February 12, 2007


And the man behind the brand is...
John Wanamaker

John Wanamaker had sacrificed his job in a Philadelphia clothing store to weakening health and began a supposedly more benign employment as permanent secretary for the Y.M.C.A., the first such paid position in the country. But he soon found himself amid the toughs of south Philadelphia trying to establish a new Sunday School. Wanamaker’s untiring efforts would eventually make Bethany Mission, which he opened in 1858, the largest Sunday School in the world.

His work in the religious movement also yield two unexpected bonuses:
a wife and his first business partner. In 1860 the 22-year old Wanamaker took Mary Brown as his wife and teamed with her brother Nathan to start a clothing store. Wanamaker had learned the retailing business thoroughly at Tower Hall, the most prominent clothing establishment in Philadelphia.

Oak Hall, as the partners named their new store, floundered in the beginning but a rush of orders for military uniforms at the outbreak of the Civil War started the store on the road to success. The influx of cash enabled Wanamaker to test his flamboyant advertising methods. He distributed handbills and calendars at county fairs, launched huge balloons from the roof with prize offers of a free suit inside, and plastered the Oak Hall name around town wherever he could.

But where Wanamaker truly made his mark was in newspaper advertising. Hardly a paper hit the Philadelphia streets without a Wanamaker ad in it;
he eventually pioneered half-page and full-page mercantile advertisements.
He wrote most of the copy himself, especially favoring rhyming couplets.
Even though this rendered many of the ads nonsensical it made Oak Hall
one of Philadelphia’s most popular stores by the end of the war.

Nathan Brown died in 1868 and Wanamaker was sufficiently well off to buy his partner’s interest. Wanamaker immediately set out to build a second store,
a “New Kind of Store,” as he envisioned it. At a time when retailing was confined to specialty shops Wanamaker wanted to put the widest possible variety of goods under one roof, with each department more richly stocked than the leading specialty store with which it competed.

When a huge abandoned Pennsylvania Railroad shed became available Wanamaker bought it and converted it into the most varied retail store in the world. Counters of goods radiated from the center of his Grand Depot in concentric circles with items Wanamaker had stocked from trips across Europe. His “New Kind of Store” opened in 1877 with 650 employees. By 1882 the store was such as success that the payroll swelled to 3,000.

With his two stores booming Wanamaker had become one of Philadelphia’s leading citizens. He left everyday affairs to his younger brothers and sons and entered politics. He served as chairman of the Republican national finance committee in 1888, raising the largest campaign war chest ever seen.
As a reward he was named to President Benjamin Harrison’s cabinet at
Postmaster General.

After his stint in Washington Wanamaker made unsuccessful runs for the Senate and governorship of Pennsylvania. All the while Wanamaker never slackened in his work for Bethany Mission. While in Washington He returned to Philadelphia every Sunday to teach his class. But as rewarding as the spiritual side of his life was it couldn’t fill a man as inexhaustible as Wanamaker.

In 1896 he acquired the lease on the world-famous A. T. Stewart emporium in New York City, when the store of his idol slipped into bankruptcy after the founder’s death. To meet increasing competition in New York Wanamaker built the largest department store in the city in 1907. The store was an immediate success and Wanamaker returned to Philadelphia in 1910.

Now 72, the “father of the modern department store” was not quite finished. Across the street from Philadelphia’s City Hall Wanamaker built the largest building ever devoted to selling goods. It covered an entire city block, reached 12 stories into the sky and contained 45 acres of floor space. It was as ornate as it was grand. The organ in the gallery was so large it required 13 freight cars to transport it from the St. Louis Exposition. And it was only one of three organs in the store.

Profits in the Wanamaker stores skyrocketed during World War I,
in part due to a sharply inflated prices. After the war Wanamaker gambled that prices had reached their zenith and, seeing a chance to perform a public service as well, he reduced all merchandise in both his New York and Philadelphia stores by 20%. The sale lasted two months. Extra help was hired to handle the volume. His timing was prescient; prices indeed had peaked and began dropping rapidly.

The great sale of 1920 was Wanamaker’s farewell gesture. He turned over both stores to his son and focused on his religious work. In 1922 heart failure caught up with him and John Wanamaker died at age 84. His list of innovations from 60 years of retailing stretched beyond any other.


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