Famous Philadelphians: John Wanamaker (1838–1922)

John Wanamaker is remembered as the father of the American department store and modern commercial and retail advertising.

He opened his first store in 1861, on the southeast corner of Sixth and Market streets. Sales were unremarkable until Wanamaker instituted a new policy: one price, no bargaining, and “goods returned and money refunded”. Business began to flourish.

John Wanamaker

John Wanamaker

In 1875 Wanamaker bought the abandoned freight depot of the Pennsylvania Railroad at 13th st. and Market str. and established the Grand Depot, colloquially known as Wanamaker’s. Now considered the first American department store, the Grand Depot began to add specialized departments in 1877 and opened the first toy department in an American department store in 1880. When Wanamaker opened a newly built store at the 13th and Market site in 1910 it was simply called Wanamaker’s.

One of Philadelphia’s great philanthropists and civic leaders, Wanamaker was Postmaster General of the United States under President Benjamin Harrison. He was also president of the YMCA for eight years, and helped found Presbyterian Hospital, funding the children’s ward there. He raised money for many causes, such as the relief of famine in Ireland, the treatment of Yellow Fever in the American south, and victims of the 1913 Ohio River flood.

On the day of his funeral, the city closed all public schools and flags were lowered to half-mast. His pallbearers included the governor of Pennsylvania, the mayors of Philadelphia and New York, the chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, and Thomas A. Edison. Still in business, Wanamaker’s department store is now a Macy’s.

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About the author

Christopher Munden

Your faithful correspondent and publisher Christopher Munden has written and edited for many publications, websites, and cultural institutions. He was an editor/publisher of the Philly Fiction book series, collections of short stories written by local writers and set in Philadelphia. He's also a soccer coach and a pretty good skier.