100 years of flowers: Phillip's Flowers celebrating centennial

  • The Phillip's family, from left, Derek, Baxter, Sandy, James, Don, Russ, and Jim Phillip, is celebrating the centennial for Phillip's Flowers, started by James Phillip Sr. in 1923.

    The Phillip's family, from left, Derek, Baxter, Sandy, James, Don, Russ, and Jim Phillip, is celebrating the centennial for Phillip's Flowers, started by James Phillip Sr. in 1923. Courtesy of Brad Baskin

Updated 4/13/2023 1:53 AM

The year was 1923. Warren G. Harding passed away unexpectedly at age 57, and Calvin Coolidge became the 30th U.S. president. The first Yankee Stadium opened in the Bronx. Louis Armstrong made his first recording, and Roy and Walt Disney founded the Walt Disney Company. It was the "Roaring Twenties." Chicago was booming. Al Capone led an empire of crime in the Windy City. And, James A. Phillip opened the first Phillip's Flowers shop in a rented storefront on Cermak Road in Cicero, an early, thriving suburb of Chicago.

But, James, or "Senior " as he was affectionately called, didn't pick the flower business as much as it picked him. His father was a gardener in Austria before immigrating to the U.S., and he passed his love of flowers on to his son.


Then, when James was in his early teens, his father passed away, and James had to drop out of school to become the breadwinner for his family. He worked for a Chicago florist, delivering flowers by streetcar in the city, and helping around the shop to learn floral design.

He tried other jobs, as well, including work with the railroad. But, he decided that the flower business was "as good as any, and better than most. " And, Phillip's Flowers was born in that rented Cicero storefront in 1923.

A grandchild recalls James recounting how he designed and delivered floral decorations to a couple of parties that Capone reportedly might attend, and how the young florist could only hope that someone would pay him on delivery so he could buy more flowers for his shop the next day. Times were tough.

Fortunately, someone did pay, and the little flower shop flourished just like its flowers.

It was in Cicero that James met his wife Helen. She was a bookkeeper at the nearby Western Electric Plant.

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And, together they built a bigger flower shop just a few blocks away, with an apartment upstairs where they could begin raising their family. The business soon became a wonderful combination of nurturing both flowers and family. And, it's stayed that way ever since.

The couple had three children, J.R., Lee, and Russ, raising them in the early years in the little apartment above their shop. When Lee went on to host a daily news and interview show on CBS TV in Chicago, some of her co-workers called her "Petunia" because she grew up playing on the sidewalk in front of that shop.

Of course, all three children helped in the family enterprise through their college years.

One day after Lee graduated from college, she helped her big brother demonstrate flower designing on a local Chicago television show.

A studio light crashed down on the flowers just before the live telecast, but with a little last-minute scrambling and lots of composure, the segment aired successfully enough that brother and sister were both invited back again.


J.R. wasn't available the second time, so Lee agreed to go alone, and her award-winning career as one of television's first female news and interview hosts soon followed.

J.R. and Russ stayed with the family flower business, opening additional shops in La Grange Park, Oak Brook, and beyond. Russ is still actively involved today, along with five other full-time family members from the third and fourth generations, and more than 150 other dedicated floral professionals who excel at floral designs and personal service.

"Over the years, so many wonderful people have been part of our team," said Russ Phillip, "they're the real secret to our success."

Over the years Phillip's Flowers has provided flowers for many memorable Chicago area events and visitors, including the Chicago Auto Show, multiple presidential dinners, and the Papal Mass in Grant Park.

The company is ranked among the top 1% of North American florists by both FTD and Teleflora, and has also been named a Loyola Family Business of the Year and an Illinois Retail Merchant of the Year.

Today, Phillip's Flowers may be best known for its attractively merchandised flower shops in Elmhurst, Hinsdale, La Grange Park, Naperville, Westmont, and Wheaton, its daily deliveries in Chicago and suburbs, its commercial interior landscaping division headquartered in Oak Brook, and its beautiful floral decorations for everything from weddings, anniversaries, and new babies to memorials and celebrations of life.

This year, Phillip's Flowers is celebrating its 100th year as a local family business. How has it thrived for so many years?

As Senior often said, "Being good to your customer always comes first." The second, third, and fourth generations agree. "It's not any easy business," said Don Phillip, "but flowers give people so much joy and comfort, and that's always been our greatest reward."

Find Phillips Flowers online at www.phillipsflowers.com, or reach them by phone at (630) 719-5200.

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