Philadelphia as a Shopping Center

Herbert B. Ershkowitz, December 2005

Historically, Philadelphia was one of the great shopping centers in the United States. As the third largest city in the country during most of the 20th century, it attracted consumers from not only its immediate area in the Delaware Valley, but also from other parts of the country. Philadelphia had a transportation system that included major railroad lines; a trolley, bus, and subway system; and decent road connections. As with most other major cities, all these transportation hubs ended at center city, allowing consumers easy access to urban shopping. Philadelphia was also a great industrial city, producing many of the products customers bought in its stores.

Before World War II, there were several different layers of stores selling their wares to customers. From the viewpoint of the historian of consumerism, the most interesting were the department stores adjacent to the rail heads that attracted largely middle-class consumers and gave Philadelphia a good deal of its urban ambiance. The six major stores were located near each other with windows facing Market Street. During the last 40 years all these stores have either disappeared or been acquired by department store chains. For example, Gimbel Brothers, one of the largest of the stores, went out of business 20 years ago and is now a parking lot, while Lit Brothers is now an office building located between 7th and 8th Streets on Market. The façade of the building is in a Renaissance Revival style in a uniform color to make the building look like a single cast-iron structure, though only one of its eight sections is actually cast iron.

The two remaining artifacts from the department store era are Strawbridge's, located on 8th and Market, and the Wanamaker Building on Market between Juniper and 12th Streets, which now houses a Lord and Taylor. Both stores are part of the Federated chain and are pale reflections of their previous incarnations. Wanamaker's was one of the great emporiums in the country, selling all kinds of merchandise from high fashion to modern art imported from Paris to pianos and furniture. Designed by the architect David Burnham, who crafted the Marshall Field store in Chicago, the store was one of the great retail showplaces. Although most of the building has been turned into offices, what remains is John Wanamaker's pièce de résistance: a five-story central court overlooking the main shopping floor. It features the world's largest organ and a large statue of an eagle, both brought to Philadelphia from the German exhibit at the 1903 Saint Louis World's Fair. Almost every Philadelphian has memories of the eagle and organ concerts as well as eating at the fifth-floor Crystal Room, which is now available for special events.

Philadelphia's highest priced stores were once located on Market Street or Chestnut Street, which now cater to teens and less affluent buyers. The classy shops are now located along Walnut Street near Rittenhouse Square, since the 19th century the home of Philadelphia's wealthiest residents. Famous national retailers, such as Tiffany's and Brooks Brothers, are located near the square. Many of these chains have driven the local purveyors of merchandise to the wealthy consumer out of business, although there are still a few Philadelphia names left such as Bailey, Banks, and Biddle, which at one time rivaled Tiffany. Most of the great Philadelphia bookstores, such as Leary's, have been replaced by chains, but you can still find a few print shops left if you search the antique row along Pine Street west of Broad.

Across from Wanamaker's at 11th and Market is another unique Philadelphia shopping area: Reading Terminal Market, open since 1893. Housed in an Italian Renaissance building, the market replaced agricultural stalls located on the site. The market was moved indoors, originally into the front of the Reading Railroad terminal, because city leaders believed the food stalls on Market St. were health hazards. Inside the consumer can purchase fruits and vegetables from local farms and cheeses, coffees, chocolates, and other specialties from around the world. It is also a good place to get a meal, as restaurants sell local favorites as well as exotic imports. The terminal gives a 21st-century shopper a sense of the smells, the sights, and the feel of a colonial or 19th-century shopping trip to Market Street.

Another shopper's paradise just to the south of the central business district is the Italian Market, along 9th St. between Christian and Federal Sts. Started in the 1880s with the mass immigration of Italians to South Philadelphia, the market remains a Philadelphia landmark. Generations of city residents visited 9th St. to purchase fresh produce, live chickens, homemade pasta, pastries, or necessities for the home. Some recent changes have forced stalls from the sidewalks and given the market a more refined look, while Asians have replaced Italians in many of the shops. But it is still the place to visit for suburbanites who need genuine Italian goods for holidays and celebrations. Close to the market are some of the finest Italian restaurants in Philadelphia.

Remnants of shopping centers that catered to Jewish immigrants in the 19th century can be found on Jeweler's Row on 7th and Samson Streets. Philadelphians still buy wedding rings and presents for family and special friends in stores where persons who have some knowledge of what they are looking for and the price they want to pay can find great bargains. Jews also dominated the sale of fabric for dresses, drapes, etc. These shops were of all qualities, and it was just as likely that Jackie Kennedy or Princess Grace Kelly would be found shopping here as would a less affluent consumer. There are still fabric shops along 4th Street, now often run by newer immigrants. Philadelphia does not make cloth any more and most goods are imported.

Another area of interest to historians and shoppers is Philadelphia's Chinatown, an area of restaurants and shops located on Race St., just north of the meeting hotels. Chinese Americans, many of whom now live in all the suburbs, shop here to maintain their cultural heritage.

Although Philadelphia is not the consumer paradise it was early in the last century, shopping is still a fun part of any visit to the city.

—Herbert B. Ershkowitz (Temple Univ.) is the author of John Wanamaker, Philadelphia Merchant (1999).