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Each week on the Junior Curators blog, we travel back in time to a different place in Tennessee history. Stories may be about a famous person, place or event from Tennessee’s past. They will include things like priceless artifacts, pictures, videos, and even some games. Be sure to better understand the story by answering the questions at the end of each post.
After learning the story, be sure to share what you've learned with your parents, family, or friends. Try making your own exhibit about it, shooting a movie, or writing a story about it. Let your creativity run wild!
by Oliver Arney
Have you ever entered a supermarket or a grocery store and been overwhelmed at the selection you can make? The candy aisle alone has hundreds of selections that YOU can pick from. Isn’t that wonderful? Let us take a step back in time and learn how a Tennessean named Clarence Saunders created the first supermarket, Piggly Wiggly.
Piggly Wiggly sign today, from pigglywiggly.com.
Before we learn about Piggly Wiggly, let us first read about what a grocery store looked like before 1916. Let’s say you visited the general store, which would be the only store in your town (if you had one) and you wanted a candy bar. There would be no aisles to walk around and no selection you get to make. Rather a clerk would have given you the only candy bar they stocked. If your parents wanted flour, sugar, baking powder, or even soda, they had to accept what the general store carried. These stores also carried goods to help your community, like clothes or tools. If you lived in a farming town, you may find more goods meant to help you farm, like farming tools or seeds to grow crops.
Inside the first Piggly Wiggly, Wikipedia Commons.
When a young man named Clarence Saunders, saw the extra work that went into filling orders for customers, he thought of a new idea, the supermarket. He moved to Memphis from Montgomery County and worked in a grocery warehouse. He worked hard and saved his money. Then, on September 11, 1916, in Memphis, he opened the first supermarket in the world, Piggly Wiggly. In his new supermarket, the customer no longer had to give a list to a clerk but would pick their own items. Like today, a customer would get a basket and pick from different items they wanted. Allowing customers to select their own items meant that prices were cheaper, so more people started shopping there. Prices were cheaper because customers could choose from more items. So instead of having just one candy bar, the store would have other kinds of candy too. Piggly Wiggly did not just have food, but also items like clothes and tools, much like those old general stores. Saunders allowed people to use his supermarket idea for themselves. This is called franchising, which meant that if someone wanted to open a Piggly Wiggly in their town, they would pay Clarence Saunders a fee and could use the name and ideas. Today, many restaurants like McDonalds and Chick-fil-A use franchising.
Clarence Saunders, from Tennessee Encyclopedia.
Within the first year of creating Piggly Wiggly, Saunders was already making a lot of money. It was so much money that he started to build a large house in Memphis made of pink marble from Georgia. He called it the Pink Palace. By 1923, Piggly Wiggly was the third largest grocery business in the country. Sadly, Saunders lost most of his money in the stock market and had to resign from his job at Piggly Wiggly. He even lost his Pink Palace.
The Pink Palace, from Memphis Museums.
Losing so much didn’t stop him though. Clarence Saunders soon started another supermarket chain called Sole Owners Stores, which made him even more money, but this store failed because of the Great Depression. He even tried to design a store that was automated and operated using vending machines, called Kedoozle. Once you made your choice, the item would be moved by conveyor belts (like you see at the checkout lanes at grocery stores), and into a bag for you to take home, but the store never made enough money to stay in business.
Inside Piggly Wiggly exhibit at the Pink Palace, from Memphis Museums.
The influence of Clarence Saunders can still be felt today. Piggly Wiggly is still a store with around 600 locations. You can even visit the Pink Palace in Memphis. Today, it is a museum and includes a replica of the first Piggly Wiggly with examples of how the store operated. Because of Clarence Saunders and Piggly Wiggly, the supermarket is now how most people shop for not just food, but clothing and other items. The ideas of allowing the customer to pick their own items and stores franchising are still being used today. Next time you are in a grocery store, you can tell your parents or friends about how a Tennessean changed the way we shop.
Franchising – A method of opening a store using the trademark, brand, and products from an existing business.
Clerk – A grocery store employee.
Great Depression – Lasted from 1929-1933, more than ¼ or 25% of Americans were out of work and many businesses failed.
Automated – work done by machines automatically
What year did the first Piggly Wiggly open?
Where did the first store open?
What is the name of the automated store founded by Clarence Saunders?
What is one improvement you would make to the way stores work today? How would it help customers?
Saunders tried to invent an automated store. In his vision you would have put your order into a machine. Another machine would then pull the items you wanted and place them on a conveyor belt. Next, they would all be bagged by a machine, and, finally, given to you. See if you can use items around your house to create a conveyor belt system to deliver items from one area to another.
TN.52 Analyze the impact Tennessee innovators (e.g., David Crosthwait and Clarence Saunders) had on the nation.
Oliver Arney is an Educator at the Tennessee State Museum.