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8.25.2019

Philly's Macy's/Wanamaker's: World's Largest Musical Instrument & Iconic Department Store

Macy's Department Store in Center City Philadelphia in an absolute gem of a downtown department store that is just stunning to explore. It is home to world's largest playable musical instrument and is a destination that is well worth checking out.

The grand urban department store is a breed that is rapidly dwindling. First, changing retail tastes took a major chunk out of downtown department stores and shopping out to suburban malls in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Many department stores closed, but at least one or two others were still able to hang on in the major cities. Consolidation in the industry from the 90s through today brought in outside ownership to many of these department stores in which outside companies did not feel the same attachment to the often illustrious pasts of these old stores. Pittsburgh lost its last grand department store, Kaufmann's, a few years ago. In 2002, Cleveland lost its flagship department store, Higbee's, which was prominently featured in A Christmas Story. Philadelphia was once home to at least four major flagship department stores:
  • Lit Brothers, which closed in 1977
  • Gimbels, which created the first Thanksgiving Parade in the country, closed in 1993,  
  • Strawbridge's was able to hold on until 2006, 
  • Wanamaker's

The latter, and grandest, of those stores lives on to this day as Macy's. Both Strawbridge's and Wanamaker's were acquired by the May Company in the mid 90s. When Macy's purchased the May Company in 2006, they promptly closed the old Strawbridge's flagship in favor of retaining the Wanamaker's store. They have thankfully kept Wanamaker's and its illustrious history alive in Center City Philadelphia. Lots of the old Wanamaker's touch and old signage remains throughout the store. 
The corner of Macy's/Wanamaker's, which has stood tall in Center City since 1902. 
John Wanamaker set out to create a "new kind of store" and opened the world's first modern department store in 1876, in time for the centennial celebrations in the city. He expanded in 1902 with the construction of this opulent retail palace that was designed by legendary architect, Daniel Burnham.

Wannamaker's touch with retailing was in making shopping an extravagant experience for his customers, with the addition of many cutting edge technological innovations. Technologies that we take for granted today, including electrical lighting, and telephones, were quickly implemented by John Wanamaker. He even played a huge role in the creation of Mother's Day in 1908.
Additionally, and possibly most importantly, he appreciated the dignity of his workers. In a commercial sector not often known as being generous with its workers, Wanamaker offered his employees free healthcare, recreational opportunities, profit sharing, and pensions. He also demanded that his management treat every employee with respect. He was a religious man and believed that if "every man was equal in the eyes of God, then they all should pay the same price," which meant that he pioneered the concept of price tags. Prior to this, haggling was the norm in retailing. 

John Wanamaker was a gilded age entrepreneur that did not let greed get in the way of treating his employees and customers with basic human dignity. He even dabbled in politics, serving as postmaster general under President Harrison and introducing the first commemorative stamp, though his record in that office was generally mixed. He advocated against unions because he believed that they were not necessary if a business were well managed. He never dealt with labor issues because he treated his workers well. He also was a firm believer in building community and opened the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, Philadelphia's largest homeless shelter and the third oldest remaining mission in the country, with the help of several other regional philanthropic entrepreneur's, including W. Atlee Burpee of Burpee Seeds, and John Stetson of Stetson Hats. Wanamaker was a different kind of Gilded Age industrialist whose benevolence was both outwardly visible in the community, and with his workers, in contrast to other gilded age industrialists that would put on a big show philanthropically, but then treat their workers without human dignity behind the scenes. 
The classic cursive script initials of John Wanamaker, put into a mosaic in the entry way to the store.
By far though, the most famous and recognizable aspect of Wanamaker's is the organ. This is the largest operating musical instrument on the planet, with 28,500 pipes, six ivory keyboards, 729 color-coded stop tablets, 168 piston buttons (under the keyboards) and 42 foot controls. The largest pipe, made of three-inch-thick Oregon sugar pine, is more than 32 feet long and the smallest is a quarter-inch long. (Source: Friends of the Wanamaker Organ and Macy's)

The organ was built by the Los Angeles Art Organ Company for the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. It put the initial manufacturer out of business with an initial price tag of 105,000 dollars, an absolutely obscene amount of money in that time period. John Wanamaker got the organ for a bargain and loaded the organ onto 13 fright cars in 1909. It took two years to build it. It originally had 10,000 pipes, but John Wanamaker judged this to not be loud enough to fill the enormous Grand Court of his department store, so he created a private organ factory to add another 18,500 pipes to the organ up through 1930.
The keyboards for the organ. The organ is played every day of the week except Sundays. During the holidays, the Grand Court is lavishly decorated with a light show that accompanies the music that is played on the organ. 
"Meet me at the Eagle" is a phrase that Philadelphians have said when it came to meeting in Center City at the Department Store. The eagle came from the German Pavilion at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. It is perched right in the center of the elegant Grand Court at the department store. It weighs so much that the floor needed to be reinforced.

This elegant department store was also the primary filming location for Mannequin. 
The bronze eagle is beautiful, along with the rest of the Macy's Department Store.
For a shopping experience from a day gone by, Center City Philly's historic Macy's is the place to go. For me to make a statement about going to a department store, and enjoying it, says a lot about the place. The organ, eagle, and architecture are not to be missed. With it being located right across the street from City Hall, and just a few blocks from Reading Terminal Market, One Liberty Place Observation Deck, the Franklin Institute, and so much more, you need to be sure to stop in and check it out, especially during the holidays. 







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