by jan whitaker | December 1, 2011 | Lifestyle
LEFT: Christmas at Wanamaker’s in 1927... RIGHT: ... and in the present day
For generations of Philadelphians, the holiday season is not complete without a visit to Macy’s Christmas Light Show. Held in the Grand Court since 1955, it attracts kids of all ages, who sit patiently still, necks craned, to watch the illuminated characters dance above the giant tree.
|President Taft greets crowds at the dedication of the new Wanamaker’s building on Wanamaker’s in 1910 December 30, 1911.|
The store’s singular brand of spirited holiday revelry has been a tradition here since 1877, the year that Wanamaker’s, Philadelphia’s first department store, opened. Much has changed over the years (most notably, the store name), but music aficionado and retail showman John Wanamaker would be pleased that the original pipe organ is still being played a century after he installed it in his Market Street department store. No doubt he would approve of Macy’s continuation of the Christmas Light Show, too: He was, after all, “one of the inventors of Christmas as we know it,” according to Thomas Hine, author of books on shopping and popular culture such as Populuxe and I Want That! How We All Became Shoppers. “He was among those who made the holiday far more important to Americans than it had been before,” he says, by making his store “a center of the celebration” and publishing pamphlets of Christmas carols that are still sung today.
Macy’s spokesperson Deanna Williams, a Mount Airy native, remembers childhood bus trips to Wanamaker’s every Christmas, which included the light show, a visit with Santa, lunch, and shopping. Although she now lives in New York City, she still launches her holiday festivities at the store. Macy’s continuation of Wanamaker’s holiday traditions makes perfect sense to her. “They resonate so deeply with the people of Philadelphia, whatever the expense, it is worth it,” she says.
It is likely that Wanamaker would have shared that sentiment, despite his humble beginnings. The son of a brickmaker, Wanamaker had a cherubically round, boyish face. Wearing a hat and dressing habitually in a black suit with a black bow tie, he could easily have been taken for a Protestant minister. One might wonder why, in fact, such an actively religious man, one who founded a Presbyterian Sunday school, did not pursue an ecclesiastical calling. Was it a fierce ambition to make money, or was it, as he often argued, his conviction that storekeeping was also a way of serving humanity?
Regardless, this iconic Philadelphia businessman successfully accomplished both and, in the process, established Wanamaker’s as one of the world’s greatest department stores, in the same league as Chicago’s Marshall Field’s, London’s Harrods, and Paris’s Printemps.
In many ways, it was Wanamaker’s spiritual fervor that paved the way for his innovative retail theatrics. Wanamaker’s shops were filled with semi-sacred symbolism; it didn’t take much to mentally transform his Market Street department store into a cathedral. In the 150-foot-high Grand Court, the world’s largest playable pipe organ performed a leading role in blending the Wanamaker brand of religion and commerce. In the early and mid-20th century, the ambience was often enhanced by Gothic-style Christmas decorations.
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.
|A man with a dream: John Wanamaker|
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.
For holidays the store pulled out all the stops, presenting special events, elaborate decorations, and music. Wanamaker’s brought patriotic holidays such as Lincoln’s birthday into the spotlight and supported the creation of new holidays such as Mothers’ Day: To assist Anna Jarvis in promoting the national holiday, he sponsored a Mothers’ Day service in the store in May 1908. More than 15,000 people showed up.
|A little 1970s holiday décor flair...|
The store was known especially for its musical performances, including a famous concert in 1919 at which another enormous crowd packed into the Grand Court to hear Charles M. Courboin play the organ with Leopold Stokowski conducting The Philadelphia Orchestra. Composers often performed original works in the store, but most musical events in the early days involved employees, particularly teenage boys who attended the John Wanamaker Commercial Institute, where they studied the three Rs and music. An anniversary celebration in 1907 was filled with fanfares by the store’s drum and bugle corps, anthems by the Institute’s uniformed military band, and songs by the store’s choral society.
Christmas, however, was Wanamaker’s ultimate occasion for pageantry. In 1912 daily parades took place inside the new store, where, with the lights turned off, an employee band accompanied by storybook characters marched to Santa Town. Throughout the 20th century, all kinds of holiday attractions were introduced: animated circuses, walk-through villages such as Candy Stick Land in the Land of Make Believe and the Enchanted Forest, a much-used monorail mounted on the toy department’s ceiling, and the light show’s animated figures, tree, and colorful “dancing waters.” Michael Lisicky, author of Wanamaker’s: Meet Me at the Eagle, says he has never skipped a holiday celebration and still feels that announcer John Facenda was “the voice of the light show.”
Above all else, you could trust John Wanamaker to be out in front on innovation. The dancing water fountains, it turns out, did not begin in the 1950s: What was most likely the store’s first light show actually took place at a Winter Festival in 1894. A fountain with 242 jets shot plumes of water 20 feet into the air and was illuminated by red, green, blue, and yellow electric lights. Although it is hard to beat John Wanamaker’s holiday spirit, it is the very least we can do to carry on his trailblazing traditions.
photography by wanamakerorgan.com