Sixty Years Of Holiday Cheer At Wanamaker’s

Christmas season in the Wanamaker Building. Photograph. 1920. John Wanamaker collection. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

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.

Christmas display in Wanamaker’s toy department of penguins and a tree hung with stockings. Photograph. 1930. John Wanamaker collection. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

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.

Photograph taken during the construction of the Wanamaker store at 13th and Market Streets in August 1904. The photograph, taken by D.H. Burnham & Co., Architects, shows the exposed frame of the building and construction materials, as well as workers and horse and buggies on the street. Photograph. 1904. John Wanamaker collection. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Invitation to the dedication of the new Wanamaker store on December 30, 1911. Ephemera. John Wanamaker collection. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Photograph of President William Howard Taft addressing a large audience at Wanamaker’s store dedication. The building’s famous eagle statue can be seen in the foreground. Photo-graph. 1911. John Wanamaker collection. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Early Ford delivery trucks lined up on 13th Street outside the Wanamaker Building. Undated. John Wanamaker collection. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Wanamaker Building’s industrial kitchen. Photograph. Circa 1940. John Wanamaker collection. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Elevator hall inside the Wanamaker Building. Photograph. Undated. John Wanamaker collec-tion. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

View of the Wanamaker Building’s famous organ during the Christmas season. A large painting of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ hangs in front of the organ. Photograph. Undated. John Wa-namaker collection. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

 

About the author

This article was produced in collaboration with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and written by Patrick Glennon. Located at 1300 Locust Street and open to the public Tuesdays through Fridays, HSP is one of the nation’s largest archives of historical documents, with over 21 million manuscripts, books, and graphic images encompassing centuries of US history. Find upcoming public programs, start your own research project, and learn more about HSP.



11 Comments


  1. 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.
    Tom Keels
    co-author, “Philadelphia’s Golden Age of Retail”

  2. Great article and so detailed and informative. Continue on with all you do.

  3. Great piece! Thanks for your work and research

  4. 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.

  5. The intensity of John Wanamaker never ceases to amaze!

  6. 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!

  7. Worked there. Got walk through the rooms

  8. Saw my first light show early 80s and then my brother and I played with the Tonka truck display!

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