Financial History 142 Summer 2022 | Page 11


Holy John Wanamaker , Postmaster General

By Brian Grinder and Dan Cooper
The 1888 presidential campaign between Grover Cleveland ( D ) and Benjamin Harrison ( R ) was the most expensive campaign up to that time . The Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883 changed the way national campaigns were financed by prohibiting political assessment . Political assessment was part of the spoils system , which originated in Andrew Jackson ’ s administration . Under the spoils system , the winning presidential candidate rewarded the party faithful with federal jobs . In return , these federal employees were required to give a certain percentage of their salary to the political party in power . These funds were used primarily to finance future campaigns . Political scientist Louise Overacker found that , in 1878 , Republicans raised $ 106,000 ; $ 80,000 of this amount ( 75 %) was collected via political assessment . Such heavy reliance on political assessment was typical in the 25 + years prior to the passage of the Pendleton Act . 1
The ban left significant holes in the campaign budgets of both parties , forcing them to look elsewhere for funds for the 1888 presidential campaign . The Republicans turned to business leaders to raise the funds . In Philadelphia , they tapped retailing genius John Wanamaker , who according to Wanamaker biographer Herbert Ershkowitz , “ raised the money so quickly that the Democrats never knew what hit them .” Wanamaker raised $ 200,000 for the party , including a $ 10,000 donation of his own . These additional funds helped the Harrison campaign eke out a victory against incumbent Grover Cleveland . 2
As a reward , Harrison offered Wanamaker the office of Postmaster General , which Wanamaker promptly accepted . The appointment outraged Harrison ’ s political opponents . The New York Times wrote :
Mr . Wanamaker is simply a lively and entertaining man of business endowed with a marked capacity for making money in the retail clothing business and for extracting from every passing event the largest amount of advertising that it can be made to yield . A Cabinet appointment would be far superior even to the acquisition of a picture of Christ before Pilate 3 for the purpose of directing attention to Mr . Wanamaker ’ s store … The appointment is urged upon the ground that Mr . Wanamaker has given more money to the Republican campaign fund than any other member of the party . That is to say , his appointment to the Cabinet would mean that he had bought a seat in that body and paid for it as other people have bought seats in the Senate of the United States .
The weekly humor publication Puck led the way in caricaturing Wanamaker as a corrupt religious hypocrite . Puck publisher Joseph Keppler and his band of merry cartoonists gladly skewered the new administration depicting Harrison , the grandson of President William Henry Harrison , as a small man wearing his grandfather ’ s beaver-skin top hat , which is too big for his tiny head . Neither Wanamaker nor any other Cabinet member escaped Puck ’ s wicked pens . According to the late historian Roger A . Fischer , “ For Keppler , the combination of Wanamaker ’ s devout beliefs with a chubby face uncannily resembling that of a cherub would provide the natural ingredients for memorable caricature . As a retailing titan , Wanamaker bore the double-edged stigma of slick shopkeeper and millionaire mogul to an artist whose loathing for labor and political radicalism was balanced by an equal animus against monopolists .”
The criticism stung Wanamaker , who had worked as the secretary of the Young Men ’ s Christian Association ( YMCA ) of Philadelphia before venturing into retailing . He was also active in the 19th century ’ s Sunday School Movement . His Sunday School class , which he started in a rough part of Philadelphia , grew to become Bethany Church , one of the largest churches in Pennsylvania . Wanamaker continued
Puck caricature of John Wanamaker depicted as an angel with the word “ piety ” on his right wing .
teaching his popular Sunday School class at Bethany even while he was Postmaster General , returning to Philadelphia almost every weekend . His very public faith combined with his ambitious and creative approach to retailing provided plenty of fodder for critics of President Harrison and his Postmaster General .
As an entrepreneurial retailer , Wanamaker was constantly looking for ways to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of his business . He provided his employees with extensive education and training and developed a profit-sharing program for employees along with other generous benefits . Wanamaker ’ s was one of the first department stores to implement a one-price-for-all system , which allowed the store to pioneer the use of price tags . When other retailers shied away from advertising , Wanamaker did not hesitate to promote his store with full-page advertisements in local newspapers . He introduced the first in-store restaurant and was one of the first retailers to artfully display and organize merchandise instead of piling it up in a heap . One of Wanamaker ’ s best-known innovations was the money back guarantee .
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