Friday, October 15, 2010

John Wanamaker

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.

An analysis of Wanamaker's handwriting reveals a highly creative person who was of a naturally hopeful and buoyant disposition, coupled with caution, doubt and self-control. In other words, the pragmatic optimist. This was indeed the personality who came to be known as the "Father of Modern Advertising."

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
No matter how successful he became, Wanamaker continued to walk the aisles of his store, often slipping behind the counter to assist in a sale. He also continued to think up progressive advertising schemes, which led to $2.98-type pricing, the first white sale, and ultimately, department store history's first million-dollar sales day. Anyone who says, "The customer is always right!" is quoting and paying tribute to our premier advertiser.

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
In the age of "robber barons," Wanamaker was a notable exception. He took a personal interest in the welfare of his employees and their families, he took an active role in education, and he was this country's first secretary of the YMCA.

A spring fashion catalog cover I designed for John Wanamaker


  1. This is fascinating! I love these kinds of historical posts. I did know know the background behind Wannamaker. Thanks for stopping by Karena's blog for our giveaway. Love your logo pic; very funny in a great way!

  2. Such a terrific post. I am very interested in merchandising and the merchant princes. The story seems similar to that of Marshall Field, and in Toronto, Canada, our famous Timothy Eaton of Eaton’s Department stores. In some respects, these entrepreneurs brought the best of the world to America (and Canada). Through them we had English and French china, cutlery from Sheffield, Scottish woolens and cashmeres, Italian leather, Irish and French crystal, French fashion and couture, as well as all the wonderful goods, like cotton linens, that were at one time manufactured in America (sadly that day is gone).

    I like the image of the neo Gothic incarnation of the department store. It looks like our Canadian Parliament Buildings, that were fashioned after the London houses of parliament. Or as a friend put it, “…like the Addams family lives there!”

    Your Wanamaker ice cream cone is delightful. A bit Warhol-ish. I like the Ws in the waffle cone. When did you do this? Looking at the saturated colour, graphics, and illustration style, I am guessing late 1980s early 1990s? For whatever reason, I love to date buildings, interiors, films, photos, fashions, adverts, and graphics.

  3. Thank you French Basketeer and Square with Flair. SwF, you're off by several years. The Wanamaker cover dates to the early 1970s.

  4. I love background info...this is a great post!

  5. Thanks so much, Theresa. since I published this post, I discovered that John Wanamaker was also responsible for the price tag. That would of course be in keeping with his philosophy of one price for all.

  6. I worked in the advertising department of the flagship John Wanamaker store in Philadelphia, way back in 1972. It was as if the man himself were still walking the sales aisles given the reverential way that long term employees would quote the founder. "Meet me at the eagle" was a welcome invitation at any time of the year -- but especially during the Christmas holidays, when the store was bustling with merry shoppers as the organist thundered out familiar carols. What a training ground that was for my career in advertising. Thanks for bringing back memories, Mark.

  7. I'm delighted that you visited, not just because Wannamaker's character was a great inspiration to me, but also because we were working for the flagship store at the same time, albeit miles apart. You'd probably remember the catalogs I worked on through a company named Colopy Dale. And it was a good training ground for me, too. ... Mark

  8. Dear Mark,
    Thank you for your wonderful piece on John Wanamaker.
    I am a volunteer with the Friends of The Wanamaker Organ FOWO in Philadelphia. Would you have a higher resolution image of that famous Logo that I could use in a historical documentary?
    Rick Seifert

  9. Interesting piece Mark. I also like the Cone! I recently upholstered a French Provincial Sofa with the Wanamaker Tags. Thanks for the history.