Wanamaker Building – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - Atlas Obscura
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Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Wanamaker Building

The first American department store, and home to the largest operating musical instrument in the world. 

John Wanamaker did things a bit differently. Inspired by two great central markets, London’s Royal Exchange and Paris’ Les Halles, Wanamaker decided it was time to bring what would become one of the first department stores to America. He envisioned a grand shopping hall which would sell his already established menswear and would expand to sell woman’s clothing and dry goods.

Not only did Wanamaker envision a new kind of shopping destination, he pioneered a new shopping experience as well. The first to use and enforce the phrase, “The customer is always right,” Wanamaker ran his store under the message of the golden rule. Employees were to be treated with respect by their superiors, and all were offered free medical care, recreational facilities, profit sharing plans, and pensions long before it became the standard.

One of the most important things Wanamaker left to modern stores was the price tag. Before he popularized the use of set prices, stores relied on haggling. Wanamaker believed that if everyone was equal before God, then everyone should be equal before price. It seems obvious today, but it wasn’t until Wanamaker invented the price tag that it became the norm.

Opened in 1877, the store was the first to use electrical lighting (in 1878) and the first to use a pneumatic tube system for transporting cash and documents (in 1880). By 1910, Wanamaker had begun updating his store, slowly phasing out the old Moorish facade that followed the Grand Depot styles of London and Paris, in favor of the lavish, Florentine style it still has today. The new building featured the incredible Wanamaker Organ, formerly the St. Louis World’s Fair pipe organ. Despite the organ’s imposing size, it was decided that it was not large enough to fill the Grand Court with it music, and was expanded by Wanamaker’s own staff of organ builders. After a period of a few years, the organ had become the largest in the world.

Eventually, Wanamaker’s customers petered off to other department stores like Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s, and after being sold from retailer to retailer for many years, has become a Macy’s itself. Thankfully, Wanamaker’s was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978, and visitors to Macy’s can still marvel at one of the first department stores in America and the largest operating musical instrument in the world, the famous Wanamaker organ, which is played every day except Sunday.

Happily, even Wanamaker himself couldn’t put price tag on that.

Guided tours of the building are available at the Visitor Center (on the third floor) of Macy’s.

Know Before You Go

To take a tour, head up to the Visitor Center, found on the third floor next to Gift Wrap.