Wanamaker’s: The Spectacle of Organization

2nd Floor

Meet me at the Eagle.

For over 140 years Philadelphians marvelled at Wanamaker’s excellence in organizing, routinizing, and making fun the act of shopping. While many middle class Philadelphians saw shopping at the store a status boost, people also went to observe Wanamaker’s “system” — his distinctive display of regimentation coupled with spectacle — almost as much as they did to marvel at mass-produced goods.

To borrow a bit from Alfred Chandler, Wanamaker’s naming of his first establishment the “Grand Depot” (which was built on former PRR land) shows how the railroad stood as the pinnacle of organization in 19th century minds. The railroad “depot” was a space of controlled freight movements just as Wanamaker’s store was structured to allow swift movent of inventory to meet demand. Probably his idea of “departments” came from the increasingly specialized bureacratic organization of railroads.

While Wanamaker’s could cultivate an image of superb organization, unlike railroads retail outfits could not be dirty and unrefined. Wanamaker’s new store, which opened in 1911, had to soften its appearance and attract the legions of new women shoppers. Wanamaker’s then became a miniature city where specialized sections met shoppers’ every taste and need. But the merchant prince didn’t stop with tea rooms and telegraph offices. To differentiate the experience of shopping at his store, Wanamaker created an environment replete with singular icons such as his famous eagle (taken from the 1903 St. Louis World’s Fair) and the store’s organ. Organs, once located almost exclusively in churches, suggested that department stores had developed a sense of decorum.

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In a sense, so many department store descendants of the great urban commercial palaces have “departments” but lack the radical publicness of Wanamaker’s organization scheme. I think the only true department store with such a variety of segmented departments is Boscov’s. The vastness of Wanamaker’s central atrium allows shoppers a cutaway view of a kind of great teeming beehive — which, of course, was Wanamaker’s intention.

Middle class people also went to Wanamakers to see other middle and upper class people: to observe their habits, their garb and dress, what they bought. All of this figured into the creation of a distinct middle class culture, defined below. Planning a couple excursions down to Atlantic City on the Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore lines this summer? Not sure what to wear? You’ve seen some advertisements but are you going to be the only fool with this fashion? Better go down and take stock of what people are doing.

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Here is a good piece from the University of San Deigo on the rise of urban mass consumption and how the department store spurred and supported this new consumption.

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