Business Magnate, Real Estate Developer. He was responsible for much of the development of State Street in Chicago, Illinois in the late 1800s. Born in Potter's Hollow, Albany County, New York, he was the son of a Quaker and prosperous farmer. After receiving a common school education, he became a store clerk at the age of 18 in Durham, New York. He then started his own dry goods store in Oneida, New York and a year later, he moved it to Lockport, New York. In 1851 he visited Chicago, and seeing it as a place of promise, he sold his store in Lockport and in 1852 he founded the dry goods store, Potter Palmer and Company, on Lake Street in Chicago, that focused on women and encouraged their patronage. He instituted a "no questions asked" returns policy and allowed customers to take goods home to inspect before purchasing, which served to nurture the goodwill and patronage of his customers. He made the store much larger and more distinctive than other similar stores of the time and was the first owner to advertise with large window displays that included price comparisons. In 1865 his health began to fail and his doctor strongly suggested that he get out of the business. Instead, he brought in partners Marshall Field and Levi Leiter and the trio joined forces and renamed the firm Field, Palmer, Leiter and Company. The store would eventually develop into the prominent Midwestern department store chain, Marshall Field and Company. In 1867 he sold his share of the partnership and focused his efforts on his real estate interests, leasing a new building to his former partners in 1868 at the corner of State and Washington Streets. In 1870 he married the prominent socialite Bertha Matilde Honoré, whose father was a prominent Louisville, Kentucky businessman. He built several buildings along State Street on property he owned, including the Palmer House Hotel. When his buildings were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire in October 1871, he borrowed $1.7 million to rebuild, the largest amount lent to a private individual up to that time. He reclaimed the swampland north of Chicago's commercial district, developing it into Lake Shore Drive. In 1885 he built the castellated Palmer Mansion on Lake Shore Drive, once the largest private residence in Chicago, leading to the establishment of the Gold Coast on Chicago's North Side, that became the homes of the super-rich along with upscale boutiques, restaurants, and other stores. Prior to that time, Prairie Avenue had been the most desirable address in Chicago. He died at his Chicago home from heart failure at the age of 75. In 1950 his mansion was demolished and replaced by two 22-story high-rise apartment buildings.
Bio by: William Bjornstad
Bertha Honoré Palmer