Shop 'til you drop

— If you get nos­tal­gic over Philly's hey­day as a re­tail­ing mecca, with names like Wana­maker, Lit Broth­ers and Gim­bel's, then here's a book that's right down your aisle.

Lawrence M. Ar­ri­gale and Thomas H. Keels stand with their new pho­to­graph­ic book, “Phil­adelphia’s Golden Age of Re­tail.”


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 or­ca­diapub­lish­

“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. ••


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