John Wanamaker: A
End of a
In 1861, a gangly 22-year-old
South Philadelphia man who was so feeble that he was rejected for military
service in the Civil War opened a men's clothing store at Sixth and Market
Streets. He called it Oak Hall.
It was John Wanamaker's first store, and it experimented with a new
retail concept in those days of buyer-beware: It promised fixed prices,
and customer satisfaction guaranteed.
In his day, Wanamaker was always ahead of the competition. He developed
one of the first department stores in the country. He was credited with
creating the White Sale and the first in-store restaurant.
He created a dynasty as big and as grand as the six-story glass-domed
atrium in his flagship store at 13th and Market Streets.
But in the end, Wanamaker's legacy was overcome by the competition.
Sold and resold by a succession of owners, it declined and finally
succumbed to modern pressures of merchandizing.
Now, even John Wanamaker's name will disappear from the stores that
were sold off yesterday to a new generation of owners.
Wanamakers was a Philadelphia institution. John Wanamaker bought big
advertisements that featured his maxims. "You mend your automobile on
the spot when something breaks," he once wrote. "Don't let your
life be going on with something crippled in it."
It was advice that the successive owners of Wanamakers would have been
wise to heed. In the end, the broken-down, crippled dowager of granite and
bronze turned out to be no match for discount outlets built of concrete
Modest, pious and creative, Wanamaker lived to age 84 despite the
persistent cough that kept him out of the Union Army.
John Wanamaker was perhaps best known for his merchandising genius and
his honesty. He gave his employees free medical care, education,
recreational facilities, pensions and profit-sharing plans before such
benefits were considered standard.
He opened his first store at Sixth and Market Streets with his
brother-in-law, Nathan Brown. They called their company Wanamaker &
Brown. Wanamaker said he was inspired by an incident that occurred when he
was a lad: A merchant refused to let him exchange a purchase. Wanamaker
promised that his customers could readily return goods.
In its first year, Wanamaker & Brown's Oak Hall recorded $24,125.62
in sales. By the end of the decade, annual sales had increased to more
than $2 million, and Wanamaker & Brown had 133 employees, half of whom
After Nathan Brown died in 1868, Wanamaker opened a second store, at
818 Chestnut St.
In 1875, Wanamaker paid $505,000 for the cavernous Pennsylvania
Railroad freight sheds at Thirteenth and Market Streets, which had been
vacated in anticipation of the construction of City Hall across the
The next year, Wanamaker opened "The Grand Depot" to take
advantage of the crowds of visitors to Philadelphia for the Centennial
Exposition of 1876.
According to a company history, Wanamaker realized he needed something
new to attract shoppers when the exposition closed, so he came up with the
idea of changing The Grand Depot into "The New Kind of Store" -
a department store that sold men's clothes, women's clothes and dry goods.
The store, which opened in 1877, was designed in the shape of a wheel,
with a 90-foot circular counter in the center. The aisles radiated out 196
feet to all four corners of the store, marking off 129 sales counters
arranged in concentric circles.
In 1911, Wanamaker expanded the store into the building that now stands
across from City Hall, a veritable cathedral of merchandising, containing
a vast court and the huge pipe organ that took 13 railroad cars to
transport to Philadelphia.
Wanamaker never claimed to have invented the department store, but he
was on the cutting edge of a trend. The retail giants of the day, Marshall
Field in Chicago, Alexander T. Steward in New York, were discovering that
the vast power of buying wholesale could cut costs to reduce retail
Department stores brought Wanamaker huge profits and power. In 1889, he
founded the First Penny Savings Bank to encourage thrift. The same year,
President Benjamin Harrison named him postmaster general, a position he
held for four years.
When he died in 1922, Wanamaker's estate was valued at $35 million. His
city dwelling, a townhouse at 2032 Walnut St., was modeled after an
English manor house. He owned a vast mansion called Lindenhurst in
Cheltenham on York Road, below Washington Lane. He even had his own
station built, Chelten Hills, below Jenkintown.
After the founder's death, Wanamakers continued to thrive. Its men's
store grew to the extent that it expanded next door into the 27-story
Lincoln-Liberty building at Broad and Chestnut Streets that Wanamaker
opened in 1932. The building was sold to Philadelphia National Bank in
1952 and now carries the PNB initials on its crown.
At its peak, Wanamakers had 16 outlets, including one in Westchester
But the chain gradually lost its dominant place in the Philadelphia
retail market to upscale stores such as Bloomingdale's and Macy's. In
1978, a trust owned by the descendants of Wanamaker sold the stores, then
shabby and neglected, to a retail conglomerate, Carter Hawley Hale Stores,
of Los Angeles. Carter Hawley spent about $80 million refurbishing the
In 1986, Carter Hawley sold the 15 remaining Wanamakers stores to an
investment company headed by Detroit real estate magnate A. Alfred Taubman.
Taubman had purchased the Washington department-store chain Woodward &
Lothrop two years before.
Laden with debt and hampered by disappointing sales, Woodward &
Lothrop floundered and went into bankruptcy.
The spirit of John Wanamaker could no longer save the stores. Says one
of Wanamaker's maxims: "A little more effort on the part of everybody
to make the times better, and better times will surely come along."
Not this time.