Wondrous Wanamaker's: Magical Moments and Milestones
by jan whitaker
Wanamaker’s in 1910
Indeed, a blatant air of religion existed on the site from the start. Before turning the old Pennsylvania Railroad freight station at 13th and Market into his first department store, the Grand Depot, Wanamaker lent the space to evangelists Dwight L. Moody and Ira D. Sankey, a celebrity preacher-singer duo. Although presumed a poor retail location because it was beyond the shopping district, the 200-plus revival meetings held there, with more than one million attendees, put the site on the map and endowed it with positivity.
Despite these overtones, Hine believes that Wanamaker wanted his store to be more inclusive than a cathedral, more like “Philadelphia’s true public square and living room, a crossroads of culture and commerce, a place where citizen-shoppers come together at Christmas, and all the rest of the year.” Of course, Wanamaker also wanted to move merchandise, which he did with great success. His stores, the current one operated by Macy’s since 2006 as well as the pre-1911 Grand Depot, sold vast quantities of goods to Philadelphians. Wanamaker’s could boast the largest bookstore in the country, selling a million books in 1892; the city’s largest restaurant, the Grand Crystal Tea Room; and, covering six acres, the largest furniture store in the world. Between the Philadelphia and New York City locations (the latter opening in 1896), he sold vast numbers of bicycles during the craze of the 1890s. In 1899 he opened the first department store piano shop, rapidly becoming the world’s largest seller. He helped expand Henry Ford’s brand by operating the first Ford dealership on the East Coast. And in 1934, his store gave an enormous boost to a Philadelphia inventor by launching the game of Monopoly when established board-game producers rejected it.
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The list of Wanamaker “firsts” is lengthy, including massive advertising and progressive retailing practices dating back to 1861, when he founded the men’s store Oak Hall. Rather than have salesmen size up customers and try to get the highest price out of them, a common practice in the 19th century, Wanamaker promised one clearly marked price for all customers. He also adopted a money-back return policy, even extending it to fabrics when he broadened the Grand Depot to include goods for women in 1877.
The city’s Centennial Exposition of 1876 inspired Wanamaker. Serving as a fundraising member of its Board of Finance, he observed fairgoers’ fascination with the new technology on display. Wanamaker decided then to attract customers to his store by becoming an early adopter of inventions such as electricity, telephones, and air-cooling. He mounted art shows and educational exhibits worthy of a fair, starting by placing a copy of the painting The Landing of William Penn in a show window. The store’s famous bronze eagle, which Wanamaker acquired from the St. Louis World’s Fair and which still lords over the Grand Court, became the company’s trademark. Through the years, he exhibited many works from his own collection, including Titians, Constables, and Turners, and presented countless lectures and exhibits on topics such as American history and industry.
photography by wanamakerorgan.com