This summer I am working at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP). The Historical Society has been working on a website called PhilaPlace.org for a while now. The website provides an interactive map of Philadelphia with stories about the people, groups, and buildings that have impacted the community. This includes everything from the Free African Society to Reading Terminal Market. The long-term goal is to flush out the map with significant sites so that residents and tourists alike can read about the history of the city. Personally, my favorite part of knowing history is knowing how the past has shaped the present community around me. My work at HSP has helped me understand the history behind the Macy’s building, which I pass everyday on my way to work.
The building originally housed the first Wanamaker’s department store. The store started as Oak Hall, a clothing store for men and boys, opened by John Wanamaker and his brother-in-law, Nathan Brown. The store was successful due to its revolutionizing business practices. This included getting rid of haggling over price and letting customers return goods. The store was known for its honesty, mostly because John Wanamaker was well respected in the religious community. Interestingly, there were still discounts for people like ministers, meaning he was not completely honest about there being only one price for all goods.
Once the store became more successful it was moved to the location where Macy’s now stands. The store was built to create the ideal shopping experience for women. There was a restaurant and seats so shoppers could take a break. However, what is most notable is what Wanamaker’s did for the employees. Hotel Rodman was set up as a place for female employees to live and he created a school to educate workers in the business as well as topics like reading and hygiene. At the same time, Wanamaker did not let workers unionize and often had them working long days.
The building itself is also very noteworthy. It was built in three parts, ending in 1910. The dedication was attended by President Taft and boasts the only president to be at a department store opening. It is also home to the world’s largest organ with over 28,000 pipes. The organ was bought during the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and was brought over in thirteen freight cars.
Most surprising to me was the impact John Wanamaker had on the country. President Harrison appointed him Postmaster General. In office he ended Sunday deliveries and created the first commemorative stamp. He also pushed for rural deliveries. Within Philadelphia he ran a Sunday school and church that was responsible for many outreach programs.
It was great to research the Wanamaker family because of the influence they had on Philadelphia, but also because HSP is home to the John Wanamaker Collection. This means I have been able handle correspondence between John Wanamaker and his family as well as photographs of the store. It is really fascinating to learn about such an influential family. Now every time I pass the building, I think about how grand a twelve-story department store must have been over a hundred years ago. I am very excited to continue in depth research on other historically significant people and groups this summer.
Check out the full series of stories on the Wanamakers on PhilaPlace.org.
– Claire Michel ‘18