For decades, Philadelphians have struggled over how to “fix” Market East. From The Gallery to the Fashion District, from the Pennsylvania Convention Center completed in 1993 to the imagined DisneyQuest that never came to fruition, and from minor disputes about digital billboards to major conflicts over a proposed Sixers arena, the commercial strip east of City Hall has been the focus of numerous rescue plans and development schemes. How refreshing it is to spend time reading about the days when the area was thriving.
In her new book, Philadelphia’s Strawbridge & Clothier: From Our Family to Yours, author Margaret Strawbridge Butterworth recounts the story of her family’s store from its Civil War era beginning as a small dry goods shop to its eventual late 20th century demise. Written by a member of the Strawbridge family, the book has an unapologetically nostalgic tone. Butterworth’s approach to the topic works well, as so many of her Philadelphia-area readers regard the heyday of grand department stores in general, and Strawbridge & Clothier in particular, through their own lens of nostalgia.
Although Justus Strawbridge had been selling dry goods on the northwest corner of 8th and Market Streets since 1861, the partnership of Strawbridge & Clothier was established in 1868. By the end of the 1870s, Lit Brothers opened on the northeast corner of 8th and Market Streets, Snellenberg’s sat at 12th and Market Streets, and John Wanamaker’s took up the whole block of 13th and Market Streets (today’s Macy’s). Gimbel’s opened in 1894. By the turn of the 20th century, just as construction of City Hall was ending, Market East was not a problem to be fixed, but rather a source of economic growth, consumer delight, and civic pride. Butterworth explains some of the logistics of how these early department stores worked including horse drawn delivery carriages and the use of “cash boys” and “cash girls” who ran packages and payments to a central station staffed by wrappers and cashiers.
Most Philadelphia history buffs have at least a general familiarity with Wanamaker. He was active in the civic and religious life of the city, served as U.S. Postmaster General, and invented marketing techniques including price tags (as an alternative to haggling) and returnable goods. A statue of Wanamaker has graced the east apron of City Hall since 1923. Justus Strawbridge and Isaac Clothier, on the other hand, have been obscure figures. As devout Quakers, both men adhered to the Friends’ belief in simplicity and modesty.
Strawbridge and Clothier sought wealth as they opened successively larger stores on the corner of 8th and Market Streets, but they did so in an understated fashion. They were committed to achieving success while displaying integrity in their business practices. Like Wanamaker, they offered items at a single price. They did all business in cash, believing that credit purchases cheated the paying customer. Polite service and fair prices were of paramount importance. Throughout the life of the store, Strawbridge & Clothier was run by members of the Strawbridge family who were expected to continue to do business in the spirit of the founders.
The Store Family
As Butterworth describes throughout her book, what truly set Strawbridge & Clothier apart from the competition was the way in which it treated its employees, known from the early years of the company as the Store Family. Butterworth provides numerous examples of programs designed to improve the lives of employees and, no doubt, to inspire loyalty and continuity in the workforce. Strawbridge & Clothier was known to give generous employee benefits and to pay competitive wages, but the extent of the company’s workforce opportunities went well beyond these standard measures.
For example, a house in North Wildwood was purchased as a discounted summer vacation residence for female employees. In 1910, a medical room for employees at 8th and Market Streets offered health and dental care. Later, a nurse’s station was opened in each branch store. Also in 1910, a vacant lot in West Philadelphia was transformed into an athletic facility that included baseball diamonds, tennis courts, and, eventually, a gym and locker rooms. Employees were encouraged to participate in sports, and stores were closed on Memorial Day for a day-long track meet and family fête. Although the facility was sold in 1926, employees continued to participate in bowling, softball, and basketball leagues.
When the current 13-story building was constructed in the early 1930s, it included terraces designated as employee break areas. The Strawbridge & Clothier chorus sang at store functions and in venues throughout the city. Anniversary Sale rallies were held each June, the highlight of which were performances of musical numbers by the store’s executives. Store Chat, an employee magazine, was published regularly throughout the life of the store to maintain a sense of connection and camaraderie even as the store expanded well beyond its 8th and Market Streets flagship.
One might choose to view these examples of corporate welfare through a cynical lens. After all, rapid employee turnover is known to damage the bottom line, and perhaps these programs were designed with a cost/benefit analysis in mind. But Butterworth gives ample evidence that the Store Family ethos was real, at least to many employees. Interviews are included throughout the book in which former employees remember their days at Strawbridge & Clothier with great fondness. Employees tended to stay with the store for years and even decades. Annual Quarter Century Club banquets had more attendees each year, and even today the “I Worked at S & C” Facebook group has over 600 members.
Of course, all was not idyllic at Strawbridge & Clothier, especially for the store’s African American employees. For many years, elevator operators were the only Black faces that customers would see. The kitchen of the elegant Corinthian Room was staffed with African American women who worked behind the scenes. Black men labored as maintenance workers, janitors, or in stockrooms. Until the late 1940s, Black employees did not participate in the many clubs, sports leagues, and celebrations that were part of Store Family life. Indeed, during the early 20th century, Strawbridge & Clothier employees had a minstrel club. African American salespeople began to be hired after World War II, and at the time of the store’s sale in 1996 many Black employees had joined the Quarter Century Club, but very few had advanced beyond the sales floor.
Furthermore, for most of its history, Strawbridge & Clothier’s boardrooms and managerial positions were dominated by men. It took until 1944 for the first woman to be promoted to store manager. There would not be another female store manager until more than 30 years later. The first women on the board of directors joined in 1984. Also, paying female employees less than their male counterparts was standard practice for decades. It is worth noting, however, that the Eighth and Market Streets store’s medical center was run by Dr. Rachel Williams for over 50 years.
A Wistful Look Back
Although far from a perfect establishment, many in the Delaware Valley think of Strawbridge & Clothier with affection. Some people will recall hunting for bargains on Clover Days or at Anniversary Day sales. Others will remember the delicious smells of the Food Hall that opened in 1982. Some will recollect the anticipation of opening a gift that came in a bright yellow Strawbridge & Clothier box. Others will hark back to viewing scenes from A Christmas Carol during the holiday season or choosing the bronze statue of a boar, Il Porcellino, as a convenient meeting place or as a spot to admire the beautiful murals depicting scenes from Pennsylvania history above the elevators. Some might recall the fish tank in the restaurant at the Willow Grove store or sipping on a cocktail in the Corinthian Room at the flagship store on Market Street, something that was not allowed until the late 1970s due to the temperance views of the Quaker founders. Memories for some people in the region will focus on the store in Jenkintown, Ardmore, or in a Pennsylvania, South Jersey, or Delaware mall.
For me, all my memories are of the 8th and Market Streets behemoth. Strawbridge & Clothier was where we did much of our back-to-school shopping. I was never much of a shopper, but there was always a surefire delight in a trip to Strawbridge & Clothier: the circular parking ramps that my sister and I dubbed “the round and round.” In Butterworth’s book, I learned that the parking garage, like me, was born in 1964. It was built in partnership with Lit Brothers to entice car-owning city residents to shop on Market Street rather than in the car-friendly suburbs.
During this especially challenging time in the life of our country and our world, I suggest you join me in a bit of harmless escapism. Read Philadelphia’s Strawbridge & Clothier and experience a time when department stores were grand, employees formed a Store Family, and East Market Street meant elegant shopping experiences rather than a perennial problem to be fixed.