1838, Philadelphia, PA
1922, Philadelphia, PA
Before Wanamaker invented the price tag, most buying was done by haggling. A devout Christian, he believed that if everyone was equal before God, then everyone should be equal before price.
Wanamaker's legendary department stores were palaces of consumption that turned shopping into an event for ordinary people.
Truth in Advertising
Born in Philadelphia in 1838, John Wanamaker pioneered the concept of the department store. In 1861 Wanamaker and his brother-in-law, Nathan Brown, opened Oak Hall, a men's clothing store. In 1876, intending to open a central market like London's Royal Exchange or Paris' Les Halles, he converted an abandoned Pennsylvania Railroad depot into a multipurpose clothing and specialties store called Wanamaker's. Catering to an upscale market, he promised all-wool clothing and quality goods with a money-back-guarantee. In 1874, he printed the first-ever, copyrighted store advertisement. When people discovered that its promises were true, business boomed. The concept of truth in advertising earned him the public's trust, which he never lost.
The Experience of Shopping
Riding the tide of his store's success, Wanamaker expanded his inventory and manufactured his own house brands. He also made some less conventional improvements to his store that would change the American experience of shopping. He opened an in-store restaurant in 1876, installed electric lights in 1878, and added elevators in 1889. To keep turnover high and prices low, he created February "Opportunity Sales," July "Midsummer Sales" and in January 1878 the first "White Sale." While committed to keeping costs low, Wanamaker also sought out style and quality, sending ten buyers to Europe each year.
A Palace of Consumption
Wanamaker's department store was a palace of consumption that made shopping itself an event for ordinary people. Trumpeted as "the largest space in the world devoted to retail selling on a single floor," the store featured 129 circular counters that ringed a central gas-lit tent for the demonstration of women's ballroom fashions. In 1896, he bought the A.T. Stewart Cast Iron Palace in New York and in 1902 connected it with a "bridge of progress" to the 16-story building next door. In 1911 Wanamaker expanded the Philadelphia store, featuring a 150-foot-high Grand Court with the world's second largest organ and a great eagle from the 1903 St. Louis World's Fair, which became a popular landmark and meeting spot.
A Legacy of Trust
A deeply religious man, Wanamaker refused to advertise on Sundays and for many years served as superintendent of the Bethany Presbyterian Sunday School. From 1870-83, he was president of the YMCA and in 1889 was appointed Postmaster General by President Benjamin Harrison. He died on December 12, 1922.