The Business of Religion in an Iconic Department Store
On Christmas Eve, 1911, John Wanamaker stood in the middle of his elaborately decorated department store building in Philadelphia as shoppers milled around him picking up last minute Christmas presents. On that night, as for years to come, the store was filled with the sound of Christmas carols sung by thousands of shoppers, accompanied by the store’s Great Organ. Wanamaker recalled that moment in his diary, “I said to myself that I was in a temple,” a sentiment quite possibly shared by the thousands who thronged the store that night.
Remembered for his store’s extravagant holiday decorations and displays, Wanamaker built one of the largest retailing businesses in the world and helped to define the American retail shopping experience. From the freedom to browse without purchase and the institution of one price for all customers to generous return policies, he helped to implement retailing conventions that continue to define American retail to this day. Wanamaker was also a leading Christian leader, participating in the major Protestant moral reform movements from his youth until his death in 1922. But most notably, he found ways to bring his religious commitments into the life of his store. He focused on the religious and moral development of his employees, developing training programs and summer camps to build their character, while among his clientele he sought to cultivate a Christian morality through decorum and taste.
Wanamaker’s Temple examines how and why Wanamaker blended business and religion in his Philadelphia store, offering a historical exploration of the relationships between religion, commerce, and urban life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and illuminating how they merged in unexpected and public ways. Wanamaker's marriage of religion and retail had a pivotal role in the way American Protestantism was expressed and shaped in American life, and opened a new door for the intertwining of personal values with public commerce.
"[A] trenchant...study of John Wanamaker and Wanamaker’s department stores through the lens of evangelical Protestantism at the turn of the 20th century.... Kirk persuasively shows that Wanamaker’s Christian faith and business acumen informed one another within his own life and work."
"The John Wanamaker Department Store was one of America's first great temples of consumption. Nicole C. Kirk argues that [it] was more than a successful business enterprise, it was also a successful ministry. John Wanamaker was as committed to evangelicalism and the social gospel as he was to selling silks and satins."
—Marc Levinson , The Wall Street Journal
"John Wanamaker, department-store magnate, was also a stalwart of evangelical Christianity. His innovative entrepreneurialism mixed comfortably with Protestant testimonials, prayer meetings, Sunday school lessons, and philanthropic projects. Carefully unpacking these convergences, Nicole Kirk reveals the art, architecture, and pedagogy of Wanamaker’s richly merchandised faith. His Philadelphia store doubled as a temple of refinement and uplift; therein the marriage of consumption and Christianity was sumptuously celebrated. Kirk’s vivid rendering allows the reader to feast at that momentous wedding."
—Leigh Eric Schmidt, Edward C. Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities, Washington University i
- "In the history of American religion, the intricate relationship between belief and commerce merits the closest attention. Nicole Kirk provides a richly researched and well organized study of one of the high priests of Protestant wealth. And she makes a wonderful contribution to the understanding of religious material culture and the aesthetics of commodity culture as an integral part of the rise of consumerism and the role that Protestantism has played in it."
—David Morgan, Duke University
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