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John Wanamaker (1889–1893) - Postmaster General

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John Wanamaker was born in 1838 near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He began working at the age of 13, first as an errand boy for a publishing house and then in a men’s clothing business, where he rose through the ranks to become a salesman.

Due to a spate of sickness in 1857, Wanamaker traveled west to regain his health. He returned to Philadelphia later that year and worked as a secretary for the Philadelphia Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). In 1861, he pooled his savings with those of his brother-in-law to form Wanamaker and Brown’s Clothing Store. Within a decade, the company had become the largest business of its kind in the country. In 1868, following the death of his brother-in-law, Wanamaker renamed the business Wanamaker & Company and expanded it into one of the largest retail stores in the world. Ten years later, he became the first owner to wire his store with electricity; by the 1880s, Wanamaker’s name was synonymous with American business success.

By 1889, Wanamaker was applying some of his successful business practices to the Post Office Department in his new job as postmaster general. Appointed to the position by President Benjamin Harrison, Wanamaker instituted a number of changes, including the establishment of rural free delivery and sea post offices, the transformation of stamps into collectors’ items, the creation of a postal telegraph system, and the use of pneumatic tubes to conduct business in department headquarters.

When he left the cabinet in 1893, Wanamaker refocused his attention on his business. He still kept his hand in politics, making an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1896 and for the governor’s mansion in 1898. The financial panic of 1907 nearly cost him his fortune, but he was able to survive, and Wanamaker’s remained as one of the nation’s top department stores well into the twentieth century. John Wanamaker died in 1922 and was named to the Advertising Hall of Fame in 1949.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Allan B. Spetter

Professor Spetter is a professor emeritus of history at Wright State University. His writings include:

The Presidency of Benjamin Harrison (Co-authored with Homer E. Socolofsky, University Press of Kansas, 1987)