The Department Store Piries


                                       From Scotland to State Street



The stunning Louis Sullivan building at State and Madison Streets, home to many retailers, will forever be associated with Carson Pirie Scott and Co.




By Megan McKinney



The Carson Pirie Scott story began on August 26, 1827 in Errol, Scotland, with the birth of John Thomas Pirie. His parents were Allan Pirie, a joiner—or cabinetmaker—and the former Mary Hawkins, whose English family had come north to Errol from the village of Hovingham in Yorkshire.

John was educated in the Presbyterian parish school of his district. At 13, he became errand boy for a shipbroker in Glasgow; however, his interest in the shipping business was short lived. Within two years, he had found his true calling when he began working for the dry goods business of his uncle Henry Hawkins in the Northern Ireland town of Newry.


Newry, where John Thomas Pirie blossomed into a retailing prodigy. Newry’s distinctive town hall is in the background.  

John quickly moved up from errand boy to buyer for one of the store’s principal departments. Like a similar pair of future Chicago retailers, Marshall Field and Levi Leiter, John and another young dry goods hopeful, Samuel Carson, spent their non-working hours discussing dreams of success in the business both had chosen. Their relationship became closer when the young men went to work for John Arnott & Company in Belfast, 34 miles away. They soon acted on their dreams by making arrangements to open a dry goods store in the idyllic Northern Irish village of Crookstown, paying the first six months’ rent on a shop in advance.


John Thomas Pirie.


The Crookstown dream was quickly displaced by another goal, when a mutual friend, Robert Murray, appeared one night from America, where he had gone to establish what had become a thriving business in Peru, Illinois.



Without hesitation, John and Samuel forfeited the precious six months’ rent and set sail—in steerage—for New York from Belfast on the maiden voyage of the SS City of Philadelphia on August 26, 1854. When the ship hit a great rock off Newfoundland on September 9, wrecking it, John and Samuel reached deep into their luggage to don top hats and—appearing to be first class passengers—were led off the ship early. The resilient young men then found another ship bound for New York and completed the journey.

After acclimatizing themselves to the new country by working a few months in New York for James Beck & Company on Broadway, the two ventured out to the second place with a magical sounding name: Illinois.


By 1866, when this picture was taken, Murray’s Dry Goods was quite an imposing presence on the unpaved, wagon-strewn “main street” of Peru, Illinois.


John and Samuel clerked at Murray’s Dry Goods, the Peru shop of their friend, Robert Murray, while he helped them gain credits for opening a store of their own in the nearby town of LaSalle.

As with everything the two were to do together, Carson and Pirie prospered in LaSalle. However, John saw what he felt was a better opportunity in another Illinois town, and soon they were operating Carson Pirie & Co. in Amboy, headquarters of Illinois Central Railroad.


The Amboy Carson Pirie & Co., in a red brick building facing the Illinois Central tracks, was just the beginning.


By 1856, business was so healthy that Samuel and John recruited friends George and Robert Scott from Newry to come to America to work in the Amboy store. In the next three years, they opened branches of Carson Pirie & Co. in the neighboring towns of Mendota, Galena, Polo, and Sterling, with the Scott brothers assigned to take charge of these new retail operations.

The personal lives of Pirie and Carson were expanding as well. John married Sarah Carson, a sister of Samuel, in 1857, and Samuel wed John’s sister Elizabeth Pirie, increasing the coziness of the Pirie-Carson alliance—making it, in fact, one family. The Carsons lived on a farm outside Amboy, close enough for Samuel to ride into the store every day on his white horse. An old-timer remembered that he “rode old country fashion—up and down, you know—posting.” And, during those early years, Sarah Carson Pirie was a milliner, presiding over her own shop near her husband’s and her brother’s store.

A century and a half before the branding concept became a near cliché, John and Samuel created a strong “brand”—both for themselves and their store. The image of Messrs. Carson and Pirie as sound businessmen and fair merchants spread throughout the region. In 1864, 10 years after leaving Ireland, they were not only without debt, but possessed $50,000 worth of stock.


From a 1929 newspaper image: descendants of the founders traveled from Chicago to Amboy for the 75th anniversary of both the incorporation of Amboy and the opening of Carson Pirie & Co. Center right, Samuel Carson Pirie, eldest son of founder John Thomas Pirie, shakes hands with William Clark, whose grocery occupies the former Carson’s building behind them. Samuel Pirie’s eldest son, John Thomas Pirie II, is to the right of his father. Others, from left, are Robert L. Scott Jr., Samuel Pirie Carson, Frederick H. Scott Jr. and John Taylor Pirie.


John Pirie and Samuel Carson were in the heart of an immense country and within 100 miles of what was becoming the nation’s great dry goods center. They couldn’t avoid being aware of the impact of such other enduring legends as John V. and Charles B. Farwell, Potter Palmer, Marshall Field and Levi Leiter. John saw a major opportunity and persuaded Samuel to move their headquarters to Chicago, where they continued to prosper by focusing on wholesaling from 20 Lake St.


Lake Street, center of the powerful Chicago dry goods world of the 1860s.


Three years later, Pirie and Carson re-entered the retail world by opening their first Chicago store at 136 Lake St., managed by another Scottish immigrant, Andrew MacLeish. Samuel Carson had met Andrew in church, a very fortunate encounter; MacLeish soon partnered with Pirie and Carson, beginning a relationship that would span decades and generations.  


Andrew MacLeish was added to the Scottish fraternity that built Carson Pirie Scott & Co. into a great Chicago dry goods business.


The Chicago business grew so rapidly that George and Robert Scott were needed there, and the firm was consolidated as Carson Pirie Scott & Co. The enterprise was wiped out by fire in 1868, but scarcely a month later it was open again for business. Although Samuel Carson died in 1869, Pirie insisted his dear friend’s name be kept in the firm title.

Then, on October 8, 1871, the firm was hit by the great conflagration sweeping throughout Chicago during that night and into the following two days. Convincing the driver of a passing wagon to take a load of merchandise away toward safety wasn’t difficult, especially for the payment of as much as $50. The challenge was to keep him from accepting a subsequent offer from another merchant, a pattern which occurred several times during the frightful night.


The terrifying chaos brought about by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.


Finally, $50,000 worth of stock—silks and other fine groupings of the best Carson Pirie goods—were saved from the burning building, then moved twice to keep ahead of the fire, winding up at last in a barn on Wabash near 16th St. Sadly, however, all of the merchandise in the wholesale building was destroyed.

At 5 a.m. on the morning of Monday, October 9, the Carson building collapsed in a smoldering heap. John Pirie, who was in New York, responded quickly, selecting replacement goods with his experienced eye, and dispatching them rapidly, ensuring that Carson’s beautiful new merchandise was among the earliest to be available following the fire.


Megan McKinney’s series, The Department Store Piries, will continue in Classic Chicago, periodically, over the next several weeks.     


Selected Photo Credit:

Alice Pirie Wirtz

Author Photo:

Robert F. Carl