In 1859, George Gilman decided to change careers. At 33 he was an executive in his father’s tannery in New York City. But he would soon hand over the reins of that business to his brother and devote himself instead to importing tea. Gilman launched the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, better known to generations of grocery shoppers as the A&P supermarket chain.
With more than 15,000 stores, A&P at its peak had more locations than Walmart. The A&P pioneered concepts such as store brands and discount pricing. But it began as a fanciful idea of a young man from Waterville, Maine, who decided tea was a better way to make a living than tanning hides.
Gilman’s first stores were confined to Manhattan, and they featured bright red exteriors, gas lamps and Chinese-themed decor. Attendants provided service for the customers. The earliest growth came from expanding to a mail order business. The secret to Gilman’s early success was eliminating the middle man. While he had started out as a wholesaler, Gilman quickly converted the business into a retail operation.
Gilman’s father, Nathaniel, had been a privateer and made his fortune in the War of 1812. He and his sons left their wife and mother behind in Maine for most of the year to work in New York.
When Nathaniel died in 1859, young George Gilman took it as a signal to remake the family business. America was infatuated with tea, experiencing something of a boom in popularity at the time.
Gilman quickly persuaded George Hartford, another Maine man from Augusta, to join him at his new firm. Hartford would work his way up from clerk to take over the company upon Gilman’s death.
In 1869, when the country’s transcontinental railroad was completed, it inspired Gilman to adopt the Great Atlantic and Pacific name. Then in 1871, news of the Great Chicago fire reached New York and Gilman capitalized on it. He sent George Hartford to Chicago to establish the A&P’s first store outside New York. The company was soon growing its number of stores by leaps and bounds.
Before the A&P would sink into bankruptcy in 2015, going to the supermarket meant going to the A&P for millions of Americans. A&P house brands such as Eight O’Clock coffee would become household staples. And the hands-on customer service George Gilman established would give way to modern, self-service discount shopping. But that would come long after George Gilman left the scene.
In 1878, at only 52, Gilman handed the reins of the stores over to George Hartford and effectively retired to his Bridgeport, Conn., mansion. There he lived a life of luxury and eccentricity. Gilman and his wife entertained frequently. He had a fleet of 35 carriages and a stable of 39 horses. In 1894, his house burned and he quickly replaced it with an even larger, 20-room mansion.
When Gilman’s wife died in 1895, he became more eccentric. He began living as a recluse. Newspapers described him as practically a hermit. He removed the clocks and mirrors from his house so he would not be reminded that he was growing older, and his most steady contact with the outside world was a barber who visited his Bridgeport house daily to shave him.
When Gilman died in 1901, his estate devolved into chaos. He left no will. A woman came forward to claim Gilman’s estate. Helen Potts Hall said Gilman had unofficially adopted her and promised to leave her his fortune. A judge did not find her credible, however.
Instead, the A&P fortune passed to Hartford, who said Gilman had made an agreement with him that half of the company was his. Gilman’s relatives received the remainder of his estate, and Hartford eventually bought them out. He then set about the business of growing the A&P into a nationwide supermarket chain.
Just before Gilman’s death in 1900, the A & P had 198 stores and $56 million in annual sales. That made it a medium-size chain, the fifth biggest in the country. George Hartford brought his two sons, George and John, into the business. They began to expand aggressively.
The Rest of the A&P Story
In 1906, the U.S. Supreme Court made a decision that would let A & P grab monopoly power. The court, in Dr. Miles Medical Co. v. John D. Parke & Sons Co., ruled that manufacturers could not prevent retailers from selling their products below cost. The court thus undermined longstanding practices consider fair trade.
Fair trade practices had prevented predatory pricing to destroy competition and allowed producers to control their own businesses. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., dissented from the court’s decision, saying it would let knaves cut reasonable prices for their own ulterior purposes.
John Hartford, in charge after his father’s death in seized on the opportunity presented by the court. He transformed the A&P into an economy grocery chain — Walmart before Walmart. Fueled by Wall Street money, he grew the A&P into a huge food buyer that could — and did — demand lower prices from producers. The company then cut prices to destroy competition — small mom-and-pop grocers and manufacturers. It also demanded advertising kickbacks from producers.
“It used its power to bully farmers, workers and suppliers,” wrote Matt Stoller in his book on monopoly, Goliath. He called the A&P “the most powerful chain store America had faced since the East India Tea Company.”
By 1915, the A&P had nearly 2,000 stores. Five years later, A&P surpassed Sears as the country’s biggest retailer. But an anti-chain store backlash had begun.
States began to pass fair-trade laws and impose chain-store taxes. In 1936, Congress passed the Robinson-Patman Act, which prevented large retailers from demanding discounts and kickbacks from producers. People called it the “anti-A&P Act.”
Decline and Fall
By midcentury, the A&P ranked as the second biggest U.S. company behind General Motors. So powerful had the company grown by 1949 that President Harry Truman filed an antitrust suit against it. Truman had owned a small clothing store that went under, and he fully grasped the danger of powerful chains and monopolies.
A&P fought back with a massive PR campaign that promised “Your Food Will Cost More” in advertisements. “Others will be hurt,” said another. Management made deals with trade unions in exchange for political support. In 1949 alone, it spent $5 million on advertising to oppose antitrust laws. It also set up phony front groups to carry the A&P message.
The case dragged on, and in 1953 the business-friendly Eisenhower administration agreed to drop the suit if A&P would shut down its produce brokerage business.
But by then, the company had already begun to head downhill. John Hartford died in 1951, and his successor lacked his strategic vision. As late as 1965, the A&P was still the largest retailer in America. But over the next 50 years, it would decline and pass through a series of owners until it entered bankruptcy in 2015.
This story last updated in 2023.
Images: Ten Minutes for Refreshments Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company. (ca. 1886) Ten Minutes for Refreshments. , ca. 1886. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2003688790/. A&P warehouse, Maspeth, Long Island, Brown & Matthews, E. & Brown & Matthews, C., Gottscho-Schleisner, I., photographer. (1941) A&P Warehouse, Grand Ave., Maspeth, Long Island. General interior. United States New York New York State, 1941. May 6. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2018739643/. 8 O’Clock Coffee ad (1877) 8 o’clock breakfast coffee. The great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. , 1877. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2003666820/. Fairfield A&P from Collier’s Magazine via Pleasant Family Shopping. Third Avenue A&P By New York Public Library – Flickr: A & P (Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co.), 246 Third Avenue, …, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16563210. Chillicothe A&P from Don O’Brien via Flickr, CC by 2.0.