Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: John Wannamaker

In the summer of 1838, John Wannamaker was born in Philadelphia. His father was a brick-maker, and while out of school mornings, nights and Saturdays, the boy John was engaged in turning bricks which were laid in the sun to dry. Thus early those habits of industry were instilled into the lad who, by his own diligence, was destined to one day become the merchant prince of Philadelphia.

A few years later, school was abandoned for steady employment which was found in a store four miles from his home, where he boarded, for he had not the means to do otherwise, thereby walking eight miles per day, aside from his duties at the store, receiving $1.25 each Saturday evening. Think of it, working hard all the week, walking four miles night and morning—in all forty-eight miles per week, and receiving only $1.25 salary for the entire week’s work. Afterward he was employed in a law office, and still later we find him in a clothing store at a salary of $1.50 per week. Here he seemed to find the calling which suited his taste, and he cultivated a pleasing disposition; people liked to trade with the young clerk. Of course this faculty, coupled with energy, would soon bring recognition, and it was not long before he was called to responsible positions. Another strong feature of the success of John Wannamaker was, he lived on less than he earned, and saved the balance.

In 1861 he had saved several hundred dollars, and as he had earned a reputation for honesty and ability, he was enabled to start in business on his own account. This firm of Wannamaker & Brown was situated at the corner of Sixth and Market streets. Mr. Wannamaker kept the books—the firm hired no superfluous help—everything that they could do personally they hired no one to do. A firm which possesses ability, and follows such business rules, will succeed. Notwithstanding that the times were unusually “shaky,” they prospered.

As the business increased other stores were opened, and John Wannamaker, the poor clerk—after a period of twenty years of enterprise, pushed by energy, controlled a force of 6,000 employes. Not only does the firm handle clothing, but every conceivable article generally found in retail trade, the establishment being the largest in the great city of brotherly love.

How pleasant it is to see men to whom God has bountifully supplied money using that means for the good of their fellow-creatures. Among the liberal, whole-souled millionaires of our country, John Wannamaker is to be found. Although carrying on an immense business he has found time to establish Sunday-Schools, solicit money for the Young Men’s Christian Association, and has contributed to these personally, over $100,000.

John Wannamaker is a philanthropist. One of his favorite schemes has been to go into the vilest neighborhoods, establish a Sunday-School, build nice houses, and thus bring the locality up to the plane of respectability. He was looked to for aid when the Centennial was projected, and it is needless to say that it was not found wanting. The secret of his great success is his indefatigable industry, and a thorough mastery of his business. He is one of the most enterprising merchants in history.