Born JULY 11, 1838

[PD- 1923]

Christianity, which John Wanamaker embraced at age twelve, influenced all parts of his life. He became an innovative business leader who served God and his fellow humans well.


The Philadelphia native entered the merchandising business as an errand boy when he was fourteen. Two years later he took a job at a clothing store. In 1861, the year John turned twenty-three, he and his brother-in-law, Nathan Brown, opened their own men’s clothing store. They named it Oak Hall.

The Grand Depot’s
court and pipe organ
[nikita 52389 at en.wikipedia]

The following decade, in 1876 (the year the USA celebrated its centennial), John opened a store in a renovated train station. He called it “The Grand Depot.” Rather than selling one main category of item, John diversified. The Grand Depot became the world’s first department store.

The building’s size made it a unique shopping experience. Eventually, John equipped it with electric lights, a restaurant and a pipe organ (from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair). He later opened a second store in Philadelphia and a large store in New York.


While earning a profit, John earned respect from his customers. He promoted his practices with slogans. One of them was, “Courtesy is the one coin you can never have too much of or be stingy with.” Another was, “When a customer enters my store, forget me. He is king.”

Honoring customers led John to some ground-breaking innovations. Prior to his influence, there weren’t set prices for items; customers had to haggle over prices. John changed that by establishing a single price for each item, written on a price tag. As a Christian, he offered quality goods at fair prices. He also introduced the money-back guarantee. John quickly gained a reputation for truth in advertising.

Wanamaker’s in New York [PD-1923]

Other ideas included taking out the first full-page newspaper ad, having a “white sale” and offering seasonal specials. Everything he did conformed to his Christian beliefs. His practices also fit another of his slogans, “Keep up the old standards, and day by day raise them higher.”

John took care of his employees too. He initiated educational and recreational opportunities for them. They could also enjoy the concerts and other special events he hosted at his stores.


At age twenty, John became the first paid secretary of the Philadelphia YMCA. Carry-ing out its mission of that day, John distributed New Testaments and trained Sunday School teachers.

Part of the YMCA’s Biblical emphasis on the wall of a branch in Ohio.

A Presbyterian by denomination, he also founded Bethany Church, overseeing its Sunday School. Under his leadership, it grew into the nation’s highest attended Sunday School (6,000 members during John’s lifetime). Fifty years after its found-ing, he remained the superintendent. Today, the church is known as Bethany Collegiate Presbyterian Church. It houses a John Wanamaker artifact room that includes John’s family pew of sixty years.

Even greater than his quest for quality goods and top-notch service to the public was John’s concern for people’s souls. He initiated the launch of  YMCAs in other countries and provided finances to start other churches in the United States.


John served in politics. When Benjamin Harrison became president of the United States, he expressed his respect for John by appointing him postmaster general. John accepted and greatly helped the postal system during his years in office.

John Wanamaker statue on east side of Philadelphia City Hall [PD-1923]

John helped promote what became a new national holiday. He backed Anna Jarvis in her campaign to establish a national day for mothers. On May 10th of 1908, he oversaw a Mother’s Day ceremony at his Philadelphia store. Thousand attended.

John passed away on December 12, 1922. In the ninety years since his death, his business innovations and his legacy of serving the public based on Christian principles are outstanding examples of living as a shining light for God.

Historical note: In 2006, the original Wanamaker’s become a Macy’s store.


LET ME KNOW:  How has John’s story informed, encouraged, or otherwise helped  you? I welcome your comments.


Learn more about John Wanamaker’s life from the following resources————-

Books about John-

  • Ershkemitz, Herbert. John Wanamaker: Philidelphia Merchant. Da Capro??, 1999.
  • Zulker, A. William. John Wanamaker: King of Merchants. Wayne Pennsylvania: Eaglecrest Press, 1993.

John Wanamaker on YouTube-


About William E. Richardson

I'm married to a wonderful woman named Deb. We're the parents of a son and daughter who bring great joy to our lives. I currently pastor the Assembly of God church in Afton, Iowa.
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