Oak Hall — The Start of the Wanamaker Department Store
The Wanamaker name is most closely associated with the store near City Hall, but it first was located on 6th and Market Street. The site previously served as the place of George Washington’s presidential residence in the 1790s and the location of the first Philadelphia High School in 1838. On April 8, 1861, John Wanamaker and Nathan Brown added to the site’s history. They opened Oak Hall, a men’s and boy’s clothing store. After Brown’s death in 1868, Wanamaker was exclusively in charge of the operations.
The store was known for the Golden Rules. Although there are some variations in the rules, depending on how extensive they are, they always guarantee that the prices are the same for everyone. Wanamaker claimed that these rules were inspired by William Penn’s standard of no misrepresentation. Traditionally, in most stores, the price on labels was the starting price for haggling. Different customers paid different prices depending on their bargaining skills. Wanamaker thought it was better to be honest about the price from the start. This is ironic because Wanamaker still offered discounts to a select few, such as ministers, newspaper editors, and local distributers. The reduced prices were for those who could help further his business as well as those he respected.
Another rule was that customers could return their unsatisfactory goods for a full refund within ten days of purchase. As a young boy, John Wanamaker had gone two a store to buy his mother a gift and had picked out a piece of jewelry. He gave it to the salesman, but, before paying, he had spotted a different ring he wished to purchase instead. Supposedly, the salesman told him that it was too late and the store did not offer refunds or exchanges. This is what allegedly inspired Wanamaker to start the refund policy. However, Stewart’s, a store in New York, had already established this practice. This made it possible for customers to return goods that were not the quality they claimed to be, and the store had to be truthful about how well the merchandise was made.
The third rule was honesty about the goods sold at the store. This meant that the labels told the customers exactly what they were purchasing. It also meant that the advertisements were truthful. People already trusted Wanamaker because of his involvement in the religious community so he was not seen as capitalistic and greedy. He started taking out space on the top of every page in the annual city directory for ads, which had never been done before. He is also credited with the first full page advertisement.
Wanamaker owed the store’s success to more than just his reputation. The prices were cheaper and the experience was better. He went directly to importers for cloth so he could cut out the middlemen. This meant he could offer lower prices than his competitors. John Wanamaker also personally answered customer’s letters and corrected the aspects of the store about which they complained. They also made money on clothing soldiers in World War I, which started just four days after Oak Hall opened.
With these rules and practices in place, the store continued to expand until it outgrew the current location. In April 1869, Wanamaker opened a second small store in Philadelphia. His brother Sam was a partner for this new location. However, this was not enough. On November 11, 1875, John Wanamaker bought the huge freight depot at 13th and Market and built a new large building that still stands there. He would continue the same practices there that he had started at Oak Hall.
- 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.
6th and Market