The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company is a New Jersey-based, and for the last thirty years, German-owned supermarket chain. As of today, according to their website, they operate 435 stores in six Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states (including a lone Washington, D.C. unit) under a number of different banners, including Super Fresh, Food Basics, The Food Emporium, Waldbaum’s, Pathmark and of course, A&P. The last couple of years have seen the company exit the Detroit and New Orleans markets, and after an 80-year presence there, the A&P banner is no longer to be found in Canada.
For many cities, the A&P story over the last several decades has been a sad one of retrenchment, and ultimately of disappearance. For those born in the last twenty years or so, unless they live in one of A&P’s current or recently vacated markets, chances are good they’ve only heard of A&P in passing - a brief mention in an American history class, perhaps, or a fond anecdote from an older relative.
It wasn’t always this way. As recently as the mid-1960’s, A&P was the largest retailer in America. Not just the largest supermarket chain – the largest retailer, period. Larger than Sears at the peak of its power. Larger than their nearest two competitors – Safeway and Kroger - combined. Responsible, to a great extent, for the very concept of the “chain store” itself. A part of daily life for Americans (and a fair amount of Canadians) from a multitude of communities, large and small.
The story of A&P begins in the mid-19th century, with two men, both named George, both natives of Maine, and both of whom eventually moved to New York to seek their fortunes. George Francis Gilman was born in Waterville, Maine, in 1826 to a prominent, wealthy family who owned a leather goods business. George Huntington Hartford, seven years younger than Gilman, was born in Augusta, to a farm family of far more modest means. Details on how the two men met are sketchy and somewhat contradictory in the various accounts I’ve read (not surprising given the event took place over 150 years ago, and the fact that stories like this tend to take on a mythical quality over time), but it is apparent that Hartford had worked for Gilman at a dry goods business some years prior to their arrival in New York - possibly in St. Louis. Hartford also lived and worked in Boston at one point as well.
By the 1850’s, Gilman had turned his sights from the family’s leather goods business to a new interest – the importing and brokerage of tea. Eventually, he asked Hartford to join him in the business, which consisted at first of a single delivery wagon. In 1859, their company was formally established as The Great American Tea Company. By this time, their roles were more or less set – Gilman was the financier and promoter. Hartford was the operator, though over time he would develop impressive skills as a promoter himself.
The first store was opened at 31 Vesey Street in New York City. The company’s early stores featured very ornate décor - vermilion red (sort of an orange-red) walls and gilt fixtures, oriental paintings and a plethora of ornamental gas lights. In 1869, Gilman and Hartford modified their company’s name in a tribute to the establishment of America’s first transcontinental railroad – the driving of the “golden spike” at Promontory Point, Utah, uniting the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads, east and west. Henceforth, the company would be known as “The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company”. The new name, of course, was also a not-so-subtle indicator of the company’s aspirations.
In its earliest days, A&P employed a very different marketing approach from “the most good food for the least money” philosophy upon which their fame and fortune would later be built. Prior to 1912, the company relied on all manner of premiums and giveaways to stimulate sales. Millions of “trade cards”, essentially postcards with Victorian scenes of angels, children, pets, flowers and other idyllic subjects on the face and A&P advertising on the reverse were given out. In those modest times, the cards did much to endear A&P to their customers. A high percentage of them were saved for decades, displayed for decorative use in homes. Even today, 100 or more years later, A&P trade cards turn up frequently in antique malls or on Ebay.
In 1878, Gilman retired to enjoy the New York social whirl, turning the operation of the business over to Hartford, while retaining his half ownership stake as a silent partner. By this time, the company was growing at a nice clip - according to the Progressive Grocer book “A&P, Past, Present and Future”, by 1876, A&P’s domain extended as far east as St. Paul and by 1881 as far south as Norfolk and Richmond, Virginia.
One development of the 1880’s that was no doubt unheralded (and probably little noticed) at the time would have a profound effect on A&P’s destiny well into the next century - the entry of two of George Hartford’s sons into the business. Only teenagers at the time, the sons – George Ludlum Hartford and John Augustine Hartford - would become two of the most influential figures of all time in the grocery business, and are still regarded as such today. For over sixty years they would helm A&P. The brothers were polar opposites by nearly every measure – George, born in 1864, was the guardian of A&P’s finances. Short and somewhat rumpled in appearance, he settled in a New Jersey suburb, where he lived conservatively, and enjoyed simple hobbies. He disliked taking vacations. John, born in 1872, headed up A&P’s operations and marketing. A true visionary, John’s initiatives were the life force behind A&P’s phenomenal growth in the first half of the 20th century. Tall, dashing and always impeccably tailored, as an adult he lived in grand style in tony Valhalla, New York, a member of the top social echelon. Despite their vast differences and frequent disagreements, the brothers had an abiding personal regard for each other and a strong respect for the different roles they fulfilled for A&P. As young men, to avoid confusion with the elder Mr. Hartford, the brothers were given the nicknames “Mr. George” and “Mr. John”. Long after their father’s passing, indeed for the rest of their own lives, they were referred to within A&P circles as such.
In 1901, A&P co-founder George F. Gilman passed away. It was a sad occurrence, to be sure, but Gilman’s death also had an exasperating side effect. It came to light soon afterward that no contracts or agreements of any kind had ever been drawn up at the time of the company’s founding 40 years earlier. As a result, George Huntington Hartford had no documentation to confirm his ownership stake in the company – and no way to defend it from claims against the estate of Gilman, who had no children. After a harrowing four-year court battle, Hartford’s rights were established, although a big chunk of Gilman’s estate (largely composed of A&P stock, of course) was awarded to his longtime female companion, according to the book "The Rise and Decline of The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company" By William I. Walsh. Hartford eventually bought her shares out, gaining complete control of A&P for his family.
By the dawn of the 20th century the younger Hartfords, George and John, were firmly in charge of the “Tea Company”, as insiders tended to call it, an empire that consisted of nearly 450 stores by 1912. Certainly A&P was prosperous, but John Hartford saw ominous warning signs for the future. The company’s growth had plateaued, despite the fact that A&P had begun to evolve into a true “grocery store” through the addition of hundreds of food items alongside their tea and coffee offerings. Prices and profit margins were high and the gaudy premiums were taking up half the shelf space in some locations, presumably leading Hartford to grow concerned that A&P was slowly becoming a pricey “boutique” operation, damaging its appeal to the average customer on a modest budget.
What John Hartford conceived as a solution to this dilemma – the “Economy Store”, as it was called, would not only launch A&P into the stratosphere and ultimately into legend, but also formed the basis of modern mass retailing – the “everyday low price” concept. Under Hartford’s new concept, the giveaways and premiums would become history. Profit margins would be cut to half the previous level. The fancy decor would be scrapped. The “vermilion red” walls would become simply red. (The color, not the band.)
Despite the initial objections of his brother and father, Hartford pressed on, wisely placating them by agreeing to move forward on a “test” basis, first with a single store in Jersey City, N.J., then on a larger basis with a few stores in one of the company’s New York City districts. The customer response was overwhelming, and within a couple of years, the Economy Store program was running full tilt. The traditional A&P stores began to close as the new Economy Stores opened. The Progressive Grocer book cites some impressive statistics – In 1915, 95 stores were opened in the Boston area alone. By February of that year, A&P had more than doubled in size to 938 stores, hitting the 2,000 store mark following year and 3,000 stores the year after that, 1917. Ten years later, in 1927, A&P could boast an astonishing 15,000 stores, all sporting A&P’s new slogan, “Where Economy Rules”, in a bar beneath the famous A&P “red circle” logo.
One particular group was less than thrilled with A&P’s new pricing policy. Some of A&P’s brand name suppliers, under pressure from other chains and thousands of independent grocers, were furious that the A&P Economy Stores were undercutting their suggested retail prices. Out of this morass came a famous lawsuit, filed by The Cream of Wheat Company, whose namesake product was heavily advertised nationally and was enormously popular in those days. Cream of Wheat had set a price of 14 cents per box at that time, which virtually all retailers, except A&P, honored. A&P cheerfully sold it for 12 cents a box, moving huge quantities. In 1915, Cream of Wheat filed suit against A&P to force them to stop the practice. A vigorous defense notwithstanding, A&P lost the case. The experience did much to convince A&P to invest heavily into manufacturing their own private label goods. By the end of the 1920’s, A&P was as formidable in food manufacturing as it was in retail, with factories strewn throughout the country, processing every type of food imaginable – even to the extent of operating their own fisheries and packing plants in Alaska.
In 1917, A&P’s other co-founder, George Huntington Hartford, passed away. Two years earlier, he had formed a trust that equally divided A&P ownership among his five children, but specifically placed all decision making authority with George and John.
Closing in on 14,000 stores in 1925, the task of running all aspects of the company from A&P’s headquarters was becoming unwieldy, to say the least. That year, the company shifted to a decentralized management structure which split their operating area into six regions, each with its own administrative offices and distribution centers.
When the depression hit in October 1929, A&P was in a far stronger position than most retailers. The “Economy Store” concept was a perfect fit for the times. Just two years previously, John Hartford had laid down the law to A&P’s command corps when he noticed that profit margins were starting to creep up again, past a level he considered acceptable. “The most good food for the least money” was the slogan, and would be the non-negotiable rule. Challenges would follow in the 1930’s, both from competition and from government, but for now A&P was standing strong.
The two photographs above, depicting a circa-1931 A&P store, are Property of the Holyoke Public Library History Room and Archive, and appear here by their kind courtesy. The Library’s collection, along that of several other Central and Western Massachusetts institutions can be viewed on the wonderful Digital Treasures website. Below is another A&P “Economy” storefront, from roughly the same time period, from a 1970 Progressive Grocer article. Last is a photo of a much earlier A&P store, typical of the ornate treatment (check out the sign lettering and the trellis work in the window) these stores received. Picture it in vermilion and gold. Thanks to Cynthia Closkey for the use of this great early photo. Her great-grandfather and his siblings, who operated the store, are featured in the photo.