A century before the World Wide Web brought online shopping to consumers, merchants developed a simpler, yet analogous retail model in Philadelphia.
It happened on Market Street, where some of the nation’s largest department stores and many smaller specialty shops lined the city’s central thoroughfare from Seventh Street west to Broad Street in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th.
Retail giants including Strawbridge & Clothier, Lit Brothers, Gimbel Brothers, Snellenburg’s and John Wanamaker all had a presence there and towered side-by-side over the bustling street below.
Much in the way that folks now use the Internet for one-stop shopping, consumers then could rely on Market Street for the latest merchandise and a seemingly endless selection, all within short walking distance.
A new book of photographs and historical anecdotes, Philadelphia’s Golden Age of Retail by Lawrence M. Arrigale and Thomas H. Keels, showcases these long-lost and nostalgically beloved commercial institutions, while chronicling their eventual expansion beyond the city’s Downtown and ultimately their financial collapse.
Released by Arcadia Publishing as part of its Images of America series, the book is 127 pages, includes about 250 vintage photos and is available for $21.99 via Amazon.com or www.arcadiapublishing.com.
“Philadelphia’s shopping district was very concentrated, from Seventh Street through City Hall,” Keels said. “The big department stores were on Market Street and, one block south on Chestnut, you had the carriage trade (stores): J.E. Caldwell, The Blum Store, Bailey Banks and Biddle. They were all next to each other in the nineteenth century.
Nothing compared to it at the time, not even in New York City.
“It was like having Macy’s next to Bloomingdale’s next to Lord and Taylor,” said Keels, 57, a Princeton native who moved to Philadelphia in 1988.
In fact, for many years three of Philadelphia’s “big five” — Lit’s, Gimbel’s and Strawbridge’s – majestically occupied different corners of the same intersection, Eighth and Market.
The Arrigale/Keels volume actually traces the city’s retail history much earlier than the so-called Golden Age. There are illustrated advertisements for Jacob Reed’s Wholesale Clothing, which opened at 246 Market St. in 1824; as well as the original Wanamaker and Brown in the Oak Hall building at Sixth and Market. It opened in 1861.
Nathan Brown was John Wanamaker’s brother-in-law and partner. He died in 1868, before Wanamaker expanded the business first to a shop at Eighth and Chestnut, and in 1876 into a former railroad freight depot at 13th and Market, where it grew to occupy an entire city block.
The earliest actual photo in the book is an 1859 image showing the ill-fated pavilions known as “Market Houses” that ran for blocks down the center of Market Street and sheltered a once-popular bazaar. They were torn down in the early 1860s.
The growth of the city’s retail sector mirrored its growth economically and its growth in population.
“Philadelphia was a wealthy city. It was the ‘workshop of the world,’” Keels said. “We had all of those big factory jobs. [With a working man’s earnings] you could own your own house and you could furnish it. And you could walk into one of these stores and furnish your house from top to bottom. These stores were everything to all people.”
People tended to live closer to the city’s Downtown in those days, so they had easy access to the centrally located shopping district.
“They used to all live here, a trolley ride away,” said Arrigale, 53, a South Philly native. “I grew up at Tenth and Snyder and I could hop on a trolley and be here in ten to fifteen minutes.”
The Downtown department stores were already starting their decline by the time Arrigale was a youngster, however.
After World War II, families began flocking to outlying areas of the city, including the Northeast, along with the suburbs.
The stores “went where the people went,” Arrigale said. “All of a sudden, you have the big stores moving to Cottman Avenue.”
Lit Brothers was the first big name in the Northeast, opening along with a Food Fair store at Cottman and Castor avenues in 1954. The building later housed a Clover, then a JCPenney, but has been vacant for about a decade.
In what the authors describe as an arms race of marketing, the big department stores battled for territory and shoppers on the Main Line, in Eastern Montgomery County and in South Jersey.
“Between 1950 and 1980, you had over forty branch stores open up from the five majors,” Keels said. “It was very much the idea of chasing what were seen as the most-profitable markets. And it really started to backfire. When sales started to decline, they were stuck with all of this expensive real estate.”
The industry may never regain its Golden Age luster.
The old Gimbel’s is now a parking lot. The old Lit’s and Strawbridge’s are each occupied by a combination of small retail shops and business office uses. The towering Wanamaker building now primarily houses Macy’s Center City, although that operation uses only a fraction of the former Wanamaker’s space. The old store’s giant pipe organ, billed as the largest in the world, is still operable and remains a major tourist attraction.
“I’d say that nostalgia is definitely part of the appeal of the book,” Arrigale said. ••EndFragment