What this 100-year-old department store teaches us about the overlap of retail, religion and politics

What this 100-year-old department store teaches us about the overlap of retail, religion and politics

The story of large-scale, non-Amazon retail today is often one of frustration and failure, from Sears’s recent financial difficulties to the closure of Toys ‘R’ Us earlier this year. Abandoned big-box stores, department stores losing ground to online establishments and shopping malls falling out of fashion auger bleak financial implications for the communities where these spaces are located. It’s in sharp contrast to the often-extravagant stores run by the early pioneers of American retail—men like John Wanamaker, Marshall Field and Julius Rosenwald. Their stores blended extensive selections of goods for sale with public programs, art galleries and fine dining, and helped change what a nation thought “going to the store” could entail.

Even as the idea of a department store as a cultural destination has waned, echoes of the retail establishment’s heyday remain, from the ceremonial unveiling of holiday window decorations to celebrity appearances.

But there’s more to this story than simply the evolution of retail: from small shops to department stores to online retailers that mirror the selection of retail palaces without the physical space. Nicole C. Kirk’s new book Wanamaker’s Temple: The Business of Religion in an Iconic Department Store delves into how John Wanamaker’s religious and political beliefs shaped his retail empire, which at its peak included 16 stores around the mid-Atlantic region. At a point in time where retail and politics seem inexorably connected, the saga of Wanamaker offers numerous parallels to the ways we think about shopping today.


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