Historical Markers
John Wanamaker [Great Depression] Historical Marker
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John Wanamaker [Great Depression]

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Juniper and S. Penn St., Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
July 11, 1998

Behind the Marker

The store on the corner, with partial view of City Hall on the right. Trolley tracks, one horse-drawn carriage and cart on street. People on street and sidewalks. Telegraph and telephone poles on street.
John Wanamaker's Grand Depot, Market and Juniper Streets, Philadelphia, PA,...
In the 1920s American mass consumer society came of age. Rising worker productivity and incomes, new technologies, and booming industries fed consumer spending unprecedented in American history. By then, department stores of every size had anchored themselves in the commercial centers of Pennsylvania cities, including Pomeroys in Reading, Watt and Shand in Lancaster, Bowman's in Harrisburg, Penn Traffic in Johnstown, and both Horne's and Kaufmann's in Pittsburgh. The downtown department store was as much a fixture of Pennsylvania's cities and towns as the local movie theater or ball park. And for many dedicated customers - more women than men - department stores functioned like movie theaters: an escape from the drab, everyday world of work and city living.

John Wanamaker opened his first store, a small men's shop, in Philadelphia in 1861. In 1877, his first bonafide department store opened in the remodeled Grand Depot at Twelfth and Market Streets. Wanamaker advertised it as a "new kind of store" - a collection of small specialty shops, all under one roof.

By 1879, the Grand Depot featured forty-nine departments and ten miscellaneous counters that offered a cornucopia of goods from far and wide. "Surely there is romance in merchandise to those who have eyes to see. A tour through Wanamaker's is a tour around the world," the store advertised.

In the decades that followed, Wanamaker's would be one of the first department stores to feature moving stairs to upper floors, electric lights, and elaborate window displays, all designed to accentuate the pageantry of the consumer experience. In 1889, Wanamaker's employed 8,000 workers in Philadelphia alone, and boasted combined revenues of more than $15 million a year. When John Wanamaker died in 1922, it was estimated that nearly a billion dollars had been spent in his stores.

Inerior photograph of frenzied sale at Wannamakers.
Bargain basement sale at Wanamaker's Department Store, Philadelphia, PA, circa...
The onset of the Depression brought a sharp decline in the consumer spending that had fueled the ascent of Wanamaker's and other large urban retailers. Some lines suffered more than others, including men's clothing departments. Unemployed customers had little use for new clothes when standing in bread lines.

To attract consumers with less money to spend, department stores had to work doubly hard to entice shoppers with cheaper apparel, perpetual sales, "pay as you can" credit policies, and other incentives. (In Boston, Filene's started its famous "bargain basements.") In Allentown, the local chamber of commerce encouraged those who did have money to spend it locally on Hamilton Street, the city's main shopping district. Merchants offered special sales, such as the "Back to Prosperity Dollar Sale," and free streetcar rides to lure customers into their stores.

The Depression also forced some large department stores to reconsider their longstanding attachment to grand stores in central business districts. Strawbridge and Clothier, Philadelphia's second largest department store, faced heavy losses at its enormous flagship store on Market Street, both because of poor sales and the declining real estate value of its once lucrative location.
Image of the circular board with accessories.
Charles Darrow's handmade circular Monopoly® game-board, circa 1933.

By contrast, its two suburban locations in the still relatively prosperous Main Line showed healthy profits throughout the decade. More affordable to own and operate, suburban stores were also closer to the healthier suburban middle-class consumer base. Their relative success during this period inspired Philadelphia's large retailers to begin planning for massive suburban expansion after World War II.

In 1934, Wanamaker's store buyers also took a chance on a board game that unemployed salesman Charles Darrow had conceived on the kitchen table of his Germanton home. Darrow based the design of his game on the familiar landmarks of Atlantic City, a popular seaside resort within easy reach of Philadelphia, and called it "Monopoly." Within a few weeks, the store sold close to 3,000 sets. (Darrow would later make a deal with Parker Brothers to market what would become the best selling American board game of all time.)

The financial hardships of the Great Depression also compelled department stores to lobby for help from the federal government. In 1938, a group of department store magnates headed by Fred Lazarus, of the F and R Lazarus and Company of Columbus, Ohio, lobbied the Roosevelt administration to move the official observance of Thanksgiving from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday of the month. At first glance, this might seem to have little bearing on the fate of retailing. But department stores owners were by now acutely conscious of the fact that consumer spending followed predictable cycles. The Christmas shopping season, which unofficially began on the first full business day following Thanksgiving, was by far the most lucrative. Moving the holiday back effectively extended the Christmas shopping season an additional week.

In the end, Wanamaker's and other department stores managed to survive the Great Depression, on the whole, better than small retailers and specialty shops. Indeed, individual department store owners often prospered, including Pittsburgh's Edgar S. Kaufman, who in the midst of the Depression hired renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright to build marker Fallingwater, one of America's most famous private residences.
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