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Wanamaker's department store was the first department store in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and one of the first, if not the first department store in the United States. It was renowned for its honest reputation and for innovating many retailing firsts in America. At its zenith in the early 20th Century, there were 16 Wanamaker's stores, including one in Westchester County, New York.



John Wanamaker, the founder of the store that bears his name, was not able to join the Union army during the US Civil War due to a persistent cough. Instead of being involved in war duty, he and his brother in law, Nathan Brown, began in 1861 a men's clothing store in Philadelphia called Oak Hall. Desiring to find more space for his very successful business, Wanamaker (who carried on with the business after Brown's death in 1868) obtained the abandoned Pennsylvania Railroad terminal in the City of Brotherly Love for use as a retail location. The thought was to renovate the terminal into a "Grand Depot" similar to London's Royal Exchange or Paris' Les Halles - two central markets well known in Europe at that time.

The Grand Depot opened in time to service the public visiting Philly for the American Centennial Exposition of 1876. In 1877 Wanamaker's was revamped and expanded to include not only men's clothing, but women's clothing and dry goods as well, in an effort to attract customers. This was Philadelphia's - and perhaps America's - first modern day department store. A circular counter was placed at the center of the building, and concentric circles radiated around it with 129 counters of goods.

Enlightened retailing

Wanamaker first thought of how he would run a store differently as a youth when a merchant refused his request to exchange a purchase. A practicing Christian, he chose not to advertise on Sundays. His faith also informed other business decisions, many of which were innovative and before their time. Before he opened his Grand Depot for retail business, he let evangelist Dwight L. Moody use its facilities as a meeting place, while Wanamaker provided for 300 ushers among his store personnel. His retail advertisements - the first to be copyrighted beginning in 1874 - were factual, and promises made in them were kept. Word of this increased Wanamaker's business, and John Wanamaker never lost the public's trust while he pioneered truth in American advertising.

His customers were allowed to return purchases for a cash refund, guaranteed the quality of the store's merchandise in print, and enjoyed the first restaurant located inside a department store. Wanamaker's also innovated the price tag because John Wanamaker believed if everyone was equal before God, then everyone should be equal before price. Other American stores of the time did not do these things until Wanamaker's did them.

His employees were respected (including not being scolded in public), and a Commercial Institute, free medical care, recreational facilities, profit sharing plans and pensions were offered to them - long before these type of benefits were considered standard in employment.

Innovation and "firsts" marked Wanamaker's. The store was the first department store where electricity provided illumination (1878), first store with a telephone (1879), first store to install pneumatic tubes in carrying cash (1880),and was also the first store with an elevator (1880s). Wanamaker's also obtained the St. Louis World's Fair's music pipe organ (one of the world's largest at that time) and installed it in the Grand Court with a dedication attended by President William Howard Taft on December 30, 1911. This organ still stands in place in the store today and is registered as the first organ designated a National Historic Landmark (1980). The "Grand Court Organ" as it is known, through numerous additions over the years, is today the largest playable pipe organ in the world. News of the Titanic's sinking was transmitted to Wanamaker's wireless station in New York City, and given to anxious crowds waiting outside - yet another first for an American retail store. Public Christmas Caroling in the store's Grand Court began in 1918.

Other innovations included employing buyers to go overseas to Europe each year for customer's quality and style demands, the White Sale (1878) and other themed sales such as the February "Opportunity Sales" to keep prices as low as possible while keeping volume high. The store also broadcast its organ concerts on the Wanamaker owned radio station WOO beginning in 1922.

The slow decline

After John Wanamaker's death in 1922 the business carried on and continued to thrive for a time. The Philadelphia men's store was expanded next door in 1932 to the Lincoln-Liberty building. This building was sold to Philadelphia National Bank in 1952 and the initials on the building's crown now read "PNB." Over time, Wanamaker's lost business to other retail chains, including Bloomingdale's and Macy's in the Philadelphia market. The Wanamaker family trust finally sold the bedraggled and shabby stores to Los Angeles, California-based Carter Hawley Hale Stores in 1978. Carter Hawley Hale poured $80 million (USD) into renovating the stores, but to no avail — customers had gone elsewhere in the intervening decades, and did not come back.

Finally in 1986 the now 15-store chain was sold to Detroit real estate businessman A. Alfred Taubman. He had purchased the Woodward & Lothrop chain two years earlier. This too was no help, as Taubman's retail interests were heavily in debt and the stores' combined sales were a disappointment. The Wanamaker stores were then acquired by the May Department Stores company on June 21, 1995. The Wanamaker's name was removed from the stores by May and replaced with Hecht's. The following year May acquired Wanamaker's historic rival Strawbridge's and renamed all of its Philadelphia locations with name. At that time Lord & Taylor, another divison of May Company moved into the former Wanamaker's flagship, across from Philadelphia City Hall.

In 1987, the Philadelphia Wanamaker's flagship store was featured - under the name Prince & Co. - in the film comedy Mannequin.

Christmas Light Show

In 1956, the Philadelphia Wanamaker's premiered a Christmas Light Show, a massive musical and blinking light display several stories high, viewable from several levels of the building, but with the best viewing on the central ground floor. Its popularity with Philadelphia parents and children, as well as tourists, has ensured its continuous run, even after the building was sold to different business interests. It is continued today by Lord & Taylor.

See also

External links and sources

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