At the very beginning of my career, I worked for a company that designed gift catalogs for John Wanamaker, the fashionable Philadelphia department store. The store's logo is based on John Wanamaker's actual signature, and it intrigued me. Like the rest of his handwriting, the signature letters form straight lines of ascending and descending steps. This was certainly an unusual personality, so much so that I was inspired to learn more about graphology, and about John Wanamaker, the man.
Wanamaker (1838-1922) was blessed with the ability to see opportunity in the worst of situations, and so it must have seemed that he had the Midas touch. He started a clothing store with his brother-in-law in 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War. That was the absolute worst time to start a clothing business because the cotton industry was, of course, in a state of shambles. In those days all clothing was tailored to the individual, and during the war many tailors were left with unclaimed orders. John Wanamaker regularly traveled from Philadelphia to New York to buy, at low cost, such seemingly bad debts. These he then turned around and sold in his own store as the first off-the-rack clothing.
As many tailors failed, Wanamaker's business flourished. A great part of his success was the Wanamaker philosophy of a firm price, with satisfaction guaranteed or money back. We might take such policies for granted now, but in that time, most stores didn't have fixed prices, and haggling was the rule of the day.
John Wanamaker also regularly plowed a good portion of his profit back into advertising, and it was he who was responsible for the first full-page newspaper ad. To that innovation he also contributed an appreciation for advertising white space, which undoubtedly had a profound impact upon a public used to small headlines and lots of fine print.
Wanamaker was a visionary so far ahead of his time that he foresaw shopping malls before department stores were even popular! In fact it was because other merchants could not bring themselves to join in the mall vision that Wanamaker instead developed the first modern department store. Others had been built before, but Wanamaker's was the first as we know department stores today, with individual managers and specialized sales personnel.
Fifteen years after his original 30' x 80' store, Wanamaker built the Grand Depot, the country's largest store. On opening day, 70,000 people attended, including President and Mrs. Grant. The Grand Depot was the first department store to use electric lights, pneumatic tubes, and a ventilation fan system.
|From my advertising collection, trade cards of Wanamaker's first store, and of the Grand Depot
John Wanamaker became Postmaster General in 1889 and in that capacity founded Rural Free Delivery. That in turn paved the way for other success stories, notably that of Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck.
|The front and back of a well-worn Wanamaker prime
|A spring fashion catalog cover I designed for John Wanamaker