Historic Sites

“One price and goods returnable”: Center City’s Department Stores

During the first half of the nineteenth century, Market Street (formerly High Street) was a mix of residential and commercial, as Philadelphians clung to the Delaware waterfront for sustenance. Successful businessmen such as printer Benjamin Franklin and china maker Benjamin Tucker lived “above the store” or in houses adjacent to their businesses.i With the coming of the horse-drawn and electric streetcar, however, Market Street became almost exclusively commercial, as many business owners moved to fashionable residential districts to the south and the west.

Following the Civil War, there was an explosion in manufactured consumer goods, especially clothing and household wares. By 1900, fine furniture, crockery, carpets, tailored suits, and dresses were now available to an expanding (and increasingly discerning) middle class, not just the rich. For residents of neighborhoods like Germantown and West Philadelphia, shopping was no longer just a chore: it was entertainment.

A number of Philadelphia entrepreneurs capitalized on this embarrassment of riches by consolidating consumer offerings under one roof. The most famous merchandiser of them all was John Wanamaker, who came up with a simple slogan: “One price and goods returnable.” Like his contemporary John D. Rockefeller, Wanamaker was a proponent of the “Social Gospel,” a philosophy that maintained wealth was a tool to further “the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.” ii A devout Presbyterian, Wanamaker believed he could uplift his patrons through art, culture, and Christian morality.

After successfully operating two smaller stores in Center City, in 1875 he purchased the Pennsylvania Railroad’s freight depot at 13th and Market Streets, on the east side of Penn Square. He then refurbished it into a sprawling store with 129 counters. He also made sure his store was on the cutting edge of technology, equipping it with telephones, elevators, electric lights, and pneumatic tubes.iii Wanamaker bet that the unfinished City Hall –being built on what once had been quiet residential square—would transform the area into a booming commercial hub.

Wanamaker’s gamble paid off. Not only did the new City Hall shift the commercial heart of the city from Old City to Penn Square, but the new Broad Street Station funneled prosperous suburbanites right onto his store’s front doorsteps. His “Grand Depot” was so lucrative that Wanamaker built an even bigger store on the same site. Designed by Daniel Burnham and unveiled in 1911, the new store was 12 stories high and resembled an Italian Renaissance palazzo on the exterior.iv The interior was a glittering jewel box, encrusted with crystal, marble, and European paintings.v A gigantic pipe organ, originally built for the St. Louis World’s Fair, entertained shoppers as they strolled through the The 9th floor Crystal Tea Room, able to seat 1,400 guests, was one of the most beautiful dining establishments in the city. At Christmastime, a sparkling curtain of light cascaded down the walls of the main atrium, eliciting the “oohs” and “ahs” from generations of Philadelphia children.

“Pious John” Wanamaker was not modest about his own success. Read a plaque in the lobby: “Let those who follow me continue to build with the plumb of honor, the level of truth and the square of integrity, education, courtesy, and mutuality.” vii He was also sometimes credited with one of the most famous quips in advertising history: “Retailers Rule…The customer is always right.” viii

While Wanamaker’s was the store of choice for Main Line matrons, other department stores catered to Philadelphia’s middle and working class shoppers. Quaker partners Justus Strawbridge and Isaac Clothier founded their less flashy establishment in 1858. In 1930, Strawbridge and Clothier completed their big, but appropriately subdued, neo-classical store at 8th and Market Streets. Pipe organs, catchy slogans, and French salon paintings were not in the “Quaker plain” vein of Strawbridge and Clothier. Rather, the store’s trademark was the “Seal of Confidence” depicting William Penn shaking hands with a Native American. The “Corinthian Room” food court served hot dogs rather than high tea. This thrifty philosophy was appreciated by the store’s clientele. As one long-time Strawbridge patron said, “I’ve been coming here for many years. As long as the merchandise is good quality and it’s decently priced, I plan to keep on coming.” ix At Christmas, the fourth floor boasted a life-sized walk through set of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, complete with actors and Victorian sets.x

A stone’s throw away from Strawbridge and Clothier stood Gimbel Brothers, which took up the entire 800 block between Market and Chestnut Streets. Like John Wanamaker, founder Jacob Gimbel distinguished himself as a philanthropist as well as a businessman. In 1901, he was appointed president of the new Federation of Jewish Charities, which was charged to assist the thousands of Jewish immigrants fleeing czarist pogroms in Russia and Poland.xi Known to Philadelphians simply as “Gimbels,” this store brought the holidays to the streets by sponsoring the city’s annual Christmas Parade. The climax of this popular pageant was Santa climbing a fire truck ladder to the ninth floor of the Gimbel’s store.xii

Lit Brothers, like Gimbels, was also founded by German Jewish immigrants. Cheaper than most of its competitors, Lit’s slogan was “A Great Store in A Great City.” Lit Brothers flagship at 7th and Market store was created in 1907 by the consolidation of an entire block of cast iron commercial structures.xiii Unlike masonry construction, cast iron allowed designers to create open floor plans, ornate facades, and large windows.  Lit Brothers’ main holiday attraction was a complete “Colonial Christmas Village,” part of which survives at the Please Touch Museum.xiv

Sadly, due to buy-outs and the rise of suburban malls, none of these stores are in business today. Lit Brothers has been converted into a commercial building and Strawbridge’s sits vacant. The original Gimbels was demolished in the 1970s and has been replaced by a parking lot, although its warehouse at 833 Chestnut Street survives as an office building. Macy’s now occupies the original Wanamaker’s building, and happily its new owners have taken excellent care of the historic structure, restoring its 7,000 pipe organ and exquisite interior detailing to their original glory.


[i] “Philadelphia (Tucker) China – 1825-1838” Accessed June 5, 2010.

[ii] Jack B. Rogers, and Robert E. Blade, “The Great Ends of the Church: Two Perspectives,” Journal of Presbyterian History (1998) 76:181-186.

[iii] “Wanamaker’s Department Store,” World Architecture Images, Essential Architecture – the North East. Accessed June 8, 2010.

[iv] Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: Philadelphia’s Broad Street, South and North (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2003, p.52.

[v] “Wanamaker’s Department Store,” World Architecture Images, Essential Architecture – the North East. Accessed June 8, 2010.

[vi] Friends of the Wanamaker Organ at Macy’s, Philadelphia: Celebrating the Heritage of a National Historic Landmark, Facts and Figures about the Wanamaker Organ. Accessed June 8, 2010.

[vii] Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphian: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press), 1963, p.173.

[viii] “Wanamaker’s Department Store,” World Architecture Images, Essential Architecture – the North East. Accessed June 8, 2010.

[ix] Associated Press, “At Strawbridge’s, customers seeking value, not nostalgia,” Reading Eagle/Reading Times, July 26, 1996, B7.,5034439 Accessed June 8, 2010.

[x] Ryan Caviglia, “Christmas in Philly,” The New Colonist, Calendar of Antiques: Your Guide to Antique and Art Events, undated. Accessed June 8, 2010.

[xi] Nathaniel Burt and Wallace E. Davies, “The Iron Age, 1876-1905,” from Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (New York, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1982), p.489.

[xii] Ryan Caviglia, “Christmas in Philly,” The New Colonist, Calendar of Antiques: Your Guide to Antique and Art Events, undated. Accessed June 8, 2010.

[xiii] Lit Brothers Store, 701-739 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA, HABS No. PA-1438. Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record.

[xiv] Ryan Caviglia, “Christmas in Philly,” The New Colonist, Calendar of Antiques: Your Guide to Antique and Art Events, undated. Accessed June 8, 2010.