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Collectors Still Shopping at the A&P

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When I was growing up in the Bronx, ''going to the A&P'' was a phrase for going to any market or grocery store and doing the daily shopping, largely because the A&P was the only game in town. It went from its origins as The Great American Tea Company in 1859 to becoming the No. 1 food retailer by the mid-1950s, controlling about 75% of the market share.

It all began when George Huntington Hartford arrived in New York City from Augusta, Maine, with the idea of buying tea by the boatload and selling it dockside for a third of the going rate. The plan paid off immediately and it wasn't long before Hartford and his partner George Gilman opened a shop on Vesey Street in lower Manhattan, selling tea purchased directly from Chinese tea plantations.

The place became a neighborhood attraction, with its bright sign of "real Chinese vermilion and flaked gold" over the door, Japanese lanterns and brilliant chandeliers inside, a cashier's cage in the form of a Chinese pagoda and a brass band playing to lure customers in on Saturday nights. Not surprisingly, it became the most popular tea house in the city.

They gradually expanded their stock - always selling at discount prices - adding coffee and spices to the line, started mail-order service and began a national advertising campaign, hiring horse-drawn Wells Fargo wagons to distribute their goods over 5,000 delivery routes.

The establishment of coast-to-coast rail service enabled national distribution to his stores, underscored by the new name, The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. Thanks to aggressive promotion techniques, by 1876 they had 67 stores and had become a successful chain of 400 stores by 1912. They also had a vast army of traveling stores, made up of bright red and gold horse-drawn wagons to service outlying areas, with a driver who also served as store manager, clerk and cashier.

Also in 1912, the first A&P Economy Store opened in Jersey City, N.J., cutting prices and offering bare-minimum services - no deliveries, credit or telephone orders. This was an instant success, and from there the franchise mushroomed, with 7,500 new stores opening over the next three years. By 1925 they had almost 14,000 stores, selling one tenth of all food sold at retail in the U.S., with sales of $437 million, and in the early 1930s revenue reached $1 billion.

The 1926 establishment of a meat department, with pre-packaged selections, led directly to the creation of the modern single-stop market: the first A&P supermarket opened in 1936, in Braddock, Penn.

Hartford and his successors demonstrated a genius for branding. As early as the 1880s, Hartford manufactured and sold his own brand of baking powder (a first) and established his own brand of coffee, packaged in a bright red bag and called Eight O'Clock Breakfast Coffee - the time of day Hartford believed most coffee was consumed. Other pioneering store brands were Red Circle and Bokar coffees, Our Own Tea, and Ann Page and Jane Parker foods. They were also among the first radio sponsors ("The A&P Gypsies"), developed Woman's Day magazine and participated in the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago.


There are charming mementos of the early days of A&P available to the collector. Some examples are cardboard calendars from the early 20th century showing vignettes of people using the stores' products; paper signs such as an 1886 example depicting citizens rushing off to work, titled "Ten Minutes for Refreshments"; an 1880s A&P slip-top canister, printed by Ginna & Co, showing a grandmotherly woman, proclaiming "A&P's Teas and Coffees have been my Solace through Life"; and wooden tea bins. There is also interest in early Ann Page spice tins and other such branded products.

Linda Rosenkrantz has edited Auction magazine and authored 18 books, including "Cool Names for Babies" and "The Baby Name Bible" (St. Martin's Press; She cannot answer letters personally.
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 institutions  New York City  chandeliers  customers  Chinese  retailers

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