Buildings Then and Now: “Think Strawbridge & Clothier first”

The former Strawbridge & Clothier flagship store
The former Strawbridge & Clothier flagship store at 8th and Market streets today. Photo by the author.

John Wanamaker is Philadelphia’s best-known merchant prince, and rightly so, for he invented the modern department store and introduced practices that revolutionized American retailing in the late 19th century. But he was actually beaten into the business of selling “dry goods” locally by a couple of Quaker merchants, Justus C. Strawbridge and Isaac Clothier, who opened a small dry goods store in the 800 block of Market Street in 1868. That store grew into a beloved local institution that outlasted its more legendary rival – though only barely – as an independent business and played a key role in the ongoing efforts to reshape and refashion Philadelphia’s Main Street.

Seal of Confidence
The Seal of Confidence, Strawbridge’s trademark from 1911 until its demise in 2005

Like John Wanamaker, Strawbridge & Clothier grew rapidly in the later decades of the 19th century, and like its across-the-street rivals, Lit Brothers and Gimbels, it accommodated its growth by slowly expanding into adjacent buildings on its block. Eventually, the Strawbridge and Clothier families decided as Wanamaker did that the best way to ensure the store’s future growth and success was not to keep adding on but to build new from the ground up. In 1928, Strawbridge & Clothier demolished all but one of the buildings it had acquired and began construction on the handsome stone edifice that stands today on the northwest corner of 8th and Market.

Strawbridge & Clothier, 1930s
Strawbridge & Clothier flagship store in the early 1930s. Postcard image from the Department Store Museum blog.

The Strawbridges ran their store in keeping with Quaker traditions of fair and honest dealing, as reflected in the trademark the store adopted in 1911 – the “Seal of Confidence,” which depicted William Penn’s “never written, never broken” treaty with the Lenape Indians that enabled him to establish Philadelphia and Pennsylvania on Lenape land. Like Wanamaker with his pioneering money-back guarantee, Strawbridge & Clothier stood behind everything it sold – a customer who had a problem with anything purchased there could return it to the store for repair, replacement or refund.

The Strawbridges were also early adopters of the trend of following their customers to the expanding suburbs, opening branch stores in Ardmore in 1930 and Jenkintown in 1931. At its peak, Strawbridge & Clothier had 13 stores throughout eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware, and profits from the branches offset the losses of the flagship store. Its introduction of revolving charge accounts around the same time also revolutionized retailing as much as Wanamaker’s innovations had.

The store reached its peak of reputation and popularity under the leadership of the last family member to run it, Stockton Strawbridge. After returning to the United States after World War II, Stockton Strawbridge toured the flagship store, pronounced it dull, and set about updating and enlivening it. One of his most successful additions was a British import: the Food Hall, an emporium inspired by the famous Food Hall in London’s Harrods that proved a successful draw for the 8th and Market store (it was never copied in Strawbridge branches).

Strawbridge & Clothier, 1968
The 8th and Market store, dramatically lit at night in 1968. From the Department Store Museum blog.

Around the same time that he was installing the Food Hall, Stockton Strawbridge also took a keen interest in the overall fate of Market East. His store’s participation, along with Gimbels, helped make the Gallery at Market East a reality in 1977, and he also organized and led the nonprofit organization that gave Market Street itself a total makeover in the mid 1980s. While he fell short of his goal of turning the street into “the Champs-Elysees of Philadelphia,” his efforts most likely helped stave off further decline.

Unfortunately, for all that Strawbridge did to keep the store an independent concern and a force in its home region – going into discounting with its Clover division, adding and improving branches and even organizing a bid to buy its archrival John Wanamaker – he proved unable to keep his own family on board with his vision: the store barely fended off a takeover by a corporate raider in the late 1980s, and competitive pressure from newer retailers ultimately led Strawbridge’s to suffer the same fate as its more famous rival up the street: sale to a national chain, the May Department Stores Company, in 1996 over Stockton’s vehement objections.

Even before May’s sale to Macy’s Inc. in 2005, the Strawbridge flagship store was being gradually downsized just as the huge Wanamaker store had been, and the Macy’s sale sealed its fate: it was closed in favor of the more historically significant Wanamaker store. Its basement and first two floors have remained vacant since then, largely in hopes of attracting another department store tenant, while the upper floors now house offices – most of them state agencies relocated from the old Philadelphia State Office Building (now Tower Place). The most recent office tenant to take space in the building is Interstate General Media, owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News.