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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 640

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This is the grave of John Wanamaker.

Born in 1838 in a rural area that is now part of south Philadelphia, Wanamaker had a pretty average raising. His father was a brickmaker and his mother was the daughter of an innkeeper. In 1861, the young man opened a store with his brother-in-law. Nothing too exciting here. Except that Wanamaker’s store really succeeded and he began to push this concept of selling items into the growing consumer addictions of the Gilded Age. What made Wanamaker’s strategy so successful was the principle of returns. If you didn’t like what you bought, you could return it. The money-back guarantee was pretty revolutionary. Wanamaker is also credited with inventing the price tag. The store grew. In 1869, he opened a new store, this time on his own after his brother-in-law’s death. He kept innovating, becoming the first retailer to place half and then full-page advertisements in major newspapers, effectively bringing America from the era of small local shop to the giant conglomerate, as was happening in basically every sector of the economy in the Gilded Age. Then he bought an unused railroad depot in 1875 in Philadelphia and opened a palace to shopping. This was the first modern department store in the city and one of the first in the nation.

Wanamaker’s success grew and grew. Moreover, so did the American standard of living. While the Gilded Age saw unbelievably and horrifying levels of poverty, the middle class also grew and, very slowly, over time the working classes gained increased disposable income too. So in 1910, Wanamaker outdid himself. He hired the architect Daniel Burham to build a gigantic multi-story department store. It was 12 stories tall. President William Howard Taft showed up to dedicated it (Wanamaker was a deeply conservative Republican and so liked Taft). Each floor was dedicated to a different theme. It was intended to spur shopping through the sheer gathering of goods. Sure, lots of the poor couldn’t buy anything. But they could visit. And they could dream. This was the consumer paradise of America, meant to spur desire that might lead to a spontaneous purchase or might convince someone who didn’t have the money then to save and buy later. Maybe it would be years later, but the idea was that this was a long-term investment that would pay off down the road. This store still remains up today in downtown Philadelphia. I was walking by it the day after visiting this grave, by happenstance. And it truly is a beautiful building, one that it’s easy to imagine was a cathedral of shopping to the Philadelphia public. Wanamaker wasn’t the only pioneer of this sort of thing–Marshall Field for instance was doing the same in Chicago. But these people made the 20th century American shopping experience, for better and for worse.

Inside the Wanamaker Building is the Grand Court, a central atrium designed to amaze the visitor upon entering. He bought this gigantic organ initially designed for the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904 to provide music inside. This behemoth had 10,059 pipes and took two years to reconstruct in the store. It was first played there in 1911 and then they added 8,000 more pipes by 1917 and another 10,000 by 1930. There’s an annual festival today where they play the thing. Then Wanamaker purchased this huge bronze eagle to place in the Grand Court.

Wanamaker wasn’t just building in Philadelphia. He built a large store in New York and then London and Paris. He was also not a great guy. He was an anti-union as any capitalist in the Gilded Age, employing private detectives to fire anyone who talked union in his shops. He countered this in part by engaging in welfare capitalism before it was standard in American capitalism, creating profit-sharing programs, recreational facilities, and some level of supposed medical care in exchange for absolutely no voice in wages, working conditions, or rights on the job.

Wanamaker also had political ambitions. The Gilded Age was ripe with paying off rich political supporters. Usually this stopped short of millionaires wanting high profile appointments for themselves, but not in Wanamaker’s case. Benjamin Harrison paid Wanamaker back for his support by naming him Postmaster General in 1889. Harrison’s opponents claimed that he bought the position, which while probably not directly true was certainly true in spirit. He was so committed to the spoils system that he fired 30,000 Democrats working in the Postal Service, an act that not only seriously reduced the efficiency of the agency but which infuriated civil service reformers, including rising Republican star Theodore Roosevelt, who openly criticized Wanamaker’s tenure. A moral prig, he took it upon himself to stamp out state lotteries by convincing Congress to pass an act banning the mailing of lottery tickets and then enforcing the law with great vigor. This effectively ended lotteries until Congress created them with a new law in 1964 that was designed to hurt the organized crime syndicates that had filled the gambling gap Wanamaker created. A cheapskate, he also lowered the production standards for stamps, making them nearly unusable at their worst. He was also incredibly petty. When he ordered the translation of Leo Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata for his store, the publisher missed the deadline and didn’t give Wanamaker the discount he wanted. In retaliation, Wanamaker had the book banned from the mails for obscenity. He was publicly mocked throughout the nation for this act. Then in 1891, he ordered new uniforms for all U.S. letter carriers and of course contracted out with a firm that he had a financial stake in for the job. But Harrison stuck with him throughout his term.

Wanamaker found great irritation later in his life with his older son. He brought Thomas Wanamaker into the family business, but the younger man started a side business running a radical newspaper that offended everything his father stood for. The paper would give space for people like Henry George to write their radical ideas. He also started publishing a Sunday edition, which was directly designed to infuriate his Sabbath-keeping father. Wanamaker was more pleased with his younger son Rodman, who went to France and developed the market for luxury French goods in the U.S. that his father would bring into his stores. Rodman would later found the Professional Golfers’ Association.

Wanamaker spent his later years engaging in art collection and philanthropy. He also seriously proposed during World War I that the U.S. buy Belgium from Germany to stop the war there, which is a just a bizarre proposal. He died in 1922, at the age of 84.

John Wanamaker is buried in Saint James the Less Episcopal Courtyard, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader contributions. In fact, this is the first of over 30 graves I managed to visit on a recent grave trip to Philadelphia and surrounding environs, so I thank you all very much. If you would like this series to visit other Postmaster Generals of the Gilded Age, clearly an attractive option for all, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. William Bissell, a crony of Grover Cleveland appointed for basically the same reason that Wanamaker was appointed by Harrison, is in Buffalo and William Lyne Wilson, who followed Bissell, is in Charles Town, West Virginia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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