Marshall Field was born on August 18, 1834 in Conway, Massachusetts. In 1851, he moved to the city of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It was there that he started his retail career in a local general store as an apprentice. In 1856, he moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he got a job as a clerk at Cooley, Wadsworth and Co., a general store. In 1857, the partners changed and the firm was renamed Cooley, Farwell & Co.
In 1862, Field was allowed to buy into the company and become a junior partner. It was subsequently renamed Farwell, Field & Co. In 1863, Field married a woman named Nannie Scott. They went on to have two children, Marshall jr. and Ethel.
From 1856 through 1865, Marshall pinched pennies and saved money until he had saved up $30,000. In 1865, he used his money to become a partner at a company owned by Potter Palmer, forming Field, Palmer, Leiter & Co. In 1867, Field and the other partners bought out Palmer's share and renamed the company to Field, Leiter & Company.
In 1881, Field managed to buy out the last partner and renamed the company Marshall Field and Company. The store was already popular with the Chicago populace, but it kept growing under Field's management. Field greatly valued the customer's happiness, providing amenities such as unconditional refunds, doormen, and consistent pricing for shoppers. He is also credited with coining the phrase "The customer is always right". These business strategies allowed him to amass a fortune of $100 million before his death.
In 1896, Field's wife, Nannie, died and left him a widow. He remarried soon after to a woman named Delia Spencer Caton. During his free time, he started donating money to local organizations and helping to establish Chicago as one of the greatest cities in the world. His most notable contribution was a one million dollar endowment for the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, which took on his name. He also made a ten acre land donation to the University of Chicago so they could expand their campus.
Marshall Field died on January 16, 1906 in New York City from pneumonia. He had reportedly caught the illness after playing golf with Abraham Lincoln's son Robert. His will left another eight million dollars to the Field Museum of Natural History, allowing it to become one of the leading museums in the United States and the world. He was buried in Chicago's Graceland Cemetery.