Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
One time Postmaster General, John Wanamaker was a pioneer in the development of the American department store.
John Wanamaker was born on July 11, 1838, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At the age of 23, he opened his first clothing store, and he went on to start his own line of retail shops, known as Wanamaker’s. He is considered the father of modern advertising and was also a United States Postmaster General from 1889 to 1893. He was also the first full time paid secretary for the YMCA from 1858 to 1861. In 1859, he founded the Bethany Sunday School in Philadelphia, which became the largest Sunday School in the country at the time. Wanamaker is well known for his famous words on advertising: Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half. Wanamaker died on December 12, 1922, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
John Wanamaker was born on July 11, 1838, in the Grays Ferry area of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Nelson Wanamaker, a brick maker, and Elizabeth Deshong Kochersperger. Not much is known about Wanamaker’s early life except that in 1849, his grandfather, John Wanamaker, who was also in the brick making business, moved his family out to Leesburg, Indiana, to find more work and escape from competition from larger brick making companies. In 1850, Nelson Wanamaker followed his father and moved his own family out to Indiana, causing young John Wanamaker’s education in the Philadelphia school system to come to an end after three years.
Wanamaker’s family returned to Philadelphia in 1851 due to a lack of success in brick making in Indiana. His father continued his career as a brick maker, and John Wanamaker took a job at the Troutman and Hayes bookstore, earning $1.25 a week. A year later, Wanamaker left Troutman and Hayes and started a job at Barclay Lippincott’s Clothing Store, where he improved to making $2.50 a week. This is where he was first inspired to consider opening his own chain of retail stores one day. After working at Barclay Lippincott’s for a few years, Wanamaker took a job at Tower Hall, Philadelphia’s most prominent clothing store at the time. He was hired to complete very basic and unskilled tasks, but he soon worked his way up to a salesman position.
In 1857, Wanamaker faced several health problems that caused him to move to Minnesota for treatment. He returned to Philadelphia in 1858 and entered into his “second career,” the lay ministry. From 1858 to 1861, Wanamaker was the first full time paid secretary of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). He worked hard at this job and eventually earned a $1,000 annual salary, a lot of money for the time. YMCA membership grew from 57 to over 2,000 men in just one year. Wanamaker continued his pursuit of providing spiritual guidance for the people of Philadelphia by founding the Bethany Sunday School in 1859. The school was formed with only 27 students who met in a rented room, but it later became the largest Sunday School in the country.
In 1860, Wanamaker married Mary Erringer Brown in Philadelphia. They had six children. In 1861, he resigned as secretary of the YMCA due to his new responsibilities as a husband and father. After a period of time solely concentrating on his family and doing some thinking about his life, Wanamaker reentered the retail business. On April 8, 1861, he opened his first store, “Oak Hall,” a men’s and boy’s clothing shop. His business partner for this particular venture was his brother-in-law, Nathan Brown. The store had a dismal first day, only earning $24.67, and it had a slow start due to the coinciding start of the Civil War. However, because of Wanamaker’s attention to customer service, the store soon flourished. Although many merchants at the time scoffed at the idea of a “sale,” Wanamaker wanted the customer to get the most out of their experience at his stores so they would come back. Oak Hall ran special sales for their customers and was even able to gain government contracts for manufacturing military clothing.
In 1868, Wanamaker opened a second store on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, following the death of his long time business partner, Nathan Brown. Wanamaker called his new store “John Wanamaker and Co.” After the store opened, Wanamaker published the first copyrighted advertisement by a retailer. In November 1875, due to the success of his new business, he then boldly bought the former Pennsylvania Railroad depot at 13th and Market Streets in Philadelphia to open another store. The store was called the “Grand Depot,” and it had its grand opening on May 6, 1876. Wanamaker began selling women’s items and dry goods as well. Wanamaker was slowly developing his stores into modern day department stores, where one stop shopping could be done.
Wanamaker increased his success by becoming the first merchant in the country to use full-page newspaper advertisements, which he began doing in 1879. He also hired ad-covered horse-drawn carriages and sign-carrying pedestrians known as “sandwich men” to walk around the city of Philadelphia and promote his stores. Wanamaker is also credited with several more “firsts” among department stores including: the use and creation of the first restaurant in a general store, the first store to send buyers overseas for a foreign market study in 1876, the first use of electric lighting in a store, and the first “white sale” in 1878, with special prices on linens and other white products. Wanamaker also spent money on his businesses by making his stores available to host free public choral concerts, displays of artwork, and children’s Christmas drawing contests. Wanamaker’s customers and employees received unparalleled service and attention. In 1878, Wanamaker began to offer various classroom instruction opportunities for his employees. The founding of the John Wanamaker Commercial Institute on March 23, 1896, was the culmination of Wanamaker’s dreams for a place where his employees could obtain an education in subjects like bookkeeping, finance, English and arithmetic.
In 1899, Wanamaker continued to increase his business empire with the creation of Camp Wanamaker in Island Heights, New Jersey. The 13 acre camp provided a two week summer vacation on the New Jersey shore for the children of Wanamaker’s employees. Both boys and girls could gain instruction in musical instruments and military training. Wanamaker also created an Insurance Association in 1881, a hotel called Hotel Walton (a place for his female employees to stay) in 1887, a library in 1897, and a business school in 1908, also known as the American University of Trade and Applied Commerce.
Wanamaker tried his hands at politics in the form of public office. On March 5, 1989, Wanamaker was rewarded for his long time party loyalty and for his contribution of $10,000 to Benjamin Harrison’s 1888 Presidential campaign, by being named the U.S. Postmaster General. While many people believed Wanamaker had purchased the position, others worried about his lack of formal education and political experience. Wanamaker attempted some major reforms within the postal system. Wanamaker achieved reforms in extending mail service to every American family, including families living in rural areas, by formally implementing a rural delivery system in 1896. Wanamaker also established the first ever parcel-post system, which was started on January 1, 1913, in Philadelphia. It allowed packages to be mailed from one location to another.
Wanamaker business also established a postal savings system that was approved by the government in 1910. The program allowed Americans to have a safe place to keep their life savings, which could be kept in their neighborhood post office. The program remained in effect until 1963. Also during Wanamaker’s tenure in office, the first commemorative stamps were issued, and more than 5,000 new mail routes were established. The National Postal History and Philatelic Museum that was created in 1894 was also one of Wanamaker’s visions. Wanamaker also started the practice of sorting mail on the moving railway cars when the cargo was transported from one location to another.
After Wanamaker left the position of U.S. Postmaster General in 1893, he continued an old feud with the leader of Pennsylvania Republican party, Senator Matthew Quay. Quay backed Wanamaker’s opponent for a nomination in the U.S. senate in 1896. However, the battle was short lived, as Wanamaker’s campaign manager, Edwin A. Van Valkenburg, was indicted for vote-buying before the election. Although he was later acquitted, the nomination went to Boies Penrose, Wanamaker’s opponent. Wanamaker was not entirely discouraged by this defeat and ran to seek the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 1898. He lost this nomination to William A. Stone. He managed to stir up so much public disgust against Matthew Quay that Quay actually lost his seat in the Senate in 1899.
Much of Wanamaker’s success was due to the fact that he was able to pass down his authority within his business empire to other very able and diligent men. Wanamaker turned over control of his first store on Chestnut Street early in his life to his brothers. In 1879, he gave a valued employee, Robert C. Ogden, control of Oak Hall. Wanamaker’s two sons, Thomas and Rodman, began their duties in the family business after their respective graduations from Princeton University. The Wanamaker firm acquired the former Alexander T. Stewart store in New York City in 1896. Although the Wanamaker family ultimately dealt with the coinciding retirement of Robert Ogden, the death of Thomas Wanamaker, and the financial panic of 1908, the store was able to persevere throughout the hardships. Rodman Wanamaker was named manager of the now successful store in 1911.
Throughout his life, Wanamaker was a devout Presbyterian, and he worked with the Bethany Sunday School for many years, even during his busiest moments as a department store entrepreneur. Wanamaker founded several Presbyterian churches as well, including the Bethany Memorial (today called Bethany Collegiate) Church in 1865, the John Chambers Memorial Presbyterian Church in 1897, and the Bethany Temple Presbyterian Church in 1906. He also maintained ties with the YMCA during his business career and contributed to the development of YMCA buildings all over the world. One of Wanamaker’s greatest achievements personally was known as the Bethany Brotherhood. It was a men’s organization founded in 1890, and it provided religious instruction and fellowship to area worshipers of the Presbyterian faith.
John Wanamaker died in his home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on December 12, 1922. He is commemorated by a statue in front of Philadelphia’s city hall and remembered as an innovative entrepreneur, merchant, and spiritual figure who rose from humble beginnings to become one of the most successful retail chain owners of his time. He is known as the father of modern advertising. His stores continue in operation today under the ownership of Woodward and Lothrop. Hiis contributions to the founding of the modern department store, as well as new innovations with the U.S. Postal System will never be forgotten.
Appel, Joseph Herbert. The Business Biography of John Wanamaker, Founder and Builder, America's Merchant Pioneer From 1861-1922 : with glimpses of Rodman Wanamaker and Thomas B. Wanamaker. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1930.
Burt, Olive Wooley. John Wanamaker: Boy Merchant. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962.
Conwell, Russell Herman. The Romantic Rise of a Great American. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1924.
Ershkowitz, Herbert. John Wanamaker: Philadelphia Merchant. Conshohocken, PA: Combined Publishing, 1999.
Gibbons, Herbert Adams. John Wanamaker. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1926.
Zulker, William Allen. John Wanamaker: King of Merchants. Wayne, PA: Eaglecrest Press, 1993.