Historical Markers
John Wanamaker [Industries] Historical Marker
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John Wanamaker [Industries]

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


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

Dedication Date:
July 11, 1998

Behind the Marker

The intersection; horse-drawn carts and wagons, streetcars and tracks, and people in the street. Stores line the street, decorated with advertising, including: <i>Tower Hall</i>; <i>Garitee and Son</i>; <i>American Clothing Co.</i>; <i>Williamson and Cassedy</i>; <i>Oakhall</i>; <i>Wanamakerand Brown.</i>
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John Wanamaker's first store, corner of Market and 6th Streets, Philadelphia,...
When going downtown was synonymous with shopping, the highlight of any trip was to experience a "palace of consumption," the famed department store. Selling a wide variety of goods, by the mid-nineteenth century department stores began to compete with small specialty shops. The new stores attracted a large clientele with lower prices, but also with quality goods and considerate service.

Widely acclaimed as a pioneer of the department store, Philadelphia merchant John Wanamaker was responsible for two innovations that rapidly drew customers to his establishments. The first was fixed pricing: all goods in his stores had price tags at a time when many merchants still engaged in bartering with customers. Second, Wanamaker initiated and popularized the money-back guarantee. Using these innovations, he created the first department store empire with stores in Philadelphia and New York.

Oil on canvas portrait of John Wanamaker
John Wanamaker, by C. Haeseler
Born in 1838, as a young man Wanamaker became an errand boy for a publishing company. He soon began publishing a small newspaper, but he dropped the endeavor after moving into selling men's clothing. In 1857 he became the first paid secretary of the Y.M.C.A in the United States, an experience which would influence his later philanthropy. He knew, however, that a career as a charity bureaucrat would not give him the life he desired. Shortly after marrying Mary B. Brown, Wanamaker engaged in business with her brother, Nathan. In 1861, Wanamaker and Brown opened Oak Hall in Philadelphia, which became the largest men's clothing retailer in the country. At Oak Hall Wanamaker introduced his famous slogan: "one price and goods returnable."

Correctly assuming that the Civil War would go on for years, Wanamaker and Brown bought up huge stocks of wool and resold them at high prices for uniform production. After Brown died in 1868, Wanamaker established a larger, more upscale store, John Wanamaker and Company, on Chestnut Street. In 1876, he opened the "Grand Depot," a dry goods emporium and men's clothier under the massive roof of a former freight depot for the Pennsylvania Railroad at Thirteenth and Chestnut. He originally envisioned a European-style enclosed market, featuring dozens of small shops, but failed to get other merchants to sign on. Instead, he turned the operation into a true department store, combining his many specialty stores under one roof.
Advertisement depicts a well dressed lady sitting at a typewriter and copy explains the qualities of the product.
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Everybody's Advertisements of Certain Wanamaker Specialties, The Wanamaker-Wellington...

Wanamaker held ultimate power in all of his endeavors, but skillfully appointed strong managers. He first enlisted the aid of Robert C. Ogden in managing Oak Hall in 1879. He introduced his sons Thomas and Lewis into the business after they graduated from college. In 1885, he gave control of the Grand Depot to Ogden and son Thomas. This freed Wanamaker to take his next gamble, expansion into New York City. In 1896, he bought the A.T. Stewart Cast Iron Palace and rechristened it as a department store with Ogden as manager. Wanamaker's operations prospered, and he expanded the Philadelphia and New York stores.

Wanamaker's mastery of publicity and advertising drew customers to his stores. In 1874, Wanamaker became the first retailer to use copyrighted store advertisements. He wrote advice columns on what to wear and the proper way to present one's home. He used display windows to show seasonal changes in dress and home. In addition, Wanamaker introduced the latest technology to his stores, such as electric lighting (1878) and elevators (1889). His innovations also targeted labor relations; Wanamaker provided health care, pensions, money for education, recreational facilities, and even profit-sharing plans for his employees. Like most of his contemporaries, he was completely intolerant of labor organization, firing known organizers and union members.

Throughout his life, Wanamaker was committed to religious causes. From 1870 to 1883 he served as President of the Y.M.C.A., returning to run an organization he had strengthened earlier. He also established city missions and set up churches, some of which continue today. Later in life, Wanamaker entered politics. In the election of 1888, Wanamaker raised funds to put Benjamin Harrison in the White House for the Republicans. Harrison rewarded him with the position of Postmaster General in 1889.
Inerior photograph of frenzied sale at Wannamakers.
Bargain basement sale at Wanamaker's Department Store, Philadelphia, PA, circa...

Although Wanamaker introduced several innovations into the postal service, including marker rural free delivery [Link to the Rural Free Delivery Marker essay in the Environment story] and commemorative stamps, Wanamaker sometimes used his position to favor his own enterprises. For example, in 1891 contracts for new postal carrier uniforms went to a Wanamaker associate in Baltimore. Wanamaker's political activity and business career continued till his death. He pursued the Republican nominations for the Senate in 1896-1897 and the Pennsylvania governorship in 1898, never winning them.

He continued expansion of the Philadelphia and New York stores in the new century. His 1911 additions to the former Grand Depot included a court featuring the world's second-largest organ and a huge eagle from the 1903 St. Louis World's Fair. The eagle became a landmark and meeting place as Philadelphians routinely asked each other to "meet me at the Eagle." Wanamaker died in 1922 having built a department store empire that would thrive for the rest of century.

To learn more about Wanamaker's political aspirations, markerclick here.
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