First self-service grocery (1918), first supermarket (1940)

1919 ad for moran’s market (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

The opening of Springfield’s first self-service grocery in March 1918 meant lower prices – thanks to the layoffs of three clerks.

The innovator was Moran Market on the northwest corner of Eighth and Washington streets, whose manager, Clyde McElroy, announced March 10, 1918, that the store would become a “cafeteria grocery.”

Springfield was a latecomer to the trend, according to the Illinois State Register’s story. Stores in Chicago and several other cities downstate had operated on the “help yourself plan” for some time, the newspaper said, and the system was widespread in the southern U.S.

Up to then in Springfield, however, consumers hadn’t been able collect their groceries themselves; instead, they had to ask store employees to retrieve their items from the shelves. Moran Market had to close for two days to rearrange the store’s layout ahead of the change. According to the Register article:

The entire east half of the large double store room … has been partitioned off in order to adopt the cafeteria plan. Leading from near the front door through the center of the room is a neat partition, four or five feet high, and down the center devoted to the grocery department extends a long counter. This counter and the entire east wall at a height easily reached is to be stocked with groceries of every kind. Bulk goods will be in packages and bins, and these, together with cereals, butter, bread, vegetables, canned goods and all other commodities will be labeled with the price of each.

The customer will enter this enclosure through a turnstile near the front door. If not provided with a basket, one is to be found at hand. They then pass down the counters and along the shelves, selecting such goods as are wanted. At the point of exit, after the customer has finished selecting, is to be stationed a checker, who will remove the goods from the basket, check up the total cost and receive payment. The goods may then be carried away from the store.

Meat department operations were to be unchanged – butchers would still cut customers’ selections and hand it to them, McElroy said. But in general, he told the paper,

Not only will we be enabled to move goods more rapidly and assure a constantly fresh stock, but it will enable us to greatly reduce expenses. We have figured it will be possible to dispense with the services of three clerks under the “help yourself” plan, and thus sell groceries cheaper. This will allow us to bring these foodstuffs down to rock-bottom prices and the customers will get the benefit.

Former Moran’s Market buildings just before demolition in 1966 (Sangamon Valley Collection)

Moran Market, which was owned by Peorian William Moran, opened in 1914 and closed in 1927. Thomas Lawler Jr., the local manager when Moran’s closed, took over the site and opened his own grocery, Bargain Market.

The two buildings occupied by Moran, at 727 and 729 E. Washington St., were demolished in 1966 to clear the way for Horace Mann Insurance’s new headquarters.

First supermarket

The first local grocery store to bill itself as a “supermarket” was the A&P store at 618 South Grand Ave.E., which took on the label in June 1940.

What made a supermarket different from a standard self-service grocery? For one thing, the market baskets had been replaced by “lightweight steel shopping gliders,” better known later as grocery carts.

Here’s how A&P explained the store’s other innovations in one of its first supermarket advertisements.

A&P’s new, modern SUPER MARKET … 5 stores in on … 2,000 prices that are low every day of the week, eliminating the necessity of shopping for “weekend” bargains. Here you will find a complete selection of fine groceries, choice meats, fish and poultry, fresh fruits and vegetables, A&P Bread, Jane Parker Baked Goods, Dairy Products, A&P Coffees and Teas, and the Famous Ann Page line of Foods. Everyone (sic) an outstanding value. Serve yourself, shop as hurriedly or as leisurely as you like. Use the lightweight steel shopping gliders that will make your shopping trip to the A&P Super Market a pleasure. Pay for your purchases at one time (except cigarettes, tobacco and candy). You receive an itemized cash register receipt so you can check your savings.

We offer these low prices every day because we buy direct, we buy in huge quantities, we sell for cash, and because of our efficient operations. This means savings to us and we pass these savings on to you in the form of LOW PRICES EVERY DAY. …

Opening day photo of Springfield’s first purpose-built supermarket, the A&P Super Market at Fifth and Mason streets. Store manager Ellis Bain shown in insert (Courtesy SJ-R)

The first Springfield store built specifically as a supermarket was the 9,200-square-foot A&P at Fifth and Mason streets, which opened in September 1940.

“The store stocks practically every known standard food item,” the Illinois State Journal said on opening day. “Each item on the shelves and racks is plainly marked with the purchase price. Another innovation is the use of four wheel ‘gliders’ containing two wire baskets of sufficient size to carry the average family’s grocery purchases for a week. …”

The Fifth Street A&P closed in the mid-1970s. Several businesses occupied the purpose-built store over the next four decades, but the building was vacant and for sale as of October 2019.

Cash registers

Who first used a cash register in Springfield is unknown, but the earliest local references date from 1890. The Illinois State Register found it newsworthy when grocer E.S. Gard (1845-1904) had a cash register installed in his North Springfield store in April of that year.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.



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7 Responses to First self-service grocery (1918), first supermarket (1940)

  1. The earliest grocery stores in my memory (early 1950s) were the Piggly Wiggly on West Lawrence and the much smaller Clover Farm store just a few blocks from the PW. Piggly Wiggly featured the multiple step cash registers (I think), but Clover Farm items were taken to the single checkout clerk at the counter by the store’s front door.

  2. Bob says:

    RE: downtown grocery stores, here’s a good one: Rich Saal did a blog called Picturing the Past Photo Blog, still available on the internet, though it doesn’t appear to have been updated in awhile. The entry for September 15, 2014, is of a fire in the 100 block of North 5th. It is taken from high atop, or from an upper-story window, of what was then City Hall (I think). The Alamo, yes, the Alamo, was then Kroger Groceries and Meats, and the real kicker is that the Alamo is the only building in the photo still standing, as far as the eye can see.

  3. editor says:

    Thanks, Bob. I tried to find a link to the photo, but was unsuccessful. But don’t expect any updates to Picturing the Past: Rich Saal was laid off as SJ-R photo editor a few months ago.

  4. Nick Penning says:

    How many reporters and editors are left at the paper? This news of yet another layoff is extremely sad. Ed Russo of the Sangamon Valley Collection was a great source for old photos of Springfield and Sangamon County. He provided one for me each week, when I presented the WICS Saturday Report in the late 1970s.

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