Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
June 22, 1995
John Wanamaker: A retailing innovator
End of a retailing era

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 and sheet-metal.

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 manufactured clothes.

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 street.

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 prices.

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 County, N.Y.

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 stores.

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."

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