Friday, December 25, 2009

A Merry Christmas to You!

It’s early in the day, and the crowds haven’t formed yet at Macy’s famous flagship store on Herald Square in the heart of Manhattan. You can be sure that they will, though, because it’s Christmastime, and for many people, shopping at Macy’s has long been an integral part of the holiday. Macy’s was a national name long before they became a national chain, a notoriety that grew immensely with the release of the 1947 film “Miracle on 34th Street”, and the first national telecasts of its famous Thanksgiving Day parade.

And then there were the famous Christmas window displays, including this one from 1959 entitled “A Fantasy of Christmas”, probably one of the most famous displays in retail history. Covering the entire span of Macy’s Broadway storefront, the display consisted of a series of dioramas of street scenes, using a centuries-old European art technique called “vue d’optique”, a form of perspective view. With “color and glitter…dancing lights and figures in motion”, as a Macy’s ad in the New York Times put it, tied together with a white and gold framework, it had to have been an amazing sight.

Today the store still exists, its famous facade, gilt “Macy’s” lettering and clock still intact. Every year, excited crowds flock to see their latest Christmas display. This one would have been something else again, though!

I want to take this opportunity, once again, to thank all of you who read this site on regular basis. I hope in a small way it brings some form of good memories, or comfort, or a bit of interesting history. For me, your readership, comments and kind e-mails have made the effort more than worth it.

Wishing you the Joy and the real meaning of Christmas for both you and your families, and a healthy and happy New Year. Talk to you soon!


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Walgreens at Christmastime, 1965

It’s a minute before 9am on a morning close to Christmas, as a Walgreens store manager opens up for business. All is quiet now, but things will get busy as the day rolls on. Then as now, Walgreens was super busy at Christmastime - and the perfect place to pick up that Old Spice or Jean Naté gift set for that special relative, so they could store it next to the one you got them last year.

Unfortunately, I don’t know the location of this store, other than to say it was one of a growing number of stores that Walgreens opened in enclosed mall locations during the sixties. If you click to enlarge the first photo, you can see the oval sign and entranceway in the background for “The Grill”, one of the in-store restaurants that Walgreens operated in those days. This store is configured similarly to the Dixie Square Mall location in south suburban Chicago (which opened in 1966 and also had a “Grill” location), although these photos pre-date Dixie Square by at least a year.

Hope everyone is enjoying a great Christmas Eve!
Update 2/16/10 - A bit more research has convinced me that this is the Belvidere Mall location in Waukegan, Illinois. Labelscar has done a fine post on this shopping center, featuring a vintage exterior shot by the late John Gallo.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

I'll Be Home for Christmas...

...after I stop at the grocery store for the 17th time. Here are a few scenes of supermarket Christmas displays from the early and mid-1960’s, as pictured in Progressive Grocer magazine. The first is from a Stop & Shop store, with a “festive Christmas painting…executed by store personnel” below the store directory and above the meat display case. Had I worked at the store, I would have volunteered for this back in July!
Ah, those fond memories of going to visit Santa Claus at the supermarket. (?!) And they have a (really young looking) Mrs. Claus as well! She definitely has that “I’ll kill you if you take my picture” expression, don’t you think? This scene is from the Food Mart store in Berlin, Connecticut, right next door to the Topps.
All decked out in red dress and pearls (and black gloves. Wow.), a young woman looks over some snowballs for sale at the Hughes Market in Westdale (L.A. area) California. Well, she couldn’t have found any outside, could she?
An addled-looking Santa Claus (am I the only one who finds this disturbing?) looms behind a gift display end cap at an unknown supermarket – must be somewhere in Southern California, given the Manning’s Bakery display in the background. And the chinos.
From the original caption – “A housewife’s dream world of new appliances in this non-food display of high-profit gift suggestions.” Mmm, capital idea there. Except for the fact that waffle irons can really hurt, depending on how hard they’re thrown.
A holiday nut display at a Big Bear supermarket, Columbus, Ohio. A little tweaking of the slogan would have made this one a sure-fire winner – “Yule go nuts for these values!”, eh? Or maybe not.
Baking supplies “in the round” (or “in the octagon”) at an Albers supermarket, also in Columbus. To the right is a display of “Spry”, a now-defunct brand of vegetable shortening that competed with Crisco. From the ‘30’s through the ‘50’s, Spry had a very well-known spokeslady, the menacingly helpful “Aunt Jenny.”
“Colors of Christmas shine brightly in the slanting rays of winter afternoon sun”, in a Colonial store in Durham, North Carolina. I don’t have much to add, other than it’s kind of a nice effect. I do wonder what’s in those stockings, though…mini fruitcakes?
Tobacco gifts for Dad in this Christmas display at an unnamed store. Hav-A-Tampa cigars are at the end of the display. To the left are Camel and Winston cigarettes in little chalet-shaped cartons, below the green cardboard candlesticks. Anyone who, as a kid, gave a carton of cigarettes to your Dad for Christmas, raise your hand. (sigh.) Anyone who tried to convince him to quit smoking years later, raise your hand. I’m glad my Dad did, after a 40-plus year long habit.
Lastly, a colorful if somewhat jumbled scene, complete with white and yellow striped walls and the 1960’s Food Fair “honeycomb” logo. The decorated tree to the left of the photo really puts me in the Christmas spirit. Then again, the red, white and blue cardboard medallions really put me in the 4th of July spirit as well. Heck, let’s just celebrate all the holidays at once!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

When You Wish Upon a Sears

You know, it just wouldn’t be Christmastime around here without stopping in at Sears. So, in keeping with our age-old (ok, three year-old) tradition, here we go! And a welcome sight this is – the brand-new Sears at the Tri-County Shopping Center in Springdale (Cincinnati), Ohio, as it appeared during its first Christmas season in 1967. The store still exists in what is now called Tri-County Mall, just off of Interstate 275.

It doesn’t take much to get people who grew up with the Sears Christmas Wish Book to talk on and on about it. In my family’s case, we would kill several hours over Thanksgiving weekend going through it (or the JCPenney Christmas Catalog, which was also excellent), making a list of things we hoped to find under the tree - in the interest of making it easy on the folks, of course. The list making was almost as much fun as the actual opening of the presents! (Note I said “almost”.)

For those who want to reminisce or were a bit too young to experience the “wish books”, I want to once again point you towards a fantastic website, appropriately enough called the “Wish Book Web”, where you’ll find an amazing collection of Christmas catalogs from the likes of Sears, Penneys, Wards and others, scanned in full. You may want to wait until after Christmas to check it out, though, or you might not get your shopping finished!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Being a Primer on A&P Centennials.

Anniversaries were always very important to the A&P. Every year for much of the 20th century, the company’s stores held a special anniversary sale, proclaimed with banners in the stores and trumpeted in newspaper ads. “Come celebrate A&P’s 87th Anniversary” – that sort of thing. Five year anniversaries were an even bigger deal. Ten year anniversaries – huge. Twenty-five or Fifty years, forget about it. Gigantic. But when A&P’s 100th anniversary rolled around in 1959, they really blew it out of the box.

Not content to just hang banners and place six-page newspaper spreads for this momentous event, A&P opted instead to construct a series of monuments to celebrate the company’s centennial. These “monuments”, of course, were stores, and the “series” went on for more than a decade, tallying hundreds of stores. And interestingly, a great number of these still stand, as home to all manner of retail establishments, community centers, churches, and just about anything else imaginable. A handful even continue to house A&P stores.

The celebration was kicked off in January 1959, but a few Centennial stores had already been opened by then. The Centennial store made its "official" debut in mid-March at New York’s International Flower Show, where a special A&P 100th Anniversary exhibit was...uh, exhibited. An 18-foot tall, four-tiered cake was the centerpiece of the exhibit, surrounded by a Victorian garden. A mock-up of the original A&P store on New York’s Vesey Street was on display, along with dioramas depicting A&P’s Jane Parker bakery and Eight O’Clock coffee operations. The last display featured the Centennial prototype, a colonial architectural design that A&P would soon begin rolling out all over, and of which they were justifiably proud.

The design, which A&P generally referred to as “Early American” in its promotion, was based on the architecture of 18th century Virginia. This style was most prominently exemplified in modern times by Colonial Williamsburg, the historic section of the one-time capital of colonial Virginia, which was restored to its original appearance in the 1930’s. One of America’s most popular tourist destinations, Williamsburg has done much to foster a love for colonial architecture among many Americans in the decades since the restoration.

By the late 1950’s, A&P had settled into a fairly plain style of architecture for the majority of its stores, with nothing that really stood apart from those of other grocery or variety chains. They had the typical rectangular, boxy appearance of the day, with brick or tile veneer and a row of large picture windows across the facade. There were the occasional pylons, but for the most part the only distinguishing features were the famous round “A&P” signs, which usually were either internally lit Plexiglas or neon, with beveled “rays” jutting out to the right and left of the round sign. It was obvious to anyone that the Centennial design represented a substantial increase in prestige over what had gone before.

And A&P knew this full well. In reading a number of late 50’s/early 60’s newspaper articles on various Centennial store openings, the same phrase continues to pop up, nearly verbatim, from the pen of the local A&P vice president – “We are certainly proud to dedicate to the _______ community a modern Super Market to serve the people of this area; and we are doubly happy that the new store could be the company’s latest approved design, this handsome ‘Early American’ style”. The key is in the last part of that sentence – A&P wisely promoted the prestige and “scarcity” factors as a way of making sure that customers were aware of their good fortune. They ate it up, as evidenced by the hundreds of Centennials that would be built over the ensuing decade, although A&P did continue to build the standard non-Centennial style in selected markets (along with some unique designs for their Southern California stores, but that’s a story for another time) for various reasons.

In the first years of the Centennials, an effort was made to carry on the Early American theme inside the stores as well, with pediment-style departmental signs and colonial murals on the walls. This was discontinued a few years later, as competition heated up and a more modern interior look, with bolder colors, was virtually forced upon them.

Also in earlier years, not surprisingly, the “colonial” theme lent itself to all kinds of patriotic-themed promotions, from grand opening ads proclaiming “Here ye, Here ye”, to giveaway copies of the Declaration of Independence on “genuine aged parchment”. (I had one, not from A&P, that I thought was extremely cool.)

To me, one of the most interesting aspects of the Centennial program was the way A&P adapted the design for an incredibly wide range of store types, both for new stores and for retrofits of existing stores. The popularity of the Centennial design and resulting public demand prompted A&P to remodel scores of existing stores with the colonial theme, with results ranging from the attractive, to the slightly odd, to the funny but endearing.

The only Centennial store that I recall shopping at personally was in Glenview, Illinois, a near north suburb of Chicago, where we moved in 1970 when I was in second grade, and I have to admit that the store’s design made a striking impression on me even then. I don’t remember much about the inside of the store, save for all the slush that had been tracked in by shoppers during those snowy Chicago winter days. And the Jane Parker fake Oreos, which my little brother and I used to crush up in our ice cream, creating what I believe was the first Cookies and Cream ever invented. To my knowledge, that is…

From the top, the photos depict: (1) An unknown location from 1962, with a lovely red logo, (2) Edmonds (Seattle Area) Washington, from 1968, (3) Columbus, Indiana, also 1968, where the colonial design fit the larger store extremely well in my opinion, (4,5,6) Three views from the West Hempstead, Long Island, NY store, 1968, (7) Somewhere in Queens, NY, 1966, (8) Jackson Heights, Queens, NY, 1966 (Ok, now the “Car 54, Where Are You?” theme is running though my head. No, I wasn’t born yet when that show first ran.), (9) An unknown location from 1970 – someone who remembers “Hoeffer Drug”, please help us out!, Note: Thanks to Bill, who informs us: "The A&P by Hoeffer Drug was at West Boulevard and Lorain Avenue in Cleveland, OH. The building was torn down and replaced with a CVS drugstore a few years ago." (10) Southampton, Long Island, NY, 1972, with a really sharp-looking treatment of the side of the store. Below, a mother and daughter show their affinity for A&P brands in a circa 1960 scene, where the colonial pediment signs are visible on the wall above. All are A&P publicity photos with the exception of the "Hoeffer Drug" photo, which is from Progressive Grocer's A&P Study, and the Queens, NY night shot, which is from a Crouse-Hinds Lighting ad.
Lastly, some newspaper ads from the early years of the Centennial era - 1959 ads from Annapolis, Maryland and Logansport, Indiana. Next is an article with an artist’s rendering of a forthcoming A&P store that appeared in the Sandusky (Ohio) Register in 1959, followed by a grand opening ad for the store from the following year. Following that are 1959 and 1962 Grand Opening ads from New Castle, Pennsylvania and Valparaiso, Indiana, respectively. Last is a 1964 article from the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, showing off their newly Centennialized (remodeled) A&P store.

Wow, getting real close to December 25, and I haven’t started my Christmas blogging! We’ll shift gears for the next few posts. Hope your week isn’t too hectic!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Hear Ye, Hear Ye, it's A&P!

Okay, I'm sure that some of you who've been following our series on A&P have been thinking "Good grief, what's with all this black and white 1930's and 40's stuff? Where are the Centennials?" Well, my friends, not to worry! Your long national nightmare is almost over.

For those who may not be familiar with the term "Centennial" as it applies to A&P, it refers to the colonial-styled stores that A&P first introduced in 1958 to commemorate its 100th anniversary the following year. The style was such a hit that A&P used it with great frequency over the following decade.

We'll start with the earliest Centennial photo I have, which is in fact the earliest one that I'm aware of, an A&P publicity shot. A nice use of soft focus, taken on a beautiful fall day in 1958. The cars in the parking lot all appear to be a couple of years old, with tailfins more subdued than those on the rocket rides that were rolling out of Detroit that year.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Sol Price - The Founder of FedMart

Taking a brief detour from our current story to honor a true retail pioneer. It has been my plan to do a set of posts on FedMart early in the New Year, but I wanted to make note of the passing of Sol Price this past Monday at the age of 93.

Price is probably best known as the founder of Price Club, a San Diego-based chain of stores that pioneered the membership warehouse store concept in 1976. In 1993, Price merged his company with another firm to form Price Costco, forerunner of the modern day Costco, an unabashed retail success.

A year later, Price left the company to run a new venture, PriceSmart, from a group of stores spun off in the merger. PriceSmart continues to operate warehouse stores in Central and South America and in the Caribbean Islands.

But before all of that, there was FedMart. Founded in 1954, FedMart was Price’s original retail concept – a no frills, low overhead discount chain that eventually grew to some 40 units, located mostly in Southern California and Texas. FedMart was sold to a German firm in 1975 and folded seven years later.

Price’s legacy lives on, not only in the two membership store chains he was directly connected with, but in another very significant one – no one, with the possible exception of Harry Cunningham, the “father of Kmart”, had a greater influence on Walmart founder Sam Walton. Walton was an enthusiastic student of Price’s merchandising and cost control methods. And Sam’s Club, Walmart’s membership warehouse banner, started out as largely a knockoff of Price Club - as Walton admitted in his best-selling autobiography.

Even today the influence is felt – take a good look at the logo on the pictured store (the location of which I would love to know), circa early 1970’s.

From everything I’ve read about Price, it’s clear that he was a man of inventiveness, and above all, integrity. He will be missed.

Thanks to the several readers who identified this store location for us - on Harbor Boulevard at the Chapman Avenue intersection in Garden Grove, just down the street from The Happiest Place on Earth. It is now a Target store.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A&P Goes to War!

Probably not the war you’re thinking of, although World War II fits in at roughly this point in the timeline. No, this was a war of A&P’s own – one that started earlier and ended much later.

As far back as the mid-1920’s, there were grumblings about the growing power of “the chain stores”. Most of this concern, understandably, was on the part of independent grocers, who by the mid-1930’s were looking at a full third of their potential market going to one competitor – A&P. Predictably, it wasn’t long before politicians on a variety of levels took notice. As a result, throughout the 1930’s, over half of the individual states passed laws regulating the operation and expansion of chains, and in nearly all cases a “chain store tax” was levied for good measure. By necessity, A&P took these as they came, complying quietly in nearly all cases.

As far as A&P’s business was concerned, they had weathered the Depression far better than most companies. Their aggressive pricing policies accounted for one reason, but another key factor was George L. Hartford’s insistence on short-term leases for all A&P stores. Very short term, in fact – the typical A&P store lease was for one year with nine one-year renewal options. In later decades this policy would come back to bite A&P in a big way, costing them many prime early shopping center locations, but the flexibility it gave the company to close or relocate unprofitable stores was an asset in the darkest days of the 1930’s.

Another development was the conversion to supermarkets. Faced with upstart competition from the likes of Michael Cullen, a former A&P employee who had started a chain of giant, self-service food stores called “King Kullen”, and others, it became evident to John Hartford that A&P would have to jump into the fray in order to remain competitive in their key New York/New Jersey markets and elsewhere. After considerable egging on by his brother, George Hartford, the conservative one who controlled the purse strings, agreed to a 100-store experiment with the newfangled supermarkets in 1936. Success soon caused the experimental number to be upped to 300. Before long, the “experimental” designation was dropped altogether, and supermarkets became the way forward for A&P.

In early 1938, according to the 1970 Progressive Grocer A&P Study, while supermarkets constituted just 5 percent of their store base at that point, they were contributing 23 percent of sales and nearly half of the company’s profits. As author William I. Walsh points out in his history of the company, “The Rise and Decline of the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company”, although A&P didn’t come up with the supermarket idea, the fact that the company opened the first supermarkets to be seen in many locales often led people to credit A&P with the concept.

Further adding to the excitement, A&P decided to enter the publishing business. For some years the company regularly issued an illustrated giveaway recipe booklet, called simply “Menus”, but would now introduce a full-fledged women’s magazine, to be entitled Woman’s Day. The decision was spurred on in part by the success of another magazine, The Family Circle, which was then reaching nearly 1.5 million households through five major grocery chains, according to an October 1937 Time article. A&P’s new magazine would carry “menus and home hints”, but “no fiction or film gossip as does Family Circle”, according to Time. Twenty years later, A&P would sell the magazine off to an independent publisher, who made it available to all grocery outlets and other retailers. Of course, Woman’s Day and Family Circle remain staples of supermarket checkouts everywhere, alongside some distinguished longtime competitors and some shall we say “less uplifting” publications. (Personally, I miss the “Weekly World News”. You just can’t find solid news reporting anymore!)

On a more somber note, the “anti-chain store movement” was rapidly growing in intensity by the late 1930’s. By this time, the movement had an official face. Congressman Wright Patman, a firebrand who was aptly nicknamed “the fighting Democrat from Texas”, had taken the issue up as his personal crusade, and his sights were set directly on the good old A&P. In 1936, he had won passage of the Robinson-Patman Act, still a cornerstone of U.S. commercial policy today, which essentially prohibits manufacturers from selling the same item at different prices to different entities, in effect leveling the playing field for smaller retailers who are unable to purchase at the volume level of their larger competitors. (I’m massively oversimplifying this, for space reasons. And in the interest of keeping you awake.)

Two years later, Patman introduced a new bill to curb the influence and spread of chain stores, (accurately) nicknamed the “Death Sentence Bill”. The centerpiece of the bill was a national chain store tax of $1,000 per store, but “with a final clincher”, as the Progressive Grocer study put it – “the total tax would be multiplied by the number of states in which the chain operated”, a provision that would have meant utter devastation for A&P. The numbers in A&P’s case would have added up to a half a billion dollar tax for the company for 1937 – 60 percent of total sales and a mere 6,000 percent of profits. Bye, bye Tea Company, along with Safeway, Kroger, Woolworth and host of other household names. Even cooperative organizations such as IGA would have been under threat, according to the study. Fortunately, Patman’s bill never made it out of committee.

It wouldn’t remain quiet for long, however. In the early 1940’s, the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division filed two landmark lawsuits against A&P, one in Dallas in 1942 and a second in Danville, Illinois, in 1944. For the second suit, the list of charges filled ten pages, which Progressive Grocer condensed to a page and a half and I’ll further boil down to a few lines (This is “Web 2.0”, right? Whatever the heck that means.) as follows. The main points of the lawsuit alleged:

· That A&P purposely ran stores at a loss to drive out competition.
· That A&P held a “partial monopoly”, because of “illegal” practices in manufacturing, wholesaling and retailing.
· That A&P was able to obtain preferential allowances and discounts in violation of the Robinson-Patman Act.
· That A&P took profits from its manufacturing plants and used them to subsidize its retail stores.
· That A&P’s produce subsidiary, The Atlantic Commission Company, which sold to other chains as well, dominated or controlled markets, overcharging or selling inferior products to competitors.

A&P lost the case and a subsequent appeal, eventually agreeing to pay a $175,000 fine and to dismantle the Atlantic Commission Company. The judge who handled the case still had words of praise for A&P: “To buy, sell and distribute to a substantial portion of 130 million people (the U.S. population at the time) one and three-quarters billion dollars worth of food annually, at a profit of 1.5 cents on each dollar, is an achievement one many be proud of.”

Yet it wasn’t over. In September 1949, less than a year after the previous case finally ended, the Attorney General of the United States filed a new lawsuit – this time calling for no less than the Breakup of The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. Rumors were floating that the government was proposing a plan to split A&P into seven separate regional companies. (For those of you who are at least my age or maybe a few years younger, this may “ring a bell”. Get it? Ok, I’ll stop.)

A&P had used advertising to a limited extent in their previous struggles to help rally public opinion to their side. Exasperated that they were facing this situation yet again, they declared an all-out P.R. war this time around. In late 1949, a series of full-page newspaper ads were taken out in (according to Time Magazine) some 1,800 papers across the country, laying out A&P’s side of the story in painstaking detail.

By far, the most intriguing of these ads appeared on November 11, 1949, featuring testimonials from several of the company’s competitors, undertaking an impassioned defense of A&P. “Who hollered for Uncle?” “We Agree With A&P” “We Don’t Want the A&P Put Out of Business”, and so on, followed by detailed explanations of their positions. The motivations were wide-ranging –including a genuine respect for A&P as a major food supplier for millions, and concern for their tens of thousands of employees. Several of them started their careers with A&P before striking out on their own, the sentimental ties still evident. And then there were the objections on principle – as a “threat against our system of free enterprise”, a threat to growth aspirations of their own. Or perhaps the objections stemmed from a sense of being exploited, regardless of the potential financial gain for them should A&P go down.

The strategy worked. Before long, letters began pouring into Washington D.C. from hundreds of consumers, upset that the government was threatening to mess with “their A&P”. It soon became evident that a majority of people were convinced that the government’s case against A&P lacked merit. The case slowly faded away, ending in 1953 with a consent decree that called for a handful of wholly inconsequential changes at A&P.

Sadly, the one person who no doubt did the most to help A&P weather these storms passed away before their final legal victory. At age 79, John Hartford was still as active as ever, running A&P along with his brother and sitting on a number of other corporate boards. On September 20, 1951, Hartford collapsed and died moments after attending a Chrysler Corporation board meeting in their famous namesake building in New York City. It would be years before the full magnitude of the loss to A&P, in terms of ingenuity, judgment and fine-tuned empathy for the customer, would be completely realized.

At least now, though, A&P was finally free from all of the legal distractions and could chart its own destiny again.

The photos above are all from Chain Store Age, and from top to bottom, show – an unknown exterior from 1941, the meat counter from the Rockville Centre, Long Island, NY store from 1937, an exterior view from Birmingham, Alabama in 1939, an interior from Pittsburgh in 1937, exterior and interior views from Asbury Park, New Jersey (Or is that Granada I see? No, just Asbury Park.) in 1937, and finally two views of another Birmingham unit from 1939, from the Five Points shopping center, with Scott 5 and 10 next door.

Pictured below are John and George, the brothers Hartford, in contrasting styles of dress and matching Bakelite telephones, as photographed for Life Magazine in 1949. Two of the 1949 ad campaign newspaper pages can be seen in the background. (Thanks to Richard of the great Viewliner Ltd. site for the tip on the Google Life Magazine archives. Some fine stuff there!) Lastly, for your reading pleasure, are the two ads pictured behind the Hartfords. Click to enlarge and read.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The A&P, Living There in Allentown

Two classic American institutions - one at the tail end of its run, and one with a few more miles to go. This photo was taken on April 26, 1953 at the intersection of Hamilton and Second streets in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Five weeks later, streetcar service would end for good in Allentown, as it would in most American cities before the close of the 1950’s. The overhead wires would be torn out, the ancient cobblestones and rails paved over.

Despite their introduction of supermarkets way back in 1936, there were still scores of tiny corner A&P food stores operating in the early 50’s. Even ten years after that, they were a not uncommon sight in many Northeastern cities. But times were changing for many of A&P’s core customer base of middle class families. They’d fought the Second World War. Spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore. And in the 50’s and 60’s, large numbers of them were moving to new, suburban areas – all too often shopping at the gleaming new supermarkets of A&P’s competitors.

Looking back from our nostalgic viewpoint today, it’s fascinating to ponder how these little stores co-existed with the neon-emblazoned, pyloned colossi at the other end of the supermarket spectrum. A paradox of the quaint and the cool. I’ll take both.

The photo is the work of Edward S. Miller, one of the most esteemed photographers of 20th century American railroading. Mr. Miller, now in his late eighties, specialized in photographing traction railroads (streetcar systems), and chronicled virtually all the major American city and interurban systems of the 1950’s. A truly outstanding aspect of his work was his ability to capture the surrounding cityscape in the photos. My special thanks to Mr. Miller and to Ed Philbin for helping to arrange contact with him. This photo, along with hundreds of other superb ones, appears in the book “Streetcar Scenes of the 1950’s”, an incredible look at street(car) scenes from all over the country, in color and razor-sharp clarity, with narrative and photo captions by Le Roy O. King. It is one of my most treasured books, one that I’ve owned for years. My sincere thanks also to Bob Yanosey, publisher of Morning Sun Books, for allowing the use of the photo.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Every Pound Custom Ground at A&P

Quick, name for me the one private label brand that through history has been most closely associated with A&P. Ah, “Ann Page Pickled Pigs Feet”, you say? Sorry, I’m afraid that’s not it. (Great guess, though!)

Even though the company started out as solely a merchant of tea, and 150 years after its founding still features the word “tea” in its name, the answer, of course, is coffee - “Eight O’Clock Coffee”, to be specific - a long-standing member of the pantheon of America’s legendary brands. For many people, the smell of fresh ground coffee and the sight of the huge in-store electric coffee grinders and the red and gold bags with the distinctive lettering constitute their fondest memories of A&P - long after they’ve moved away from an A&P, or A&P moved away from them.

Within a few short years after its 1859 founding, the company first introduced coffee. Eventually A&P’s house blend would come to be known as “Eight O’ Clock Breakfast Coffee”. The earliest use of this name that I’ve been able to find is in a small A&P ad that appeared in the May 27, 1888 edition of the Washington Post – “We recommend to all lovers of a cup of good coffee that they use our granulated Eight O’ Clock Breakfast Coffee which we sell at the low price of 25 cents per pound. Don’t fail to try it. For sale at all our stores.” Another line in the ad jumped out at me when I read it – “Coffee ground fresh with the aid of an electric engine.” Even today, the image of a manual hand-cranked coffee grinder is used in Eight O’Clock Coffee advertising, so it’s interesting to note that electric-motor driven grinders were indeed used in those long ago times.

Later on, the word “breakfast”, with its obvious limitations, was dropped from the brand name. In time, a legend formed around the creation of the name - that it was based on the times of day that people (in that era, at least) were most likely to drink coffee – 8 am and 8 pm.

Success was not long in coming, and soon several of A&P’s “tea company” competitors added coffee to their offerings. The book “That Wonderful A&P”, by Edwin Hoyt, cites the example of the Grand Union Tea Company, then known as Jones Brothers Tea Co., who introduced a line of “polished coffee”, in which their coffee beans were literally polished “to a shiny appearance”. Although this improved the taste not a bit, it made for an interesting, if bizarre, advertising angle. Hoyt quotes George Huntington Hartford’s advertising rebuttal on A&P’s behalf: “Positively no polishing matter is used in roasting our coffees. Our coffees are roasted and sold in their natural state, no ingredients whatever being used to make them glossy. BEWARE OF GLOSSY COFFEES!” Tell ‘em, George!

As coffee overtook tea as America’s most popular beverage in the early part of the 20th century, A&P, whose store count exploded in the ‘teens, found itself in a wonderful position to take advantage of the drink’s ever-growing popularity. For decades, Eight O’Clock Coffee would be the country’s largest selling coffee brand.

Having added a number of other coffee blends alongside their flagship Eight O’Clock brand through the years, A&P would eventually narrow their coffee lineup down to three main blends – “Eight O’Clock”, of course, the “mild and mellow” blend, “Red Circle”, the “rich and full-bodied” blend, and “Bokar”, the “vigorous and winey” blend (i.e.: the strong stuff.) In the early decades of the 20th century, each of the three brands had unique packaging.

In 1933, A&P introduced new, coordinated packaging for its three coffee brands. With bold colors – red for Eight O’Clock, yellow for Red Circle and black for Bokar - adorned with a gold band and a strikingly unique font, an American advertising icon was born. I’ve been unable to locate information on the designer A&P used, but would easily put it league with the best work of Raymond Loewy, designer extraordinaire, and the other great packaging designers of that golden era.

In the late 1930’s, Eight O’Clock coffee was hailed as the world’s top selling brand, and domestically, according to a 1935 Los Angeles Times article, A&P had three of the six bestselling brands – Eight O’Clock at number one, of course, with Red Circle ranked fourth and Bokar, sixth. Into the 1950’s, A&P’s share of the market remained strong, described variously as “one out of every six” or “one out of every four” cups of coffee served in the United States. (Today, one out of every six cups is consumed by me, when writing these posts.)

And so it continued for years, until A&P’s slow decline and exit from many of their major U.S. markets. Eight O’Clock’s fortunes were tied to A&P’s, of course, and as A&P began to contract its store footprint, the “number one” coffee crown would eventually pass to General Foods’ Maxwell House brand. (Currently, the largest individual selling coffee brand is Folger’s Classic Roast, with Maxwell House Original at number two, Starbucks at number three and Eight O’Clock Original at number nine, according to a recent CNBC survey. As far as overall sales go, Eight O'Clock is the largest selling bean coffee and the third largest overall brand in sales, according to their website.)

In the late 1970’s, A&P made an effort to shore up sagging profits through better use of its sprawling manufacturing operations. Through its subsidiary Compass Foods, A&P began to market its coffee brands to other chains, particularly in markets where they no longer had stores. In Chicago, for example, from which A&P pulled out in 1982, a cheery Chicago Tribune article proclaimed “Eight O’Clock coffee will stay in Chicago”, and would now be available at Jewel Food Stores.

The most important house brand manufactured by A&P would also be the last one they would hang onto. In 2003, A&P sold the Eight O’Clock brand to Gryphon, a San Francisco-based group of investors. In 2006, Gryphon sold the company to Tata, an Indian company that specializes in tea and coffee and owns the popular Tetley brand. Organized as “The Eight O’Clock Coffee Company” division, they have been very aggressive in marketing the famous old brand, adding several varieties and promoting it in new arenas – gas station convenience stores, for instance.
So, Eight O’Clock coffee might be as close as your nearest gas station! May have to drive a bit farther for those Jane Parker donuts, though…

The non-polished, yet glossy photos above depict various A&P coffee departments from the 1940’s and early 50’s. First is a 85th anniversary window display from Portland, Maine, followed by an iced coffee window display from Albany, New York. Next are two coffee department shots from Poughkeepsie, New York. The last shot is a bit more recent, from an unknown location, showing a common practice at the time - the placement of related magazine ads near the food displays. These local store publicity shots are part of a collection I bought a while back (Featuring, strangely enough, mostly A&P coffee displays. Not that I mind that!). Below are a group of wonderfully colorful A&P coffee ads from the 1930’s and 40’s, most of which are from Woman’s Day magazine, which was founded by A&P in 1942. These ads are from the Gallery of Graphic Design, a magnificent online collection of magazine advertising that is an absolute must-see. In that pre-television era, magazine ads were arguably the most important single vehicle for advertising to the mass market. The standard of artistry in these ads is high, to put it mildly.
Appropriately enough, the last ad, from 1938, has a Thanksgiving theme. An interesting year this has been, 2009. Great in some ways, difficult in others. I’m thankful for many things, though, and high on the list are those of you who read, enjoy and comment on this site. I hope yours is a wonderful one!