This month, as shoppers battle crowds to buy last-minute gifts for the holidays, Macy’s in Center City celebrates six decades of presenting the annual Christmas Light Show. The beloved Philadelphia tradition boasts 100,000 lights and elaborate displays that stretch four stories high in the Wanamaker Building’s Grand Court atrium. The show began in 1956 when the structure still served as the home of its namesake department store. This summer the beautifully ornate interior of the building was finally placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places for legal protection.
The Wanamaker Building opened in 1911 and was designed by architect Daniel H. Burnham in the Renaissance Revival style. It replaced the Wanamaker’s Grand Depot, which existed and operated on the same corner lot at 13th and Market Streets since 1876. The pomp and circumstance of the Wanamaker Building’s grand opening stands in stark contrast to the casual environment of most department stores today. John Wanamaker—the famed retail magnate—distributed elegantly crafted invitations to the nation’s elite, directing them to RSVP with his son Rodman. President William Howard Taft provided the evening’s keynote address.
Perhaps the lynchpin of the building’s grandeur, the famous Wanamaker organ made its debut in June of the building’s inaugural year in honor of King George V. The Wanamakers acquired the organ at the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis. Though it would take nearly two decades to reach its current size, the organ grew to include 28,482 pipes by 1930, making it the largest functioning organ in the world.
The impressive scope of the Wanamaker Building and its status as a pillar of social and commercial life in 20th century Philadelphia is further evidenced by images from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s archives that chronicle the store’s enormous workforce and the complex logistics behind its operation. Workers scurried around a spacious basement kitchen where they prepared food for customers enjoying an afternoon in the store’s Crystal Tea Room. Uniformed elevator operators welcomed patrons underneath detailed murals. Lines of delivery carts assembled outside the building’s facade to deliver goods across the city.
While the annual Christmas Light Show originated over a half century ago, Christmas festivities at the Wanamaker Building predate the 1950s. Wreaths festooned to the building’s enormous columns became a yearly fixture in the store’s first decade of operation. In one sign of how the times of changed, dramatic depictions of Jesus’ crucifixion regularly stared down shoppers as they browsed the consumer goods of the day. (John Wanamaker was a devout Christian who regularly proselytized to his workforce through educational initiatives such as his summer camp for young cashiers.)
By the 1930s, staff began setting up elaborate winter displays for the holidays, including snowy landscapes populated with penguins and figures from popular Christmastime stories.
Debuting in 1946, the building’s iconic monorail became a fixture of the holidays, enthralling young Philadelphians. Hanging down from the building’s 8th floor and whisking back and forth through the Wanamaker Building’s expansive atrium, the monorail showcased the store’s newest stock of toys.
While enchanting generations of Philadelphians through holiday cheer, the Wanamaker Building’s history of Christmas-themed celebrations have always been fundamentally connected to the commercial endeavor of driving sales.
All images appear courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Thanks for an interesting article. However, I believe your last photograph shows the Grand Court at Wanamaker’s during the Easter season, not Christmas. In the 1880s, John Wanamaker bought two huge paintings by Austro-Hungarian artist Mihaly Munkacsy, “Christ Before Pilate” and “Golgotha, or the Crucifixion.” After years in his private collection, Wanamaker began to display the two works of art in the Grand Court of his new store during the Easter season. The last photo shows “The Crucifixion” topped by palm fronds in what is surely an Easter display. The two paintings were displayed publicly until the 1980s when they were sold by the store’s corporate owners. Today they hang in a museum in Hungary.
co-author, “Philadelphia’s Golden Age of Retail”
Yup, and those would be palm fronds, not pine branches.
Tom, it’s Christmas. This is a Christmas article
Clearly it’s pre Easter, during Lent. You wouldn’t see the crucifixion at Christmas.
I believe Tom is correct. I remember seeing the two paintings displayed throughout Lent and the Easter season at Wanamakers. The Christmas displays were remarkable there and none of them are evident anywhere in this picture, as they are in other Christmas pictures of Wanamakers.
Great article and so detailed and informative. Continue on with all you do.
Great piece! Thanks for your work and research
Great to know what happened to those extraordinary and enormous paintings. I hope the Hungarian people are enjoying them, though they added something unique at Wanamaker’s.
The intensity of John Wanamaker never ceases to amaze!
Great article! Being of a certain vintage I can say I seen my first Light Show in 1958 and havent missed a year since! One feature I do recall at Christmas was a large, illuminated cathedral surrounded by scenes of the Nativity and the Visitation that were at the second floor level in the Grand Court!Let us hope that this magnificent Cathedral of Commerce lives on for future generations to come!
Worked there. Got walk through the rooms
As a child in the 1940’s and ’50’s, we grew up knowing that the “real Santa Claus” was at Wanamaker’s. My dad had been a Wanamaker’s Cadet, as I was told they were called from about the time he was 10 years old, in the 1920’s. They wore uniforms with gloves, and helped in the store, including delivering presents purchased there, and were “inspected” before each delivery foray. We may trips there from our home in Camden every Christmas.
My Dad, Warren Worrell, raised in a Quaker family in Philadelphia, took us to Philly for parades and to see Wanamaker’s — to the “real” Santa, each Christmas, and shows at “the great organ”. And parades – Thanksgiving, the 4th of July….
My Memories Of John Wanamaker’s Will forever Live In My Mind and Heart, Such a Very VERY Special Place. The Jewel Of the Heart Of Philadelphia. There has Never Been and Will ever Be another Like John Wannamaker’s
My grandmother worked at Wanamaker’s Philadelphia store in 1911 and 1912. She displayed fabrics women would choose for tailor made dresses. She also worked in ladies gloves. She was a beautiful young woman. I have photos of her, her calling card from Wanamaker’s, hat pins, and a plume from one of her hats on display in a huge frame on my wall. She told me when Wanamaker’s opened for business, young men stood at the front entrance and tooted their horns signifying the store was officially open. There was an organ on the mezzanine that played throughout the day. When the Titanic sunk in April 1912, she told me newsboys were shouting details while selling papers outside the front entrance of Wanamaker’s. She also witnessed cruel treatment of horses on the streets of Philadelphia.