Little Visits with Great Americans

by Orison Swett Marden

John Wanamaker, Honesty, the Foundation of a Great Merchant's Career

The men who manipulate the levers that move the world, with few exceptions, were once poor boys. One of the largest retail stores in the world, in Philadelphia, and one of the handsomest stores in America, in New York, are monuments of the genius, industry and integrity of a "boy with no chance" who has become the peer of any of the merchant kings of our century. He is also one of the very foremost in many other enterprises.

To accomplish all these various things, it would be supposed that Mr. Wanamaker must have been a pet of fortune from the first. But that is not so. He began with nothing, as money goes, and has pushed his way to the top by sheer force of character, and by unwearying work.

I know of no career in this country that offers more encouragement to young people. It shows what persistency can do; it shows what intelligent, well-directed, tireless effort can do; and it proves that a man may devote himself to helping others, to the Sunday school, to the church, to broad philanthropy, and still be wonderfully successful in a business way.


John Wanamaker, the boy, had no single thing in all his surroundings to give him an advantage over anyone of hundreds of other boys in the city of Philadelphia. Indeed, there were hundreds of other boys of his own age for whom anyone would have felt safe in prophesying a more notable career. But young Wanamaker had an inheritance beyond that of almost any of the others. It was not money; very few boys in all that great city had less money than John Wanamaker, and comparatively few families of average position but were better off in the way of worldly goods. John Wanamaker's inheritance, that stood him in such goodstead in after life, was good health, good habits, a clean mind, thrift in money matters, and tireless devotion to whatever he thought to be duty.He went to school some, not very much; he assisted his mother in the house a great deal, and around his father's brickyard he was very helpful so far as a boy could be helpful in such hard work. But he had ambition beyond such things, and in 1853, when in his fifteenth year, he found work with a publishing house at $1.50 a week.

I know a number of people who were well acquainted with John Wanamaker when he was a book publisher's boy. Most of them say that he was an exceptionally promising boy; that he was studious as well as attentive to business. Some of them declare that he used to buy a book or some such gift for his mother regularly with part of his savings. This may be partly romance, —the exaggerated remembrance that most people have of a boy who, as a man, cuts a notable figure in the world. Very likely he did buy some books, but the best that I can get is that, after all, he was very much like other boys, except that he did not take kindly to rough play, or do much playing of any kind, and that he was saving of his money. He was earnest in his work, unusually earnest for a boy, and so when, a little later, he went to a Market street clothing house and asked for a place, he had no difficulty in getting it, nor had he any trouble in holding it.


His effort was to be first at the store in the morning, and he was very likely to be one of the last, if not the last at the store in the evening. But he did not expect credit for this. Men who worked with him in theTower Hall clothing store say that he was always bright, willing, accommodating, and very seldom out of temper. If there was an errand, "John" was always prompt and glad to do it. And so the store people liked him, and the proprietor liked him, and, when he began to sell clothing, the customers liked him. He was considerate of their interests. He did not try to force undesirable goods upon them. He treated them so that when they came again they would be apt to ask, "Where is John?" There was nothing in all this that any boy could not have done; it is simply the spirit that any boyor young man should show now, —must show if he expects to succeed wonderfully. Of course this could only lead to something higher. An ambitious young man, such as John Wanamaker, was not to be contented to sell goods all his days for other people. It was not long before he became secretary of the Young Men's Christian Association at $1,000 a year. In the course of a few years he had saved $2,000, when, joining with a friend who had $2,000, they decided to open a clothing store of their own.

Now here was successful growth without one single outside influence to help the young man along. He got his first situation without influence. He got into Tower Hall without influence. His earnestness, activity and ability got him the secretaryship. He saved $2,000 while other young men, who perhaps had earned many times more than he, had saved nothing. He had made friends among the customers of the old store, and he had not only made friends of many of the employees there, but he had impressed them all with the feeling that here was a young man whom it was safe to tie to.He had also made friends among church people and helpful folk generally. All of this was great capital.


At the very outset of his storekeeping, John Wanamaker did what ahnost any other business man would have stood aghast at. He chose the best man he knew as a salesman in the clothing business in Philadelphia, and agreed to pay him $1,350 a year, —one-third of the entire capital of the new concern. It seemed reckless extravagance. And there were other employees, too, whose salaries must be paid, what could justify the promise of this great sum just for one assistant! This move that seemed so audacious was really a very wise one; for, when the new employee went with Mr. Wanamaker to New York to buy goods, the fact of his association added credit to the young house and so a little money was eked out with a good deal more of credit, and a very fair stock of goods was laid in. This was just as the war began. Oak Hall was a success from the start. Possibly, under the circumstances, any sort of a clothing venture that had fair backing would have been a success. But no ordinary concern could have grown so rapidly and so healthfully as Oak Hall grew.

And right here another characteristic of Mr. Wanamaker's makeup strikingly manifested itself; he was not bound by precedent. No matter how time-honored a business method might be if it did not strike him as the wisest, he put it aside at once. And from the first he fully appreciated the importance of attracting public attention. As a boy he had published "Everybody's Journal," —a hodge-podge of odd bits with dabs of original matter; notable then and now mainly because it indicated the bent of the young mind. At Oak Hall the same spirit of innovation was continually shown. It has often been told how Mr. Wanamaker delivered his first order in a wheelbarrow, and put the money ($38) into an advertisement in 'The Inquirer." But this was only one instance significant of the man.


Philadelphia awoke one morning to find "W. & B." in the form of six-inch square posters stuck up all over the town. There was not another letter, no hint, just "W. & B," Such things are common enough now, but then the whole city was soon talking and wondering what this sign meant. After a few days, a second poster modestly stated that Wanamaker & Brown had begun to sell clothing at Oak Hall.

Of course the young firm got business rapidly. When any man gets out of a rut and in the direction of more enterprise, it helps him. Before long there were great signs, each 100 feet in length, painted on special fences built in a dozen places about the city, particularly near the railroad stations. These told of the new firm and were the first of a class that are now seen all over the country. New ideas in advertising were cropping out. In time, balloons more than twenty feet high were sent up, and a suit of clothes was given to each person who brought one of them back. Whole counties were stirred up by the balloons. It was grand advertising, imitated since by all sorts of people. When the balloon idea struck the Oak Hall management it was quickly found that the only way to get these air-ships was to make them, and so, on the roof of the store, the cotton cloth was cut and oiled and put together. Being well built, and tied very tightly at the neck, they made long flights and some of them were used over and over again. In one instance, a balloon remained for more than six months in a cranberry swamp, and when the great bag was discovered, slowly swaying in the breeze, among the bushes, the frightened Jerseymen thought they had come upon an elephant, or, maybe, a survivor of the mastodons. This made more advertising of the very best kind for the clothing store, —the kind that excites interested, complimentary talk.


Genius consists in taking advantage of opportunities quite as much as in making them. Here was a young man doing things in an advertising way regardless of the custom of the business world, and with a wonderful knowledge of human nature. He took common-sense advantage of opportunities that were open to everybody.

Soon after the balloon experience, tally-ho coaching began to be a Philadelphia fad of the very exclusives. Immediately afterward a crack coach was secured, and six large and spirited horses were used instead of four, and Oak Hall employees, dressed in the style of the most ultra coaching set, traversed the country in every direction, scattering advertising matter to the music of the horn. Sometimes they would be a week on a trip. No wonder Oak Hall flourished. It was kept in the very front of the procession all the time.

A little later, in the yachting season, the whole town was attracted and amused by processions and scatterings of men, each wearing a wire body frame that supported a thin staff from which waved a wooden burgee, or pointed flag, reminding them of Oak Hall. Nearly two hundred of these prototypes of the "Sandwich man" were often out at one time.

But it was not only in the quick catching of a novel advertising thought that the new house was making history; in newspaper advertising, it was even further in advance. The statements of store news were crisp and unhackneyed, and the first artistic illustrations ever put into advertisements were used there. So high was the grade of this picture-work that art schools regularly clipped the illustrations as models; and the world famous Shakespearean scholar, Dr. Horace Howard Furness, treasured the original sketches of "The Seven Ages" as among the most interesting in his unique collection.

As a storekeeper he was just as original. It was the universal rule in those days, in the clothing trade, not to mark the prices plainly on the goods that were for sale. Within rather liberal bounds, the salesman got what he could from the customer. Mr. Wanamaker, after a time, instituted at Oak Hall the plan of "but one price and that plainly marked," —the beginning of still another revolution in business methods. He saw to it that customers had prompt and careful attention. If a sale was missed, he required a written reason for it from the salesman. There was no haphazard business in that store, —nothing of the happy-go-lucky style. Each man must be alert, wide-awake, attentive, or there was no place for him at Oak Hall.


And Mr. Wanamaker's habits of economy were never relaxed. It is told of him that, in the earlier days of Oak Hall, he used to gather up the short pieces of string that came in on parcels, make them into a bunch, and see that they were used when bundles were to be tied. He also had a habit of smoothing out old newspapers, and seeing that they were used as wrappers for such things as did not require a better grade of paper.

A considerable portion of the trade of the new store came from people in the country districts. Mr. Wanamaker had a way of getting close to them and gaining their good will. An old employee of the firm says, "John used to put a lot of chestnuts in his pocket along in the fall and winter, and, when he had one of these countrymen in tow, he'd slip a few of the nuts into the visitor's hand and both would go munching about the store." Another salesman of the old house says: "If we saw a man come in chewing gum, we knew it was of no use trying to sell him anything. You see, he was sure to be as green as grass and fully convinced that we were all watching for a chance to cheat him. John said it was all nonsense; that such people came on purpose to buy, and were the easiest people in the world to sell to. And he would prove it. He would chew gum with them, and talk farm or crops or cattle with them. They'd buy of him every time. But none of us could ever get his knack of dealing with country men."

There it is. This young merchant understood human nature. He put his customer at ease. He showed interest in the things that interested the farmer. He was frank and open with him, and just familiar enough not to lose a bit of the respect and deference that superiority commands.


Meantime Mr. Wanamaker was interesting himself in Sunday school work, as well as in Christian Association matters. He established a Sunday school in one of the most unpromising of the down-town sections, and there built up tlie largest school of the kind in the world, —with a membership of something like three thousand. This school proved a powerful factor for good.

He was also active in general philanthropic work. He was making his mark on almost every phase of the city's life. Such activity and forceful good sense are always sure to make their mark. When the great store was started in 1877 at Thirteenth and Market streets, Mr. Wanamaker announced certain fundamental principles that should mark the course of the enterprise. The one-price thought was continued, of course. But he went far beyond that. He announced that those who bought goods of him were to be satisfied with what they bought, or have their money back.

To the old mercantile houses of the city this seemed like committing business suicide. It was also unheard of that special effort should be made to add to the comfort of visitors, to make them welcome whether they cared to buy or not, yo induce them to look upon the store as a meeting-place, a rendezvous, a resting-place, —a sort of city home, almost. Yet these things that were thought to forebode so much of disaster to the old generation of merchants, have completely overturned the methods of retailing throughout the United States. That "Wanamaker way" is now almost the universal way.

When asked what he attributed his great success to, Mr. Wanamaker said: "To thinking, toiling, trying and trusting in God," Surely, his life has been crowded with work. Even now, when wealth and honor have been heaped upon him, he is likely to be the earliest man at the store, and the last to leave at night, —just as when a boy at Tower Hall.


He cares little for money, and even less for fame.

When I asked him to name the essentials of success, he replied, curtly: "I might write a volume trying to tell you how to succeed. One way is to not be above taking a hint from a master. I don't care to tell why I succeeded, because I object to talking about myself. It isn't modest."

Mr. Wanamaker is epigrammatical at times. I asked him if a man with means but no experience would be safe in embarking in a mercantile business, and he replied, quickly : —

"A man can't drive a horse who has never seen one. No; a man must have training, must know how to buy and sell; only experience teaches that."

When I asked him whether the small tradesmen has any "show" to-day against the great department stores, he said : —

"All of the great stores were small at one time. Small stores will keep on developing into big ones. You wouldn't expect a man to put an iron band around his business in order to prevent expansion, would you? There are, according to statistics, a greater number of prosperous small stores in the city than ever before. What better proof do you want ?

"The department store is a natural product, evolved from conditions that exist as a result of fixed trade laws. Executive capacity, combined with command of capital, finds opportunity in these conditions, which are harmonious with the irresistible determination of the producer to meet the consumer directly, and of merchandise to find distribution along the lines of least resistance. Reduced prices stimulate consumption and increased employment, and it is sound opinion that the increased employment created by the department stores goes to women without curtailing that of men. In general it may be stated that large retail stores have shortened the hours of labor, and by systematic discipline have made it lighter. The small store is harder upon the sales person and clerk. The effects upon the character and capacity of the employees are good. A well ordered, modern retail store is a means of education in spelling, writing, English language, system and method. Thus it becomes to the ambitious and serious employees, in a small way, a university, in which character is broadened by intelligent instruction practically applied."

A feature of his make-up that has contributed largely to the many-sidedness of his success is his ability to concentrate his thoughts. No matter how trivial the subject that is brought before him, he takes it up with the seeming of one who has nothing else on his mind. While under the cares of his stores, —retail and wholesale, — of the Sunday school, of the postmaster-generalship, of vast railroad interests, of extensive real estate transactions, and while he was weighing the demands of leading citizens that he accept a nomination for mayor of Philadelphia, I have seen him take up the case of a struggling church society, or the troubles of an individual, with the interest and patience that would be expected of a pastor or a professional adviser. He is phenomenal in this respect. Probably not one young man in a thousand could develop this trait so remarkably, but any young man can try for it, and he will be all the better and stronger for so trying.

In one physical particular Mr. Wanamaker is now very remarkable; he can work continually for a long time without sleep and without evidence of strain, and make up for it by good rest afterward. This, perhaps, is because of his lack of nervousness. He is always calm. Under the greatest stress he never loses his head. I fancy that this comes from training, as well as from inheritance. It adds amazingly to the power that any man can assert. It is certainly a tendency that can be cultivated.


I have heard it said a hundred times that Mr. Wanamaker started when success was easy. Here is what he says himself about it : —

"I think I could succeed as well now as in the past. It seems to me that the conditions of today are even more favorable to success than when I was a boy. There are better facilities for doing business, and more business to be done. Information in the shape of books and newspapers is now in the reach of all, and the young man has two opportunities where he formerly had one.

"We are much more afraid of combinations of capital than we have any reason for being. Competition regulates everything of that kind. No organization can make immense profits for any length of time without its field soon swarming with competitors. It requires brain and muscle to manage any kind of business, and the same elements which have produced business success in the past will produce it now, and will always produce it."

I have heard others marvel at the unbroken upward course of Mr. Wanamaker's career, and lament that they so often make mistakes. But hear him : —

"Who does not make mistakes? Why, if I were to think only of the mistakes I have made, I should be miserable indeed."


He has exceptional skill in getting the best that is possible out of his helpers. On one occasion he said : —

"We are very foolish people if we shut our ears and eyes to what other people are doing. I often pick up things from strangers. As you go along, pick up suggestions here and there, jot them down and send them along. Even writing them down helps to concentrate your mind on that part of the work. You need not be afraid of overstepping the mark and stepping on somebody's heels. The more we push each other, the better."

This is another Wanamaker characteristic: he wants everyone associated with him to "push." Stagnation and death are very nearly synonymous words in his vocabulary.

Out of it all stands a man who has been monumentally successful as a merchant and in general business; a man who has helped his fellow-man while helping himself.

The lesson of such a life should be precious to every young man. It teaches the value of untiring efifort, of economy, of common sense applied to common business. It gives one more proof that no height of success is, in this country, beyond the reasonable ambition of any youth who desires to succeed.

I have no doubt that thousands on thousands of young men in the United States are today better equipped in almost every way than was John Wanamaker when he began business for himself in 1861. Very likely, not one in a hundred of them will make a mark of any significance. The fault will be their own, —they will not have the compelling force that comes from "thinking, toiling, trying," and the serene confidence that then comes from "trusting" a guiding power through every change of circumstances.

«— Chapter 5, Marshall Field || Index Page || Chapter 7, Sir Thomas J. Lipton —»