Wanamaker's Department Store: Wanamaker's — Philadelphia's Largest Department Store
The Wanamaker department store opened its 13th and Market location in April, 1876. The store was designed with pneumatic tubes and ventilation. Wanamaker’s was also the first store to have electricity. Just three years after opening, the store had forty-nine departments. These included more women’s sections, furniture, pianos, bicycles, and books.
Despite Wanamaker’s reputation for treating customers well, he was not so friendly towards other merchants. The size of the department store ran smaller stores out of business. Wanamaker sold books without the publisher’s permission as a part of the subscription book business, which hurt book peddlers. This prompted Mark Twain to call him a “Sunday school slobbering sneak thief.” In his defense, Wanamaker claimed a moral argument saying that small stores often were dishonest and greedy. This is ironic considering his response to the protective tariff. To avoid the tariff, he had merchandise shipped in boxes labeled “sample; no commercial value,” but he still supported the tariff politically.
John Wanamaker’s relationship with women was also interesting. He built the store so that female shoppers would feel more comfortable. The salesmen did not harass them, there were seats, and there was the Crystal Tea Room Restaurant. He also built Hotel Rodman at Broad and Brown Streets to house female workers in response to complaints. There were no women in administrative positions, however, except for the advertising department. Women also earned less than their male counterparts. Once, though, he paid for a female buyer’s vacation because he thought she was doing better than other buyers.
In fact, Wanamaker had a complex relationship with all employees. On one hand, he had a very paternalistic relationship with employees, but on the other, he used that to pay them less. Workers received sickness and death benefits, but Wanamaker refused to let workers unionize. Workers never went on strike, however. He reduced work hours and made Saturdays half days. Yet, in 1897, when Pennsylvania restricted the workweek to 60 hours, Wanamaker employees still exceeded that limit during the holidays. He also mostly hired white, American born, Protestants due to prejudices.
Those who were hired were able to attend the Wanamaker Commercial Institute starting in 1891. When it opened, it was just for young boys and later expanded to include all workers. The school taught traditional classes like reading and grammar as well as hygiene, accounting, and upholstery. In addition, he ran a two-week long camp where boys swam and did military drills. When wages were not keeping up with inflation, many boys left to fight in World War I.
Wanamaker’s did so well that it decided to build a twelve-floor building on the same property. On November 14, 1910, Wanamaker finished the final section of his new department store. The construction had been done in three parts in order to keep the Grand Depot open. President Taft attended its dedication in 1911. It is the only department store where a president was at the opening.
This was not the only grand show that the Wanamaker store put on. Christmas was always a big deal at the stores. During the Christmas season, the store brought in up to 40% of its annual revenue. The store, therefore, would be completely covered for the holiday with ornate decorations and, later, lights. The store also had art and shows of Europe fashions in the Egyptian Hall.
In the Grand Court, there were musical performances on the largest organ in the world. The organ came here with a large bronze eagle from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The organ was shipped in thirteen rail cars. When it arrived, the store opened a factory with forty employees to expand the organ. The organ now has over a 25 thousand pipes. The eagle was also very important since many people would agree to “meet up at the eagle.”
Today the store is a Macy’s department store. Before Macy’s, Wanamaker’s went through the hands of Strawbridge & Co. In the store’s early days, Strawbridge’s had been its biggest competitor. Macy’s continues to put on shows, like the Christmas show, where they decorate the Grand Hall with lights. It is also still possible to meet at the eagle!
- 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.
13th and Market