1926 Lombard Street: John Wanamaker — Merchant and Community Member
John Wanamaker is best known for the Wanamaker store in Philadelphia, next to City Hall. However, Wanamaker contributed to the city in many more ways. He was born on July 11, 1838 to Elizabeth Kochersperger and Nelson Wanamaker. The family moved to 1926 Lombard Street to be closer to job opportunities.
His paternal grandfather was most influential in Johns’ life by sparking his lifelong involvement in churches and, through it, his career. Because Wanamaker grew up on a small farm just south of Philadelphia, he did not attend church weekly until his family moved to Lombard Street in Philadelphia.
He became a student of the Sunday school associated with the Trinity Lutheran Church starting in 1848. He attended even after he left public school at age 14. The founder of this Sunday school got him his first job as an errand boy for the Troutman and Hayes publishing company. Eventually, Wanamaker became a Sunday school teacher and the first salaried secretary of the Young Men’s Christian Association. In February 1858, he opened his own Sunday school. By 1865, it had 900 students so he expanded it into Bethany Presbyterian Church located at 22nd and Brainbridge.
John Wanamaker’s second job was the beginning of his impactful career as a merchant. After being an errand boy, Wanamaker went to work for Joseph M. Bennett, who owned Tower Hall Clothing Store. Bennett introduced him to the business and gave him responsibility for buying for the men’s furnishing department. In April 1861, Wanamaker opened his own clothing store, named Oak Hall, with Nathan Brown. Brown had also been a Sunday school teacher.
Three days after opening the Civil War started. Wanamaker received a medical exemption for a respiratory problem, so the store was able to remain open during the war, adding to his profit. This store would later expand into The Grand Depot and Wanamaker’s. The business was known for innovations like one set price for everyone.
Wanamaker’s sons with his wife, Mary Brown, played a large role in the company. Rodman, his second oldest son, wanted to leave the business, but instead went to Paris to be manager. Thomas, his eldest, ran the Philadelphia store for a while. On March 2, 1908, Thomas passed away. The timing was poor since Wanamaker had just opened a New York store, and there was a severe financial panic. Business was tough and Wanamaker was on his own. The store, however, survived for many more years and the Philadelphia building is still in use today.
John Wanamaker devoted more of his time to politics when his sons were in charge of the stores. President Harrison nominated him for the position of Postmaster General. As postmaster, he ended Sunday deliveries and created the first commemorative stamp. He even outlawed lotteries by mail. In 1896, Wanamaker hoped to become a PA senator. However, the political boss Mathew Quay chose to support someone else so Wanamaker was not nominated. He was so furious that he spoke out against Quay many times. In February 1898, Wanamaker was nominated for governor but lost again to the candidate Quay supported. Wanamaker never campaigned again because he disliked Quay so much.
At the start of World War I, John Wanamaker was neutral, but he became very anti-German when three employees died aboard the Lusitania. As a member of the Board of Education, he supported the elimination of German from the curriculum. Ironically, he had been president of the Pennsylvania German Society. Wanamaker also helped raise $25 million for the war in the form of Liberty Loans.
Six years after World War I started, Mary Wanamaker died. She had never fully recovered from a train accident the previous year. John Wanamaker was heartbroken. Even though he was chairman of the board, he did not go to the Pennsylvania Sunday School Convention as a result of her death. Then on December 12, 1922 Wanamaker died at the age of 84. The funeral was held at Bethany Church and 15,000 people attended. City Council suspended operations for the day, public schools had a half day, and department stores in the area closed. John Wanamaker had made a big impact on the community.
- Ershkowitz, Herbert. John Wanamaker : Philadelphia merchant. Conshohocren, PA : Combined Pub., 1999.
- John Wanamaker Firm. The Golden Book Of The Wanamaker Stores. Philadelphia, PA. c1911-1913.
- Lisicky, Michael J. Wanamaker's : Meet Me At The Eagle. Charleston, SC : History Press, 2010.