Friday, November 20, 2009

A&P in the Flirty Thirties

The 1930’s were the setting of a notable paradox in American life. On the one hand, there was the Great Depression, which spanned the entire decade and left a tremendous amount of hardship and suffering in its wake. In extreme cases, people were forced to stand in soup lines or sell apples on street corners, scenes that were captured in a plethora of haunting film clips. Though the majority of folks may not have been affected to this extent, it was the rare American family that didn’t have to squeeze every dime – hard – to make ends meet.

Consider this alongside the popular trend in civic and commercial architecture at the time – the art deco/streamline moderne school of design, with its clean lines, soaring, grandiose themes and top quality materials – granite and marble, bronze and gold leaf – and you have an incredible contrast. To look at these buildings today, without context or knowledge of those times, one would think that the 1930’s were the most prosperous time in human history, when in fact the opposite was true. By the time things got better for a sustained period of time, after ten long years of depression and four more of a world war, the architectural trends were reflecting a much more toned down look. Perhaps the soaring inspiration was no longer needed.

Granted, even during its peak years, this special type of architecture was generally not applied to humble, relatively small-scaled grocery stores. On occasion it was, however, and even staid, cautious A&P (known affectionately as “Grandma” by that time to some) had their share of deco delights. The first two photos above, from Chain Store Age, depict A&P stores from 1937 (Atlanta, with a neon “red circle” logo!) and 1935 (unknown) respectively, with storefronts faced with structural glass, the most popular brand of which was called Vitrolite. According to this website, Vitrolite hasn’t even been manufactured since 1947. One of the attributes of Vitrolite was the fact that it reflected a perfect mirror image, with zero distortion. Most significantly, it provided architects a means of creating extremely bold patterns and shapes in colors that didn’t fade or age. It was vulnerable to impact damage/cracking, of course. My mind’s eye tells me that the “marbled” portions were Emerald Agate in color, but certainly it could have been just about any color.

The interiors are from different stores from the same time period. The first interior (from Progressive Grocer), very appealing in my book, is a nice example of a “pre-self service” era store, with counter men at the ready. The location is unknown to me. The last photo shows a Kansas City A&P interior, with a nifty tile floor (from an Armstrong flooring ad, natch), a store that looks to be a transitional unit, between the counter service and dawning self-service eras.


  1. Love Art Deco, Dave! It has to be my favorite architectural style. A close friend of mine recently gave me a book for my birthday, a rare long out of print photo showcase with lots of great photos of interiors and exteriors in the deco style. The book came out in the very early 30s, so it's great to take a look at that through the depression era lens.

    My favorite films are the 1930s RKO musicals, specifically Ginger and Fred. The sets are completely decked out in deco and everybody is dressed as if every night is New Year's Eve with deco inspired wardrobe to match. I can't get enough of that stuff so it's hard to even picture A&P ever looking like this.

    As a side note, why did vitrolite stop being manufactured? I have seen pictures of what some buildings made of vitrolite look like today and it's the kind of material that holds up really well and still looks great or are my eyes just deceiving me?

  2. The full service A&P's were more ornate than the supermarkets that replaced them,though many continued to be built with Art Deco style in the 1930's. A&P generally built a flagship or showplace store in their primary markets since the 1930's.

    The New Orleans Royal Street store, now Rouse's, eschewed the Art Deco look in keeping with New Orlean's late 18th/early 19th century Spanish architecture, featuring wrought iron, stucco walls, flat roofs, etc instead of Art Deco.

    And Dave, an Emerald Agate facaded A&P would have looked perfectfly normal in the Emeral City with its Art Deco inspired skyline. "Look Toto, we might not be in Kansas anymore, but we have a swank A&P".

  3. Didi - I like it a great deal as well. I have a hard time picking favorites, but it's up there, no question. I'm also a big fan of 30's movies - more the Marx Bros. than Fred and Ginger (great as they were), but several of their movies had amazing deco sets as well!

    I'm sure the biggest reason for the decline of Vitrolite was cost, as always. Compared to cheaper materials of the time (brick) and the super-cheap materials used today (fake stucco, which is essentially styrofoam with a textured weatherproof coating), it was just too expensive. Since the storefronts of the 1930's were tiny compared to those today, it becomes an even bigger factor.

    Ken - For sure, A&P's early supermarkets were lacking in charm in most cases - plain brick buildings with only the familiar red-and-cream tin signs (which were very nice-looking, in my book) to distinguish them. This makes stores the the ones pictured stand out even more.

    The Royal Street store was a true classic, perfectly fitting in with the area.

    And I need to watch The Wizard of Oz again for the 300th time - I keep missing that A&P! :)

  4. These stores are exquisite! A&P and Publix both exemplified how luxurious looking an early 20th century supermarket could be. I especially love the Armstrong floor in the last shot. Very striking.

  5. Steve - No doubt! And it brought the early deco Publixes to my mind as well. The tile colors, which I should have mentioned, are Spanish Red, Black and Gray. Gotta love it!