Several years ago, Francis “Frank” Strawbridge’s daughter Meg Butterworth was in town visiting from Seattle when she noticed something disturbing — a historical marker honoring the former John Wanamaker department store, now Macy’s.
Nothing wrong with that.
But why, she wondered, wasn’t there a historical marker outside the former Strawbridge & Clothier department store honoring the retailing company that her great-great grandfather, Justus C. Strawbridge, and his partner, Isaac H. Clothier, began at 8th and Market in 1868?
After all, she pointed out, Strawbridge & Clothier was older. Wanamaker didn’t open his store at 13th and Market until 1876.
“So, I began to look into it,” said Strawbridge, 82, who, with his cousin, Peter Strawbridge, led the 39-store chain until it was sold in 1996. Frank was the chairman, succeeding Peter’s father, Stockton Strawbridge. Peter served as president.
On Dec. 17, Frank, Peter, and, of course, Meg will be on hand to dedicate a historic marker honoring the company, to be erected at 8th and Market.
“For the next 128 years, the company grew as the city of Philadelphia grew, employing and serving generations of Philadelphia and Delaware Valley residents,” the marker reads, describing the founders as “two Quaker gentlemen.”
Before the business was sold, it “was the longest standing flagship store in the nation,” the marker says, “with continuous family involvement in ownership and management of the company.”
The building, a graceful mid-rise both simple and elegant, now holds offices, including The Inquirer, which is housed on the floor where sportswear, coats, and dresses were sold. Strawbridge’s once anchored the Gallery, an urban planning experiment that put a suburban-style mall in Center City.
Former Strawbridge’s chairman Stockton Strawbridge helped develop the Gallery and founded the Market Street East Development Association, the predecessor organization to the Center City District. “He was a visionary,” Frank Strawbridge said, describing his uncle who passed away in 1997. “He put a great deal of emphasis on cleaning up Market Street, making it an exciting shopping district. He would refer to his desire for Market Street to become the Champs-Élysées of Philadelphia.”
Frank Strawbridge’s Center City apartment affords views of both his family’s former store and the new Fashion District, a Gallery makeover with many shops and Center City’s first new movie theater in years. The District opened in September.
I met with Strawbridge to ask what he makes of all the changes (answers have been edited for brevity).
Question: What do you think of the new Fashion District?
Answer: I’m encouraged and excited. It touches all the bases, checks all the boxes. It’s more than just a retail mall. It has the movies, the bowling alley, all those entertainment things, which is the way retailing is going now. If malls aren’t more than just retail, they’re not doing well.
Q: And a Yards Brewery — very exciting. Any favorites? I like Yards’ Love Stout. (Probably why I’m getting stouter.)
A: I’m not a beer drinker, so I can’t say. But that’s the kind of thing malls need today.
Q: Your marker will be dedicated on Dec. 17. If you were still in retailing, what would you being doing on that date instead?
A: I’d be hoping it doesn’t snow or rain hard on the upcoming Saturday, which would have been the biggest retail day of the year, bigger than [Black Friday]. So, I’d be hoping we’d have good weather.
Q: But you don’t want it to be too warm either, right?
A: No, no, no. The gloves, the coats, scarves, if it was too warm, all that would drop off.
Q: What did you like best about the holiday retail season?
A: Coming into Thanksgiving to the Christmas period is the most exciting hustle-bustle time of the year. The stores are crowded. It’s a great time to be on the selling floor, mingling with the crowds. That’s wonderful. The other thing, which was year-round, was working with Pete. He and I had a very good relationship and it was good to work so closely and well with Pete. Our office crew — they were just a good, solid, fine group of people — a pleasure to work with. And then, third, was what I call the store family — all sales associates, the people in receiving — they were a good group.
Q: How about the stress of the season?
A: The Christmas season, that was your whole year. We did as much in one day in that Thanksgiving-to-Christmas season as we did practically in the whole month of July. Every day was a little bit tense, especially with weather. You had to have all your merchandise in and ready to go. You didn’t have time to reorder because there wasn’t that much time.
Q: Your forecasts had to be on the money. Did you ever miss anything hot?
A: No, we luckily hit them. Our buyers were pretty darn sharp. We really hit the pierced-ears trend. They were a hot thing. We had a promotion where we offered to pierce your ears for free when you bought a pair of those little, round gold-ball earrings. Everybody came in for that. I think they were lined up all around the first floor.
Q: As an Inquirer business reporter, I covered the sale of your stores in 1996. It was wrenching. What was the most upsetting aspect of the sale?
A: The fact that we were selling a company that had been around and successful for 128 years.
Q: So, why did you sell? I remember you, Sears, Boscov’s, and Federated — the store company that owns Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s — lost a joint bid to buy the bankrupt Wanamakers chain. The May Department Stores Co. won the bid in June 1995. Then, just over a year later, you sold your stores to May.
A: We ran into tough times in the 1990s.
Q: What happened?
A: Clover [Strawbridge’s 27-store discount division] was not growing the way we had hoped. The [13-store] department store division was not showing sales increases. That set off alarm bells. And then, Walmart was moving in. Target was moving in. Bigness was moving in. The May Co. was national and had gotten Wanamakers. Looking ahead, the internet. It was the right time to sell. It was a difficult decision given our history. But it was the right thing to do.
Q: Back then, our city retailers were changing owners so fast you needed a cheat sheet to keep the names straight. One Christmas, the Strawbridge’s name even hung on the former Wanamakers store. How did that feel?
A: It was quite satisfactory.
Q: So how do you handle your Christmas shopping?
A: Mary Jo [his wife] does it, and number two, the internet.
Q: The internet?
A: That’s a reason we sold. Everybody is shopping on the internet.
Even though the Strawbridge & Clothier department store business is technically older than the John Wanamaker department stores, the two companies grew in tandem in Philadelphia.
Strawbridge & Clothier was a steady presence, competing with Gimbel Brothers and Lit Brothers, both nearby. But John Wanamaker was the true innovator, reimagining retail space by developing his flagship store in a former railroad depot in what was then the western edge of Center City’s business district. Wanamaker’s innovations included air-conditioning, the price tag, retail advertising, a returns policy, and the first restaurant in a department store.
1861: Justus C. Strawbridge opens Strawbridge’s, a store at 8th and Market Streets. John Wanamaker and his brother-in-law, Nathan Brown, opened a men’s clothing store, Oak Hall, at 6th and Market Streets.
1868: Justus Strawbridge and Isaac Clothier become partners, forming Strawbridge & Clothier at 8th and Market Streets.
1876: In time for the nation’s Centennial, Wanamaker opens Wanamaker’s Grand Depot in an abandoned Pennsylvania Railway freight depot which he had purchased at 13th and Market Streets. To attract customers, he offered his space to charismatic evangelist Dwight L. Moody to hold a revival there, and provided 300 store employees to act as ushers.
1896: Wanamakers opens in New York.
1910: Wanamaker rebuilds the depot into what we know as Macy’s, installing the largest fully operational pipe organ in the world.
1930: Strawbridge & Clothier opens its first suburban store at Suburban Square in Ardmore. Wanamakers also expands into the suburbs.
1971: Strawbridge & Clothier launches its discount division, opening its first Clover store in Cherry Hill.
1978: Wanamaker’s business, long in decline, was sold to Carter Hawley Hale Stores Inc. in California and then, in 1986, to Woodward & Lothrup — “Woodies,” in Washington, D.C.
1995: Wanamakers is sold to May Department Stores Co. as part of Woodward & Lothrup’s 1994 bankruptcy. Strawbridge & Clothier in partnership with other retailers unsuccessfully bid for the chain. Wanamakers becomes Hecht’s, a May Co. division.
1996: Strawbridge & Clothier sells its 13 department stores to May. Briefly, Wanamakers becomes Strawbridge’s. In the following year, the company’s 26 Clover stores are dissolved, but some become Kohl’s.
1997: Some Wanamakers stores become Lord & Taylor’s, another May division.
2005: Federated Department Stores, which owns Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, buys May Co., including the former Strawbridge’s department stores.
2006: Wanamakers flagship becomes Macy’s.
What: Dedication of a historic market honoring Strawbridge & Clothier’s retail business.
When: Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2:30 p.m.
Where: 8th and Market Streets, Philadelphia.