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 about the changes. 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.

Corner markets

Before automobiles became common, nearly every neighborhood had one or more small “corner grocery” (whether or not it actually was on a corner). The corner grocery was usually narrow and rectangular with one aisle leading from the front door to the back.

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

Canned goods and vegetables were behind a counter, and flour, sugar and grains were in barrels. The grocer would measure out contents and hand-select goods. There was no such thing as a shopping cart. Independent grocery stores often did not stock products that needed to be kept cold, such as milk, cheese or meat. Consumers bought their meat at butcher stores, and milkmen delivered dairy products.

In Springfield, about 300 neighborhood markets came and went over the decades.

When Moran Market went self-service, the store had to close for two days so the layout could be rearranged. 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.

In general, manager McElroy 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.

“Supermarket” beginnings

Springfield got a peek at modern grocery marketing in July 1933, when the National Tea Co. opened what it called a “World’s Fair food store” at 217-19 S. Fifth St. That outlet boasted some of the features of later supermarkets, especially self-service shopping and some precut meats in refrigerated cases

“Not only will the busy housewife be enabled to quickly shop herself, but she will also receive courteous service from well trained store personnel,” a National Tea spokesman said. “… This unit is similar to many other units being opened by the big chain throughout the middle west. It is one link in a great chain of super food markets which are efficiently serving American housewives at lower prices and remarkable convenience in food shopping.”

National Tea later dropped “Tea” from its name. As National Foods, it remained a presence in Springfield’s grocery industry until 1995, when St. Louis-based Schnuck Markets bought the local Nationals.

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

The former A&P store at 1006 W. Edwards St. had become Bernie & Betty’s pizza by 1967. (Sangamon County Recorder of Deeds)

The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co., founded in 1859, went into the grocery business in the 1890s. Springfield’s first A&P opened on East Monroe Street in about 1910. A&Ps were usually non-union, and the chain had its own house brands of such staples as coffee, spices and canned goods, so it often was able to underprice its independent competitors. Otherwise, A&P’s earliest stores were largely chain versions of the corner grocery. In Springfield in the 1920s, A&P had markets at 802 E. Washington St., 128 E. Jefferson St.  and 1324 S. 11th St. in the 1920s. The number grew to 14 stores by 1934, when A&P had more than 13,000 stores coast to coast.

A&P’s South Grand “supermarket,” however, was something quite different for Springfield – starting with its introduction of “lightweight steel shopping gliders,” better known later as grocery carts.

A&P explained some of the store’s innovations in one of its first 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.

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 grocery built from the ground-up as a modern-day 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 and Mason A&P closed in 1975, as the company, once the largest grocery chain in the country, fell victim to other, more nimble food outlets. Several businesses occupied the 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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