Wanamaker, John (1838-1922)

Published on .

John Wanamaker was born in Philadelphia on Nov. 13, 1838. As a boy, he edited a small periodical, "Everybody's Journal," that taught him the benefits of publicity. At age 14, Mr. Wanamaker began working as an errand boy for a bookstore in Philadelphia. He later became secretary of the city's Young Men's Christian Association, a position he held from 1857 to 1861.

In 1861, Mr. Wanamaker entered into a business partnership with his brother-in-law, Nathan Brown. With $3,500 in capital, they opened Wanamaker & Brown in Philadelphia, with "one price" as the store's policy and men's tailor-made clothes as its merchandise. The U.S. Civil War was just beginning as the store opened for business in 1861.

Unfortunately, most people walked right past those open doors. The capital was rapidly being depleted when Mr. Wanamaker learned of a clothing manufacturer anxious to dispose of surplus stock during the troubled times. W&B bought the stock and touted the "Oak Hall Clothing Bazaar" as selling ready-made men's clothing in six separate ads, each with a different headline, on the front page of the Philadelphia Public Ledger. The ads were a success, and the business began to prosper.

Throughout the next few years, when uniforms for Union Army officers were the mainstay of the business, W&B put every available dollar into advertising in order to continue to build the enterprise.

Not only did W&B use newspaper advertising, it also used stunt publicity: 20-foot balloons were sent up, and a suit of clothes was given to each person who brought one back to the store. When "tally-ho coaching" became popular, Oak Hall employees, dressed in the most fashionable coaching clothes, traveled the country scattering advertisements to the sound of the horn.

The advertising paid off. By 1869, W&B had become the largest retailer of men's clothing in the U.S., with Mr. Wanamaker continuing to expand the business after his partner's death in 1868. He formed John Wanamaker & Co. in 1869 as a separate entity from W&B. While W&B's advertising continued to emphasize low prices, the new company appealed to customers who desired quality and elegance.

Mr. Wanamaker astonished his rivals in 1865 when he announced a new policy guaranteeing a full refund if the purchaser was not satisfied for any reason, so long as the item was returned within 10 days.

Mr. Wanamaker's next expansion targeted Philadelphia's Grand Depot. The Pennsylvania Railroad had built a large temporary depot in the city for the nation's centennial celebrations. After the centennial exposition closed, Mr. Wanamaker purchased the station to house his third store. The depot included two acres of aisles and showcases-more room than Mr. Wanamaker could use for men's clothing displays. When he could not convince other merchants to open shop under his roof, he added women's wear and household goods to his inventory, thus creating the first department store.

Hailing the Grand Depot as a "new kind of store," advance advertising lured 70,000 people to the opening day—when nothing was yet for sale. The following day, Mr. Wanamaker was dubbed the "Merchant Prince."

Mr. Wanamaker's primary contribution to the development of advertising was his use of large space ads. He began to buy full pages of ads for his businesses; while expensive, those pages also resulted in a large volume of sales for the retailer. He ran the first page ad for a U.S. store in 1879; he often ran ads of two to four columns. In 1888, he began to use page ads regularly, and in 1909, this became a daily practice.

In 1880, Mr. Wanamaker hired John E. Powers as a full-time department store copywriter, another advertising innovation. While their personal relationship was troubled, their professional relationship was strong. Mr. Powers' style—stressing common sense, direct and factual copy, and content over style—was widely emulated among advertisers.

Along with Mr. Powers, Robert C. Ogden and Manly M. Gillam produced Mr. Wanamaker's advertising of the era. Merchants throughout the nation subscribed to the Philadelphia papers so they could read the Wanamaker ads.

Mr. Wanamaker frequently is credited with the now famous saying, "I know half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, but I can never find out which half." (He was probably aware that this was also uttered by the English Lord Leverhulme.)

Mr. Wanamaker also provided business classes and benefits for his employees, practices uncommon at the time, and served as postmaster general of the U.S. from 1889 to 1893. He is credited with making several improvements in the post office, including the establishment of the parcel post system.


Born Nov. 13, 1838; opened Wanamaker & Brown men's clothing store in Philadelphia, 1861; opened John Wanamaker & Co., which became the country's first department store with the addition of women's wear and housewares, 1869; hired John E. Powers as a full-time copywriter for Wanamaker, 1880; served as U.S. postmaster general, 1889-93; died Dec. 12, 1922.

Most Popular
In this article: