entry.

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Devil’s Strip

Posted by Admin on June 18, 2015

When you hear people talk about the devil’s strip, do you know what they’re talking about?  The devil’s strip is the grassy strip between the sidewalk and the curb.  In Boca Raton it’s known as a swale and in Chicago it’s known as a parkway.  But in many other places in Canada and the United States, it’s known as the devil’s strip.

On February 28, 1948 the Montreal Gazette included a brief article about a Court of Appeals court that upheld an earlier verdict against the Montreal Tramways Company for injuries sustained by Bernard Wilson Hansen on December 27, 1945.  In all, the carpenter was awarded $2,570 CDN (or the equivalent of $25,790 CDN in 2015 dollars) despite claims by lawyer Marcus Sperber that the verdict was “ridiculous.”  The article was entitled, “Appeal Court Upholds Ridiculous Verdict” and ended with this paragraph.

Hansen, carrying a tool chest on his shoulder, attempted to cross Bleury Street with the green light in his favor.  The traffic light changed when he was in the middle of the street and as he stood on the “devil’s strip” a moving tram struck the tool chest.  He fell to the ground and was badly injured.

The Toronto World edition of April 22, 1920 wrote about the devil’s strip in an article entitled, “Toronto To Have Semaphore System Of Traffic Control: Deputy-Chief Dickson Explains American Method In Detail.”   Toronto was being modernized, and semaphore traffic signals were being installed!  The Chief of Police Grasett had informed the media as well as the Board of Control that his department was in the process of drawing up plans for these signals, which the Chief of Police guaranteed would handle traffic more efficiently than police officers by at least fifty percent, based on their success in larger American cities.  The article began with this impressive paragraph:

“Stop.”  No traffic cop has waved his hand, but a long line of traffic at a downtown intersection has been brought to an abrupt halt.  “Go.”   Again no movement on the part of the minion of the law, but the long line of vehicles continue on their way.  The constable also, is not standing in the devil’s strip, in the centre of the intersection, but off to one side.

On May 14, 1901, a lawsuit for negligence by a street railway was heard in the Ontario Court of Appeal.  Known as Robinson v Toronto Railway Co., the judge determined that the motorman of an electric car was not guilty of negligence because he didn’t stop the car at the first sign of a horse being frightened by a motor car or anything else that might spook a horse.  It was determined that the most that could be expected of the streetcar motorman was to proceed carefully, and as such, the court was satisfied that the motorman had done so.  The previous finding of negligence was set aside.  The idiom was used in the testimony of one of the witnesses.

Porteous, who was called as a witness for the plaintiff, says that he was driving south of the track; that the horse became frightened and unmanageable at the sight of the defendant’s car and backed over the south track across the “devil’s strip” on to the north track; that it then went to the boulevard, made a wheel, and jumped straight in front of the north track again, and got his foot in the fender just as the car stopped.  He also says the car struck the side of the buggy and threw the plaintiff out on to the road, occasioning the injuries complained of.

Both she and Porteous say they shouted to the men on the car to stop; that the men seemed to be laughing, and that the speed of the car was not slackened until it was within a few feet of the horse.

In 1887, the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering at the University of Toronto published a book titled, “Transactions.”  In the chapter having to do with asphalt and asphalt paving, written by F.N. Speller, the idiom cropped while discussing the preparation of the foundation for asphalt paving.

The sub-grade is carefully prepared, levelled, and rolled, if found necessary, for solidification.  The kerbs are placed in position, either being set in concrete or gravel.  The subsoil is drained by four-inch tile drains running parallel with the kerb in three rows, one under each kerb, and one under the devil’s strip, or centre of the roadway, the former making connections with the catch-water basins.

If electric car tracks are to be laid, the sub-grade must be excavated to twelve inches extra in the track allowance, this being then filled in with six inches of ballast and compacted.

It should be noted that the majority of magazine, newspaper, and resource book references that mention the devil’s strip are primarily from Canada, and as such, it would appear that the idiom is a Canadian term that made its way to America over time. However, the “Proceedings of the Annual Meeting” of the Ohio Society of Professional Engineers published in 1883, M.E. Rawson, Assistant City Civil Engineer for the city of Cleveland in Ohio refers to this same space on city streets in Cleveland as the space that is “known by the significant rather than elegant name of the devil’s strip.”

Prior to streetcars, there was no need for a boulevard on city streets and since the first streetcar was patented on January 17, 1871.  The first streetcar made its appearance on August 1, 1873 in San Francisco on a stretch of track that began at the intersection of Clay and Kearny Streets to the crest of a hill 307 feet above the starting point on 2,800 feet of track.  By the 1880s, streetcars were finding their way into most major American and Canadian cities, with the largest and busiest fleet of cable cars being in Chicago … as were the devil’s strip.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published mention of the devil’s strip prior to the one published in 1883, however, the term was known and used in Cleveland at that time which means the term was understood by professionals dealing with streetcar issues at the time.  The term is therefore pegged to about 1880.

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Footloose And Fancy Free

Posted by Admin on July 21, 2011

When you hear of someone who is footloose and fancy free, it brings to mind someone who can do what he or she wants either because he or she has very few responsibilities requiring his or her attention.  Now in the past, footloose and fancy free have been used separately.  So when did the two become inseparable word buddies?

The Sunday Mercury of Birmingham, England published a news article on April 22, 2001 entitled, “A Dream Delivery For Our Del Boy.”  In the article, it stated:

Asked about why he waited so long for a child, the actor said: “I didn’t actually wait, it was thrust upon me I think.  My life has been in reverse. It wasn’t fame and it wasn’t money, but I always wanted to succeed. Because of that, I needed to be footloose and fancy-free. I needed to go where the work was. As soon as things started to get heavy with a relationship, I would be off, gone. I knew I couldn’t be responsible for a family and the silly work I was doing.”

On March 7, 1959 the Lewiston Daily Sun newspaper ran a story about actress Debbie Reynolds — Carrie Fisher’s mom — and her upcoming endeavours after her divorce from actor Eddie Fisher.  The first paragraph of the story out of New York read:

Debbie Reynolds, footloose and fancy free since her divorce from Eddie Fisher flew off to Spain Friday to make a movie.  She had arrived from Los Angeles earlier.  Asked if there was any  new romance in her life, she replied: “I should say not.”

On May 16, 1936 the Montreal Gazette ran an advertisement in their newspaper, paid for by the American Express Travel Service entitled, “How To Be Footloose And Fancy Free When Traveling.”  It spoke of escorted trips to South America and Alaska.  Around The World 104-day tours with shore excursions could be booked for just a little more than $1,000 inclusive and urged readers to send away for their booklet “It’s Easy To Plan Your Own Tour Of Europe.”

The Providence News ran an interesting news piece on January 26, 1922 entitled, “Buckled Goloshes Mean Girl’s Engaged.”  The story came out of Chicago and stated:

Engagement rings being taboo at Northwestern University, those co-eds who have plighted their troth will now make their status known through the manner in which they wear their goloshes.  Goloshes open or buckled will now tell the story hitherto conveyed by the diamond ring. 

It all came about by one young fiance pleading with his girl to please cover her ankles from public view.  Open goloshes now signify the wearer is footloose and fancy free, but woe betide the young man who attempts to warm up to a girl who wears hers buckled, for it is the unwritten law of the campus at Northwestern that men students never “pirate” another fellow’s sweetheart.

The earliest published version of the expression footloose and fancy free that Idiomation was able to find comes from the Los Angeles Times newspaper edition of August 20, 1907 in an article entitled, “Olden Hunter Of Moonshine.”  The following was written about the former owner of the Planters Hotel in Anaheim, California:

Accompanied by his family, he intends to remain in this vicinity several weeks. He says he is footloose and fancy free and as he sold the Planters Hotel a week or so ago, he feels no need to return immediately to St. Louis.

Because the expression footloose and fancy free was used with ease in the news article of 1907, it can be believed it was a common expression understood by the majority of newspaper subscribers.  To this end, the expression can easily be attributed to the early 1900s.

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When Hell Freezes Over

Posted by Admin on January 12, 2011

If you say that something will happen when hell freezes over, you mean that it will never happen. 

For example, when the Eagles broke up in 1980, the band members stated the band play together again “when Hell freezes over.”  Well, Hell hadn’t frozen over by the time 1994 rolled around however, in 1994, the Eagles — consisting of Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh, Don Felder, and Timothy Schmit — regrouped and released a live album entitled, “Hell Freezes Over.”

Of course, the Eagles were premature with their announcement about Hell as the U.S. Weather Station in Hell, Michigan can attest to the fact that in all the years the government has been tracking the weather in Hell, it only froze over once and that was in 2004 — 10 years after the Eagles‘ live album.

Back on October 27, 1928 the Afro American newspaper published in Baltimore, a story written by William Pickens reporting on Oscar DePriest who was allegedly forced to quit the race for Congress in Chicago was published.  The article read in part: 

“If he were guilty and afraid, he would agree to quit under condition that the indictment be dropped. But to their surprise, when they went to him and said:  “Now, won’t you withdraw?” — he replied:  “You go to hell, and when hell freezes over so you can skate around on it, bring me proof of that and maybe I’ll think about quitting.”

The man has more plain courage than any other politician I have ever met.  He laid all his cards on the table at a meeting in Chicago on October 14 … He told just how he stood, frankly stated his opposition to some of the most powerful leaders: said in bold but brief outline what he would do as Congressman and what he wouldn’t.

Back on November 23, 1863 during the Civil War, 2nd Lieutenant, Richard B. Dobbins from Company D of the 7th Tennessee Cavalry Battalion was captured at Pulaski, Tennessee.  Records show that he was sent to Camp Chase (OH). Was asked when he was going to take the oath, and his reply was, “When Hell freezes over.”   He was released by special order of President Lincoln, April 23, 1864.

While the earliest recorded version of “when Hell freezes over” appears to be 1864, the manner in which it was used implies that it was a common saying among those in the southern states.  It is not unreasonable to believe that the expression dates back at least to the 1850s if not farther back.

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Egghead

Posted by Admin on December 8, 2010

An airhead is someone who hasn’t got any sensible or realistic ideas and appears to be lacking in intelligence.  The opposite of an airhead is an egghead, who is very studious and is, quite naturally, an intellectual.

Far from being a compliment in the United States over the past 75 years or so, egghead has been used as an anti-intellectual epithet, directed at people who are described as being out-of-touch with ordinary people and hyperfocused on intellectual interests and pursuits only.

The term egghead was used during the 1952 Presidential campaign, when Stewart Alsop — a powerful Connecticut Republican and the brother of newspaper columnist Joseph Alsop — labeled Adlai Stevenson an egghead because of Stevenson’s perceived intellectual air.  In Alsop‘s syndicated column of September 1952, Alsop wrote:

After Stevenson’s serious and rather difficult atomic energy speech in Hartford, Conn., this reporter remarked to a rising young Connecticut Republican that a good many intelligent people, who would be considered normally Republican, obviously admired Stevenson.  “Sure,” was the reply, “all the eggheads love Stevenson.  But how many eggheads do you think there are?”

Alsop defined the word egghead as “what the Europeans would call ‘intellectuals’ … interested in ideas and in the words used to express those ideas.”

A 1918 letter written by Carl Sandburg to his former newspaper boss, Negley Dakin Cochran indicates that Chicago newspapermen used the term egghead to refer to highbrow editorial writers out of touch with the common man.  In his letter, Carl Sandburg wrote:

Egg heads is the slang here for editorial writers here.  I have handed in five editorials on Russia and two on the packers, voicing what 95 percent of the readers of The News are saying on the [trolley] cars and in the groceries and saloons but they have been ditched for hot anti-bolshevik stuff … At that it isn’t so much the policies of the papers as the bigotry and superstition and flunkeyism of the Egg Heads.

Before Sandburg’s use of the term, however, author Owen Johnson published a story in 1909 entitled “The Triumphant Egghead” in the book “The Eternal Boy: Being The Story of the Prodigious Hickey.”  Hickey is the main character in the book and he gave nicknames to his friends. 

In the Masillon (OH) Evening Independent newspaper, an article published on December 5, 1910 quoted Mr. Johnson as stating that the nicknames came from friends with whom he attended school.

In the Varmin” he said, “I was writing of a period from 1893 to 1897, when there was a particularly bright lot of youngsters in Lawrenceville: pioneers of a peculiar sort of English literature I called them … [snip] … all of them appear off and on in the book.”

I was unable to find a published reference that pre-dates 1893, however, for the term to be so easily used in stories in 1893, it’s not unreasonable to believe that the term was already established as a word referring to an individual of certain developed intellectual abilities.

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Dragnet

Posted by Admin on August 27, 2010

Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to read is true.” 

Many of us are familiar with the opening voice over from the “Dragnet” radio and television series.

A dragnet is a system of coordinated measures for apprehending criminals and other individuals.  The term comes from the fishing technique of dragging a fishing net across the sea bottom or through a promising area of open water.  While the fishing reference has been around for centuries, the police reference isn’t nearly as old.

In a book entitled “Illinois Parole Law” published in 1942 by the Department of Public Welfare for the State of Illinois it was stated that:

Two-fifths of Illinois population is in Cook county and the board is continually endeavoring to adjust its work to the problems of the city.  Two reasons actuate it.  First, a desire to protect the city from persons who have in the past been guilty of crime, and, second, ad esire to protect the parolee from the police dragnet and the many temptations and handicaps of city life.

Ten years before that, on May 18, 1932, newspapers reported that Luigi Malvese, bootleg gangster, was ambushed and shot to death in front of the Del Monte Barbershop at 720 Columbus Avenue in San Francisco, California.   It was reported that “a police dragnet rounded up some 1,000 usual suspects in an attempt to pressure the underworld to rein in its wild men.” Louis Dinato, Al Capone’s tailor, was among those rounded up.

But long before the gangsters of the Prohibition Era, back in 1917, Ordway Rider was shot and died from a bullet wound to the chest.  His death was a cause célèbre in Edwardian Boston, pushing stories of war off the front page of all the papers for days.  According to the February 23 edition of The Boston Globe, in an article entitled “Police Dragnet Out For Bandits” it was reported that:

 ” … Ordway Rider was shot and instantly killed on the night of Feb. 21st 1917 by Bandits. Robbery was the motive. He was manager of one of the Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company’s stores. He was held in high esteem by the company. His age was 58-6months.”

That being said, the earliest published reference I could find that speaks of a police dragnet was found in The Chicago Daily Tribune which published a news story on January 19, 1896 with the headline, “Bicycle Thieves Caught in Meshes of Police Dragnet.”

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