John Wanamaker

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John Wanamaker
John Wanamaker.jpg
35th United States Postmaster General
In office
March 5, 1889 – March 4, 1893
PresidentBenjamin Harrison
Preceded byDonald M. Dickinson
Succeeded byWilson S. Bissell
Personal details
Born(1838-07-11)July 11, 1838
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
DiedDecember 12, 1922(1922-12-12) (aged 84)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Political partyRepublican
Spouse(s)Mary Erringer Brown
Children6, including Rodman and Minnie
John Wanamaker, c.1890

John Wanamaker (July 11, 1838 – December 12, 1922) was an American merchant and religious, civic and political figure, considered by some to be a proponent of advertising and a "pioneer in marketing".[1] He was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and served as U.S. Postmaster General.

Early life and family[edit]

Wanamaker was born on July 11, 1838, in a then-rural, unincorporated area that would in time come to be known as the Grays Ferry neighborhood of South Philadelphia.[2] His parents were John Nelson Wanamaker, a brickmaker and a native of Kingwood, New Jersey and Elizabeth Deshong Kochersperger, daughter of a farmer and innkeeper at Gray's Ferry whose ancestors had hailed from Rittershoffen in Alsace, France, and from Canton of Bern in Switzerland.[3]

In 1860 John Wanamaker married Mary Erringer Brown (1839—1920).[4]

They had six children (two of them died in childhood):

John Wanamaker's son, Thomas B., who specialized in store financial matters, purchased a Philadelphia newspaper called The North American in 1899 and irritated his father by giving regular columns to radical intellectuals such as single-taxer Henry George, Jr., socialist Henry John Nelson[6] (who later became Emma Goldman's lawyer), and socialist Caroline H. Pemberton. The younger Wanamaker also began publishing a Sunday edition, which offended his father's Biblically informed religious views.

His younger son Rodman, a Princeton graduate, lived in France early in his career and is credited with creating a demand for French luxury goods that persists to this day. Rodman was credited with the artistic emphasis that gave the Wanamaker stores their cachet and also was a patron of fine music, organizing spectacular organ and orchestra concerts in the Wanamaker Philadelphia and New York stores under music director Alexander Russell.

Department store business[edit]

Wanamaker opened his first store in 1861, in partnership with his brother in-law Nathan Brown, called "Oak Hall", at Sixth and Market Streets in Philadelphia, adjacent to the site of George Washington's Presidential home. Oak Hall grew substantially based on Wanamaker's then-revolutionary principle: "One price and goods returnable". In 1869, he opened his second store at 818 Chestnut Street and capitalizing on his own name (due to the untimely death of his brother-in-law) and growing reputation, renamed the company John Wanamaker & Co. In 1875, he purchased an abandoned railroad depot and converted it into a large store, called John Wanamaker & Co. "The Grand Depot". Wanamaker's is considered the first department store in Philadelphia.

Wanamaker Building[edit]

A large 12-story granite store in Philadelphia, known as the "Wanamaker Building", designed by famous Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham, was completed in 1910 and dedicated by US President William Howard Taft. The store stands on the site of "The Grand Depot", encompassing an entire block at the corner of Thirteenth and Market Streets across from Philadelphia's City Hall. The new store, The Wanamaker Building, which still stands today, became a Philadelphia institution and has remained an integral part of the Philadelphia culture. The upper office tower began marketing itself as the Wanamaker Office Building in 2018.

Grand Court[edit]

The Wanamaker Building's most notable feature is its 12-story, marble-clad central atrium, commonly known as the Grand Court. The Grand Court quickly became a Philadelphia favorite, highlighted by the Wanamaker Eagle and the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ. Among other things of note, the Grand Court has been featured in major motion pictures, such as: "Nasty Habits"(1977), "Mannequin"(1987), "Blow Out"(1981), and "12 Monkeys"(1995).

Wanamaker Organ[edit]

The Wanamaker Grand Court Organ was designed by George Ashdown Audsley and built by the Los Angeles Art Organ Company for the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. This heroic instrument had more than 10,000 pipes, and cost $105,000 to construct. Wanamaker bought the organ in 1909 and had it transported from St. Louis aboard 13 freight cars. The organ's installation took two years and it was played for the first time on June 22, 1911 to coincide with England's King George V's coronation. More than 8,000 pipes were added to the organ between 1911 and 1917. By 1930, an additional 10,000 pipes were installed, bringing the total number of pipes today to 28,500. The instrument is of the American Symphonic school of design, intended to combine traditional organ resources with the tone colors and beauty of the symphony orchestra. Once a year, usually in June, "Wanamaker Organ Day" is held, which is a free recital which lasts most of the day.[7]

Wanamaker Eagle[edit]

John Wanamaker purchased a bronze bird sculpture by August Gaul, during the sculpture's visit to America in 1904 at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. The 2,500-pound sculpture is a focal point of the store's grand court, whose floor had to be reinforced to hold the sculpture. Known as the "Wanamaker Eagle", it became a famous meeting place for Philadelphians. "Meet me at the Eagle" became a popular Philadelphia catchphrase.[8]

Christmas Light Show[edit]

In November, 1955, the store tapped lighting designer, Frederick Yost, to create seasonal displays. Yost designed the Holiday Light Show for the Grand Court, creating a more contemporary display than previous years. Since then the Holiday Light Show has become a beloved annual holiday tradition for generations of Philadelphians. Today, the light show has been modernized, but has retained the look and feel of the original show. Since 2006 the Macy's Dickens Village has been located on the store's third floor, continuing a cherished Philadelphia Christmas tradition that had begun at a different location in 1985.[7]

Expansion outside Philadelphia[edit]

Wanamaker expanded to New York City in 1896, continuing a mercantile business originally started by Alexander Turney Stewart. He expanded internationally with the European Houses of Wanamaker in London and Paris.

Wanamaker was an innovator, creative in his work, a merchandising genius, and proponent of the power of advertising, though modest and with an enduring reputation for honesty.[citation needed] Although he did not invent the fixed price system, he is credited for the creation of the price tag;[9] he popularized it into what became the industry standard and did create the money-back guarantee that is now standard business practice. He gave his employees free medical care, education, recreational facilities, pensions and profit-sharing plans before such benefits were considered standard.[citation needed] Labor activists, however, knew him as a fierce opponent of unionization.[citation needed] During an 1887 organizing drive by the Knights of Labor, he simply fired the first twelve union members who were discovered by his detectives.[10] The stores did make noted early efforts to advance the welfare of African-Americans and Native Americans.[citation needed] He was the first retailer to place a half-page newspaper ad (1874) and the first full-page ad (1879).[11] He initially wrote his own ad copy, but later hired the world's first full-time copywriter John Emory Powers. During Powers's tenure, Wanamaker's revenues doubled from $4 million to $8 million.[12]

Postmaster General[edit]

In 1889 Wanamaker began the First Penny Savings Bank in order to encourage thrift. That same year he was appointed United States Postmaster General by President Benjamin Harrison; he was accused by the newspapers of the day of buying the post.[13] Wanamaker was credited by his friends with introducing the first commemorative stamp and many efficiencies to the Postal Service. He was the first to make plans for free rural postal service in the United States, although the plan was not implemented until 1896.[14]

In 1890 Wanamaker persuaded Congress to pass an act prohibiting the sale of lottery tickets through the mail, and then he aggressively pursued violators.[15] Those actions effectively ended all state lotteries in the US until they reappeared in 1964, partly as an effort to undermine organized crime.

However, Wanamaker's tenure at the Post Office was riddled with controversy, including the firing of some 30,000 postal workers under the then common "spoils system" during his four-year term, which caused severe confusion, inefficiency and a run-in with civil-service crusader Theodore Roosevelt, a fellow Republican. In 1890 he commissioned a series of stamps that were derided in the national media as the poorest quality stamps ever issued, both for printing quality and materials. Then, when his department store ordered advance copies of the newly translated novel The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy, the deadline had been missed and only the regular discount was offered. He retaliated by banning the book from the US Mail on grounds of obscenity. This earned him ridicule in many major U.S. newspapers. In 1891 he ordered changes in the uniforms of letter carriers, and was then accused of arranging for all the uniforms to be ordered from a single firm in Baltimore, to which he was believed to have financial ties.[16] In 1893 he made a public prediction at the Chicago World's Fair that U.S. mail would still rely on stagecoach and horseback delivery for a century to come, failing to anticipate the impact caused by the coming of the automobile.[17]

During World War I, Wanamaker publicly proposed that the United States buy Belgium from Germany for the sum of one-hundred billion dollars, as an alternative to the continuing carnage of the war.[18]

Wanamaker was the longest surviving member of President Benjamin Harrison's cabinet.

Statue (Reproduction) of Seated Hermes commissioned by John Wanamaker on display in the Penn Museum.


Wanamaker was known for his philanthropy in regards to the poor in Philadelphia. He co-founded Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter and soup kitchen, in 1878.[19] Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission has since expanded to provide more services and is still in use for the homeless population of Philadelphia.[20]

Wanamaker was an avid collection of art and antiquities. He made several donations to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.[21] Among these donations was a collection of bronze reproductions of artifacts uncovered from the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which Wanamaker had commissioned by the Chiurazzi Foundry in Naples specifically for the museum, and which are known collectively as the Wanamaker Bronzes.[22][23]


The Wanamaker family tomb in Philadelphia, PA

He died on December 12, 1922.[24] His funeral was on December 14, 1922, with a service at the Bethany Presbyterian Church.[25] He was interred in the Wanamaker family tomb in the churchyard of the Church of St. James the Less in Philadelphia.

At his death his estate was estimated to be $100 million (USD), ($1,496,819,085 today) divided equally among his three living children and granddaughters, Mary "Minnie" Wanamaker Warburton (Mrs. Barclay Warburton) Patricia "Paddy" W. Estelle and Elizabeth Wanamaker McLeod, who all received substantial stocks, real estate and cash instruments. Second son Rodman was made sole inheritor of the store businesses. Rodman died in 1928, leaving the businesses with a documented worth of $36.7 million [$523,886,680 today] in a trust. Rodman is credited with founding the Professional Golfers' Association of America and the Millrose Games. His first son Thomas B. Wanamaker died in Paris in 1908.[26]


  • Bronze busts honoring Wanamaker and other industry magnates stand between the Chicago River and the Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago, Illinois.
  • A popular saying illustrating how difficult it was to quantify the response to advertising is attributed to Wanamaker: "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half."[27][better source needed]
  • Beginning in 1908, Wanamaker financed Anna Jarvis's campaign to have a national Mother's Day holiday officially recognized. On May 8, 1914, the U.S. Congress passed a law designating the second Sunday in May as Mother's Day, which also later became an international holiday. A dedicated Pennsylvania historic marker honoring Jarvis and Wananmaker is located at Philadelphia City Hall, across the street from Wanamaker's store, where the earliest Mother's Day ceremonies were held.
  • Wanamaker's fame was considerable around the world in his heyday. In the original play Pygmalion (1912) by George Bernard Shaw, Alfred Doolittle is left a legacy by an American philanthropist millionaire named "Ezra Wanafeller", combining Wanamaker's name with John D. Rockefeller, Sr.
  • John Wanamaker owned homes in Philadelphia, Cape May Point, New Jersey, Bay Head, New Jersey, New York City, Florida, London, Paris, and Biarritz. One was his townhouse at 2032 Walnut Street, which was modeled similar to an English manor house and kept a Welte Philharmonic Organ.[28] He died in this residence. The facade of this building is still extant. During the 1980 construction of the new Wanamaker house high rise on the adjacent property on Walnut Street, the facade of the original Wanamaker house was closely monitored to insure its preservation. This ongoing monitoring was performed by the Engineering firm, Boucher and James, Inc. Dale Leonard, professional land surveyor. O Thomas Edison, a close friend, was a pallbearer at his funeral. His country estate was the Lindenhurst mansion in Cheltenham, which stood on York Road, below Washington Lane (40°05′07″N 75°07′52″W / 40.0853°N 75.1311°W / 40.0853; -75.1311).[29] The campus of Salus University is today on part of the former estate. The original mansion was designed by architect E. A. Sargent of New York; President Harrison visited there.[30] A neoclassic mansion was constructed when the original Victorian Lindenhurst burned in 1907, destroying much of Wanamaker's art collection. A railroad station, Chelten Hills (located below Jenkintown, and no longer in existence), was constructed in addition to his vast mansion.[31] A family trust owned the Wanamaker's store chain, run by a trustee system set up by Rodman Wanamaker's will, until 1978 when the business was sold to Carter Hawley Hale, Inc.. The 15-store chain was sold to Woodward & Lothrop in 1986. Woodies declared bankruptcy in the early 1990s, and with it went the Wanamaker stores, which were sold to May Department Stores Company on June 21, 1995. In August 2006 the flagship Philadelphia store was converted from a Lord & Taylor to a Macy's.
  • John Wanamaker was instrumental in the foundation of the Williamson College of the Trades (originally, 'Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades') in Elwyn, PA, which was named for his friend and mentor, Isaiah Vansant Williamson. Williamson died in 1889, shortly after he founded the school. Wanamaker was the chairman of the school's first board of trustees, who realized Williamson's vision and planning for the school. The board held a competition for the design of the original campus buildings and selected famed Philadelphia architect, Frank Furness ( Furness, Evans & Company). Wanamaker has been memorialized in many ways at the school, most conspicuously in The John Wanamaker Free School of Artisans, which encompasses the instructional trade workshops and is considered the heart of the college. A dormitory, foundations, and groups are also named in his honor. Wanamaker privately wrote a biography of Williamson titled, Life of Isaiah V. Williamson, which was published posthumously in 1928.[32]
  • John Wanamaker was a Pennsylvania Mason. The John Wanamaker Masonic Humanitarian Medal was created by resolution of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania at the December Quarterly Communication of 1993. The medal, also called "The Wanamaker Medal" is to be awarded to a person (male or female) who, being a non-Mason, supports the ideals and philosophy of the Masonic Fraternity. At the discretion of the R. W. Grand Master, the medal is awarded to one who personifies the high ideals of John Wanamaker–a public spirited citizen, a lover of all people, and devoted to doing good. The medal has been presented sparingly to maintain the great prestige associated with an award created by resolution of the Pennsylvania Grand Lodge.[33]

Further reading[edit]

  • Robert Sobel (1974). "John Wanamaker: The Triumph of Content Over Form", chapter 3 in The Entrepreneurs: Explorations Within the American Business Tradition (Weybright & Talley), ISBN 0-679-40064-8
  • Olive W. Burt (1952). "John Wanamaker: Boy Merchant," Childhood Of Famous Americans Series, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. (children's biography)
  • Wanamaker's: Meet Me at the Eagle. The History Press. 2010. ISBN 978-1-62619-068-9.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tucker, Jeffrey (2011-04-01) What's a Job Good For?, Mises Institute
  2. ^ Maxin, Halley C. "Wanamaker, John". Literary and Cultural Heritage Map of Pennsylvania. Retrieved December 3, 2012.
  3. ^ Contemporary American Biography: Biographical Sketches of Representative Men of the Day : Representatives of Modern Thought and Progress, of the Pulpit, the Press, the Bench and Bar, of Legislation, Invention and the Great Industrial Interests of the Country, Volume 1, Part 2. Atlantic Publishing and Engraving Company. 1895.
  4. ^ "Mrs. J. Wanamaker Dies In 81st Year; Merchant's Wife Succumbs to Pneumonia at Atlantic City After Long Illness. Children at Her Bedside. Sister of Husband's First Partner Lived a Retired Life, with Interests Centred in Home and Family". New York Times. August 21, 1920. Retrieved 2011-05-27. Mrs. Mary Brown Wanamaker, wife of John Wanamaker, the dry goods merchant of New York and Philadelphia, died in her suite in the Hotel Ambassador shortly before noon today of pleuropneumonia. With Mrs. Wanamaker at her bedside when the end came were her three children, Special Deputy Police ...
  5. ^ Special to The New York Times. (1954-11-18). "' Mrs. Barclay H. Warburfon Is Dead at 85 - A Leader in Welfare Worh and Polifics - Obituary -". Retrieved 2014-05-14.
  6. ^
  7. ^ a b "Facts and Figures about the Wanamaker Organ". Friends of the Wanamaker Organ. 2017. Retrieved January 30, 2017.
  8. ^ "Eagle". Visit Philly.
  9. ^ "Who Made America? - Innovators - John Wanamaker".
  10. ^ Goldberg, Judith Lazarus. Strikes, Organizing, and Change: The Knights of Labor in Philadelphia 1869-1890 (PhD NY University 1985), pp. 342-3
  11. ^ Joel Shrock (30 June 2004). The Gilded Age. ABC-CLIO. p. 53. ISBN 978-0-313-06221-6. Retrieved 24 November 2012.
  12. ^ Stephen R. Fox (1984). The Mirror Makers: A History of American Advertising & Its Creators. University of Illinois Press. pp. 25–28. ISBN 978-0-252-06659-7. Retrieved 23 November 2012.
  13. ^ 1964 RFD:The Changing Face of Rural America by Wayne E. Fuller pg. 20
  14. ^ "History of the United States Postal Service 1775-1993". Archived from the original on 9 March 2008.
  15. ^ "John Wanamaker: Philadelphia Merchant" by Herbert Ershkowitz. Da Capo Press, 1998, p.30 ISBN 1-58097-004-4
  16. ^ "John's Miserable Stamps" New York Times, August 10, 1890 p.14; "Wanamaker's Latest Crime" Boston Globe, August 1, 1890; Political Career of John Wanamaker" Justice (Wilmington, DE), February 19, 1898 p. 1; "A Little 'Job' in Clothes" New York Times, July 5, 1891 p. 2
  17. ^ Kaku, Michio (2011). Physics of the Future. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-53080-4.
  18. ^ "Repeats Suggestion That We Buy Belgium" New York Times, June 24, 1915 p. 4
  19. ^ Cnaan, Ram A.; Wineburg, Robert J.; Boddie, Stephanie C. (1999). The Newer Deal: Social Work and Religion in Partnership (First ed.). New York: Columbia University Press. p. 265. ISBN 978-0-231-11624-4. Retrieved 4 June 2015.
  20. ^ "Sunday Breakfast". Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission. Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission. Retrieved 4 June 2015.
  21. ^ Molly. "Conserving Egyptian Mummies: Mummies, Mannequins and Wanamaker's". Artifact Lab. Penn Museum.
  22. ^ "Statue, Reproduction". Penn Museum. Penn Museum. Retrieved June 22, 2016.
  23. ^ S. Chiurazzi & Fils. (1904). S. Chiurazzi & Fils Naples Italy Bronze Foundry. Reproductions of the Bronzes Found at Pompei and Herculaneaum and at Present in the National Museum in Naples. The Collection of Bronzes Made Upon the Order of John Wanamaker of Philadelphia for the.
  24. ^ "Death Overtakes John Wanamaker. Had Suffered From A Heavy Cold". New York Times. December 12, 1922. Retrieved 2011-05-27. The world famous merchant and former postmaster general passed away at his town house., 2023 Walnut street. He had been confined there since early in ...
  25. ^ "Wanamaker Buried With High Tributes. Mayors Hylan And Moore And Other Officials Attend Philadelphia Services. Thousands At The Church. Honors Paid As Cortege Passes. Stores And Schools Suspend. Flowers From Employees". New York Times. December 15, 1922. Retrieved 2010-05-12. John Wanamaker was buried this afternoon after services in Bethany Presbyterian Church, Twenty-second and Bainbridge Streets, attended by a throng of prominent men and women whose presence showed the honor in which he was held as a merchant, philanthropist and citizen.
  26. ^ "Thomas b. wanamaker dead" (PDF). New York Times. New York Times Co. 1908-03-03. Retrieved 2010-08-21. Son of ex-Postmaster General passes away in Paris hotel
  27. ^ "Quote Details: John Wanamaker: Half the money I... - The Quotations Page". The Quotations Page.
  28. ^ Liste der Philharmonie-Orgeln von M. Welte & Söhne und M. Welte & Sons
  29. ^ "-- holding: LIndenhurst -- Philadelphia Architects and Buildings".
  31. ^ "Cheltenham Township".
  32. ^ Wanamaker, John (1928). Life of Isaiah V. Williamson. PHILADELPHIA & LONDON: J. B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY. pp. Chapter 8 – via wikisource.
  33. ^ "The Wanamaker Medal". PA Masons. 2016. Retrieved December 31, 2016.

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Donald M. Dickinson
United States Postmaster General
Succeeded by
Wilson S. Bissell