From the Frank and Alice Schulman Chair of Unitarian Universalist History and assistant professor at Meadville Lombard Theological School, Wanamaker’s Temple examines how and why the eponymous entrepreneur blended business and religion in his Philadelphia retail store, offering a historical exploration of the relationships between religion, commerce, and urban life in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Ms. Kirk is a historian of religion at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, and her interests clearly run more toward religion than other matters. Wanamaker’s tumultuous term as postmaster general for the Republican president Benjamin Harrison—which began with firing thousands of Democratic postmasters but later brought about the establishment of rural free delivery—gets short shrift. What possessed Wanamaker to seek a U.S. Senate seat in 1896 and the governorship of Pennsylvania two years later remains obscure; both forays are mentioned by Ms. Kirk only in passing, in the same sentence. A reader wanting to know why this legendary businessman flirted with failure in 1907 is out of luck ... Yet her book offers hints that we might not consider him an altogether admirable character. Wanamaker’s religiosity, as she describes it, reeks of a sense of superiority ... His was not a universal version of the Gospel.
Kirk argues that the John Wanamaker Department Store's architecture, employee education programs, and art exhibits extended his religious mission while promoting new business practices ... She may be right. After all, the store's religious iconography did leave many customers deeply moved. That said, Kirk does not, in my judgment, effectively refute the consensus among historians that, consciously or unconsciously, Wanamaker 'did not put the Lord's business first.' She mentions, but only in passing, Wanamaker's role in creating refund policies and easy credit to generate impulse buying. She describes organ recitals at Wanamaker's in detail, but not the possibly relevant context—skyrocketing sales of keyboard instruments—for presenting them. Nor does she connect Wanamaker's sumptuous Christmas and Easter decorations to the holiday shopping season ... Almost 100 years after his death, it seems equally clear that, more than anyone before him, he invented ways to exert control over the twin 'pliers of appetites and desire.'
This debut monograph...is a trenchant, academic study of John Wanamaker ... Kirk persuasively shows that Wanamaker’s Christian faith and business acumen informed one another within his own life and work, and inspired coreligionists and fellow businessmen to experiment with blending Christianity and commerce as America moved into the 20th century. This deeply sourced work will be helpful to scholars investigating the relationship between American capitalism and American Christianity.