Nationwide Customers

JUST AS DEPARTMENT STORES drew together thousands within the city in their consumers’ palaces, other new enterprises reached out from city to city, creating nationwide consumption communities. Chain stores, pioneers of the everywhere community, built communities of consumers across the land. The expression “chain store,” an Americanism firmly settled into the language by the beginning of the twentieth century, described one of a group of similar stores under common ownership. This was not, of course, a new idea, nor an American invention. But in the United States in the century after the Civil War, the chain store became a newly powerful institution.

“CASH-AND-CARRY,” an Americanism added to the language by the early twentieth century, would become the motto of the chain stores. An affirmative way of saying “no credit and no deliveries,” it would be an advertising slogan to inform all would-be customers that here was a shop with no frills, where the customer could save money. The department stores, oddly enough, had succeeded by offering some of the personal conveniences traditionally associated with the small neighborhood shop and the friendly reliable shopkeeper. Their developing systems of credit and installment buying and their numerous incidental services would actually provide a foil for the sales pitch of the new chain stores, which usually featured price and made a public virtue of their economies.

The first unit of what by mid-twentieth century was to be the chain-store system with the largest annual volume was founded in 1859. In that year George F. Gilman and George Huntington Hartford, both from Maine, opened a small store on Vesey Street in New York City under the name The Great American Tea Company. By cutting out middlemen, by buying tea in quantity and by importing it themselves from China and Japan, they offered tea at the spectacularly low price of 30 cents a pound when others were charging $1. They attracted customers by Barnumesque showmanship: premiums for lucky customers, cashiers’ cages in the shape of Chinese pagodas, a green parrot in the center of the main floor, and band music on Saturdays. They sent eight dapple-gray horses pulling a great red wagon through the city and offered $20,000 to anyone who could guess the combined weight of the wagon and team. They gradually added other grocery goods—spices, coffee, soap, condensed milk, baking powder—and by 1876 had multiplied their stores to the number of sixty-seven.

With a booster enthusiasm worthy of an upstart Western town, they anticipated greatness by adopting the name The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company in 1869. Perhaps the notion was that this chain of stores would unite the two oceans as did the Union Pacific Railroad, which had been completed that same year. The number of stores increased and the distinctive red-and-gold façade became familiar across the land. By 1912 there were nearly five hundred A & P stores. While they offered the advantages of lower prices which they claimed came from large-scale purchasing and from the elimination of middlemen, they still provided charge accounts and free delivery.

Led by John Hartford, son of the founder, the great expansion of the A & P chain came in 1912. Between 1912 and 1915, a new A & P store was opened every three days, to a national total of one thousand stores. Expansion was based on the cash-and-carry idea and on reduction of staff to make the one-man “economy” store. Meat, which soon became the largest single item, was not added till 1925. For the year 1929, total A & P sales exceeded $1 billion; in the following year, A & P stores numbered 15,709. By 1933, A & P was doing over 11 percent of the nation’s food business. After that year, there was a trend to larger stores, and the number of individual stores gradually decreased. But by 1971 the 4,358 A & P stores reached an unprecedented annual sales volume of nearly $5.5 billion.

The builders of these new nationwide consumption communities met bitter opposition from local merchants, hometown boosters, and champions of neighborhoods who stood for the local community. The keepers of the old general stores had fought the big-city department stores; they would also fight RFD, they opposed parcel post, and they attacked the mail-order “monopolies.” The menace of “chain stores,” they said, was a threat to the whole American way of life. By the early 1920’s, when a number of chains were prospering, the opposition of small, independent retailers became organized. The National Association of Retail Grocers in their annual convention in 1922 urged laws to limit the number of chain stores in any community. In defense of the neighborhood store they proposed various legal devices, such as special escalating taxes on every store beyond the first under the same ownership in a given state, and special taxes on merchandise purchased by chain stores.

At one time or another most states enacted some type of anti-chain-store tax. The most extensive effort at controlling chain-store merchandising was the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936 (sometimes called the Federal Anti-Price Discrimination Act), a New Deal measure amending earlier antitrust legislation. It aimed at the chain-store practices of “price discrimination” which were said to destroy competition or promote monopoly, and it gave the Federal Trade Commission important, if vague, supervisory power. The chain stores, like other large enterprises, had been guilty of some abuses. But they were unstoppable institutions in the movement to larger and larger consumption communities. The anti-chain-store movement, like the anti-RFD and anti-parcel-post movements, was a rearguard action. Its spokesmen spoke for the dying past of the general store, the village post office, the one-room schoolhouse and the friendly corner drugstore.

Jeremiads against the chain store really expressed bewilderment at the dissolving of the neighborhood community. “The chain stores are undermining the foundation of our entire local happiness and prosperity,” lamented the Speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives in a letter to his constituents in the late 1920’s. “They have destroyed our home markets and merchants, paying a minimum to our local enterprises, sapping the life-blood of prosperous communities and leaving about as much in return as a traveling band of gypsies.” Senator Royal S. Copeland of New York declared, “When a chain enters a city block, ten other stores close up. In smaller cities and towns, the chain store contributes nothing to the community. Chain stores are parasites. I think they undermine the foundations of the country.”

A hysteria which paid heavy political dividends seized the congressional representatives from the rural and small-town world. “A wild craze for efficiency in production, sale, and distribution has swept over the land,” warned Senator Hugo L. Black of Alabama in 1930, “increasing the number of unemployed, building up a caste system, dangerous to any government…. Chain groceries, chain dry-goods stores, chain clothing stores, here today and merged tomorrow—grow in size and power…. The local man and merchant is passing and his community loses his contribution to local affairs as an independent thinker and executive.”

The response of the chain stores was multiplex. Their owners tried to answer the accusations that they lacked old-fashioned community loyalty by going to great lengths to advertise locally and to reward examples of community leadership among their managers. In 1939, under the very shadow of the Robinson-Patman Act, the trade journal Chain-Store Age announced awards for “Community Builder of the Year” to advertise the hometown services of chain-store managers. The local manager, they argued, actually did support the Community Chest and the Red Cross, he helped local students, he served his local church, and he cooperated with local merchants.

But both the accusation and the response were beside the point; the chain store announced and symbolized a new kind of community. The new consumption communities were, of course, shallower in their loyalties, more superficial in their services. But they were ubiquitous, somehow touching the American consumer at every waking moment and even while he slept. Senator Black was right in his alarums that the “local man” was passing. Man was no longer local. As the American population adopted mobility as normal, the new arrivals in a new suburb or city who might not know their neighbors would at least feel somewhat at home in their A & P (where they knew where to find each item) or in their Walgreen’s (where familiar brands abounded). Had these enlarging communities of consumers provided some slight solace and substitute for the declining neighborhood community?

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