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The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (A&P) was founded by George Gilman in New York City in 1859. Initially, Gilman planned to continue his father’s leather tanning business and named the business Gilman and Company. His father passed away shortly after the company’s creation and Gilman became a wholesaler of coffee and tea. In May 1861, Gilman left the leather tanning industry, and the family business was taken over by his brother, Winthrop. In 1863, George Gilman opened his first retail location, the Great American Tea Company. The company was celebrated for its low prices as a wholesaler and retailer. Additional locations soon opened, and Gilman began selling nationwide through mail orders. In 1869, George Gilman began selling pre-packaged tea under the name the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (A&P). In 1871, the company started offering items such as glassware and china alongside their tea. Early stores are described by the A&P Historical Society as “resplendent emporiums,” complete with vermillion-painted walls, crystal chandeliers, tin ceilings, and Chinese wall-panels. Clerks stood behind long counters and would retrieve each requested item for shoppers from the shelves.
That same year, George Hunting Hartford, an employee that began working for Gilman in the 1850s was tasked with opening the company’s first location outside of New York City. Gilman and Hartford chose to open a shop in Chicago, just days after the city’s great fire. A bold investment in a city where 100,000 residents had lost their homes. By 1878, the company had seventy retail stores in more than sixteen cities. Their retail and mail order business had a combined revenue of around $1 million dollars. (More than $30 million in today’s dollars.)
When Congress raised tariffs on tea and coffee around 1880, A&P added new items to help raise revenue. Products included sugar, condensed milk, spices, and baking powder. This began A&P’s gradual transition into a grocery chain.
George Gilman died in 1901 without a will, which began a contentious legal battle for the company. Ultimately, the business was incorporated with George Hunting Hartford leading the board. By 1912, Hartford and his sons oversaw more than 400 stores. At the time, A&P only rented on short-term leases so that it could quickly close or relocate any unprofitable stores.
The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company first appeared in Salem’s City Directory in 1915, at 135A Essex Street. Following their success in Chicago, it is likely the company chose to open a location following the Great Salem Fire of 1914, which made national headlines. By 1921, they opened additional locations at 91 ½ North Street, 36 Boston Street, and 81 Bridge Street. Around 1926, A&P opened its first grocery store in Salem, Massachusetts on the corner of Lafayette Street and West Avenue. These grocery stores became known for their low prices due to A&P’s private-label branding, limited selection focused on fast-selling items, and its reduced hours and staffing.
After the first supermarket opened in California in 1930, similar stores followed on the East Coast. Fearing competition, A&P quickly developed a plan to open 100 supermarkets. The first A&P Supermarket opened in Braddock, Pennsylvania. In 1936, the Federal Theatre in downtown Salem closed, and the building was sold. The new owners converted the building into an A&P Supermarket and a basement-level bowling alley. This A&P on the corner of Washington and Federal streets was the largest self-service location of the grocery chain in all of Essex County. This was a new way of shopping at the time, which put baked goods, meat, produce, pharmaceuticals, and grocery items all under one roof; allowing the customer to place items in their cart on their own as they moved throughout the store.
A&P’s policy of short-term leasing meant that their stores were often considerably smaller and lacked uniformity compared to their competition, something they struggled with throughout the remaining decades of the 20th century. The chain had considerable ebbs and flows of success and failure before ultimately declaring bankruptcy in 2010 and 2015. The remaining A&P supermarkets were shuttered by November 2016.
A&P Photographs and Ephemera