13 Things You Might Not Know About John Wanamaker

Meet the Philadelphian who, for better or worse, ushered America into the consumer age.

Left: John Wanamaker in July 1915. Right: City Hall and John Wanamaker's "Grand Depot" at 13th & Market

Left: John Wanamaker in July 1915. Right: City Hall and John Wanamaker’s “Grand Depot” at 13th & Market. Both public domain.

Today marks the 178th anniversary of the birth of John Wanamaker, inventor of the department store, holy roller, U.S. Postal Service innovator and so much more. Here, a recap of the unlikely rags-to-riches story of an American hero, if you like to shop.

  1. John Wanamaker was born in what is now known as Grays Ferry in Philadelphia on July 11, 1838, son of Nelson and Elizabeth Wanamaker. Nelson, who worked with his own father as a brick maker, followed his dad to Indiana in 1850 after Philly’s larger brick makers undercut their business. The move ended John’s formal education in the city’s schools after three years.
  2. Business wasn’t any better out west, so Nelson and the family moved back to Philly in 1851. John, then 14, took a job at the Troutman and Hayes bookstore for $1.25 a week, then moved after a year to work at Barclay Lippincott clothing store for double the pay. He then took a job polishing the brass doorknobs at Tower Hall, the city’s most prominent men’s haberdashery. He moved up through the ranks to salesman with great speed, but in 1857 became seriously ill and went west to Minnesota to recover.
  3. When Wanamaker returned to Philly in 1858, at age 20, he took a job as the first full-time paid secretary of the local Young Men’s Christian Association, for the hefty salary of $1,000 a year. He proved worth the investment; in one year, he grew the membership from 57 to more than 2,000, distributed hundreds of copies of the New Testament, and trained dozens of new Sunday school teachers. Wanamaker, who supported the temperance movement, also elicited pledges of abstinence from many of these new members.
  4. In 1859, the devoutly religious Wanamaker founded Bethany Sunday School in a rented room at 2135 South Street. Neighbors objected to the mission, and on the first day of school, Wanamaker, two teachers and all 27 students were driven from the building by their unruly rioting. Undaunted, he reopened the school in a building at the end of South Street, past 23rd Street. Again, the building was attacked by neighbors. Volunteer firemen came to the school’s aid and stood guard the following Sunday to deter rioters. Bethany went on to become the largest Sunday school in the country. It moved to a tent later in its first year, and on October 18th, the cornerstone for the permanent Bethany Church was laid on South Street west of 21st. The building contained a bell tower, a lecture hall and classrooms; activities included a rescue mission, athletic teams, evening classes, organized visits to hospitals and prisons and a men’s organization, the Bethany Brotherhood.
  5. In 1860, Wanamaker married Mary Erringer Brown; the couple went on to have six children. In 1861, he resigned from the YMCA and, at age 22, opened his first store, with his brother-in-law, Nathan Brown, as his partner. Oak Hall, as it was known, opened for business just days before the outbreak of the Civil War. On its first day, it sold $24.67 in men’s and boys’ clothing. By the end of its first decade, it was earning $2,085,528 annually. The store was at High (now Market) and 6th streets, the original site of the home of financier Robert Morris and next door to a home in which George Washington had lived.
  6. At Oak Hall and his subsequent stores, Wanamaker pioneered a number of retail innovations. He focused on four core principles: a single price for all customers, a full guarantee on every item purchased, cash payment, and cash returned. He originated the price tag — until then, prices were settled by haggling — informally polled his customers at the doors as they left to ascertain their satisfaction; took out the first half- and full-page newspaper advertisements; employed the world’s first full-time ad copywriter; opened the first restaurant inside a general store; installed the first electrical lighting in a store; regularly sent buyers overseas to study foreign markets; and invented the “white sale.”
  7. After Nathan Brown died, Wanamaker opened a second store, called “John Wanamaker & Co.,” at 818 Market. Then, on the eve of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, he opened the “Grand Depot” at 13th and Market, in a former railroad station. He added women’s clothing as well as housewares and dry goods, filling a demand for “one-stop shopping” with the first-ever “department store.” An estimated 71,000 customers visited the store on its first day.
  8. As his business prospered, Wanamaker founded the John Wanamaker Commercial Institute to instruct his workers in bookkeeping, finance, English and math, plus Camp Wanamaker in Island Heights, New Jersey, which offered two weeks of summer camp for his stores’ “cash boys” and “cash girls.” He also began an in-house Insurance Associate, built housing for female employees, and opened a library. His efforts weren’t solely philanthropic; he was strongly opposed to trade unions (he once fired numerous employees who joined one) and wanted to keep his workers happy but unorganized.
  9. In 1878, with fellow local businessmen John B. Stetson (hats) and W. Atlee Burpee (seeds), Wanamaker founded the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, which is still providing services to the homeless today.
  10. In 1889, Wanamaker, who’d contributed $10,000 to the successful presidential campaign of Benjamin Harrison, was named U.S. Postmaster General. In an inauspicious beginning, he fired thousands of Democratic employees and replaced them with Republicans, causing general chaos and complaints that he had bought his post. He soon hit his stride, though, instituting technological advances like pneumatic tubes to the main post office; debuting the commemorative stamp; establishing 5,000 new rural mail routes; greatly expanding the parcel-post delivery system, enabling the growth of mail orders; and banning the sale of state lottery tickets through the mail, effectively ending state lotteries in the U.S. until 1964. He also banned Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata  from the U.S. mail, claiming it was obscene. He later waged unsuccessful campaigns for U.S. senator and Pennsylvania governor.
  11. Wanamaker was a brilliant businessman, but hey, even Homer nods. In 1893, at the Chicago World’s Fair, he predicted that the U.S. mail would still be traveling via stagecoach and horseback for another century. (The USPS was using motorized trucks by 1906.) And during World War I, he let float a proposal that the U.S. buy Belgium from Germany for a hundred billion dollars in order to end the war.
  12. After opening a store in New York City in 1896 and European Houses of Wanamaker in London and Paris, Wanamaker built a 12-story granite palace in 1910 on the site of the Grand Depot. It took up an entire block at 13th and Market, where it still stands, and was the largest retail store in the world. The new building, dedicated by president William Howard Taft, housed the Wanamaker Grand Court Pipe Organ (played daily since June 22, 1911) and the 2,500-pound bronze “Wanamaker Eagle” (from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair), where generations of Philadelphians have rendezvoused. In 1978, the Wanamaker chain was sold to Carter Hawley Hale, Inc., which in turn sold it to Woodward & Lothrop in 1986. When W&L went bankrupt in the early 1990s, the stores were sold to May Department Stores Company. In August 2006, the Philadelphia store, then a Lord & Taylor, became a Macy’s.
  13. Wanamaker died on December 12, 1922, at his home at 2032 Walnut Street (he also had a country manor, Lindenhurst, on York Road in Cheltenham, as well as homes in Cape May Point, New York, Florida, London, Paris, Biarritz and Bay Head, New Jersey), at the age of 84, leaving a fortune estimated at $100 million to his surviving children and grandchildren. Four hundred thousand Philadelphians contributed $35,000 to a fund to raise the statue of him — eight and a half feet tall, weighing 13 tons — that stands on the east side of City Hall.

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