Mom & Pop meet the Supermarket

Posted by | January 29, 2007

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While independent food stores were still common during the Depression era, the chain store boom of the 1920s had already changed the face of retail forever. The Great Atlantic & Pacific (A&P) food store chain led the pack. In 1936 it opened the first “supermarket,” a 28,125 sq ft store in Braddock, PA. By the end of the decade it was operating 15,737 stores nationwide with sales over $1 billion. In 1937, A&P introduced Woman’s Day magazine through a wholly-owned subsidiary, The Stores Publishing Company. The magazine featured articles on food preparation, home decoration, needlework and childcare, and sold for 2 cents a copy.

Chain stores in the early 1930s often sold no meats or produce (or perhaps a very small assortment in larger stores) and given a clientele which largely came by foot or by streetcar, they operated generally out of small leased stores in commercial strips. Capital investment was low, and it was easy to relocate or close underperforming stores. Thus, there was often great turnover in store locations, and it was also common for branches to locate within a few blocks of another branch if volume dictated it.
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In Appalachia, Cas Walker personified the trend. Born in 1902 in Sevier County, Tennessee, Caswell Orton Walker started out in the Kentucky coal mines. During his twenties he saved up $850 that he used to buy a grocery store in Knoxville, Tennessee, which he built into a multi-million dollar chain. Walker was a working man’s populist. Knoxville grocery store magnate, newspaper publisher, city councilman, briefly mayor, avid raccoon hunter, and host of his own television variety hour, he gave Dolly Parton her first break into the music industry.

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