It’s 1901: Time to go Grocery Shopping in North Philadelphia

Butler's Grocery Store, Northeast Corner - 12th and Diamond Streets, September 4, 1901 (PhillyHistory.org)

Butler’s Grocery Store, Northeast Corner – 12th and Diamond Streets, September 4, 1901 (PhillyHistory.org)

It’s the turn of the 20th century and I live in a tidy three-story rowhouse on Clarion Street, near Diamond Street. North Philadelphia is such a great place to live. What’s not accessible easily on foot is available by streetcar: schools (including Temple College at Berks Street and the Wagner Free Institute of Science at 17th and Montgomery). There’s a tremendous variety of houses of worship, parks, cemeteries…you name it—North Philadelphia seems to have it.

Especially convenient are food shopping options. Right next to the Grand Opera House at Broad and Montgomery is the well-stocked Broad Street Market. That’s only a half a mile walk. A bit farther away is the Globe Market on Montgomery between 10th and Warnock. And if you don’t mind the longer (2.6 mile) round trip, you can’t beat the offerings at the giant Girard Farmers Market down at Girard Avenue between 9th and Hutchinson, by Reading Railroad’s tracks.

The thing is, though, Clarion Street is nestled between 13th Street and Park Avenue, less than a block away from a new grocery store, one in Thomas P. Hunter’s Acme Tea Company chain. There are 104 others pretty much like it on neighborhood corners throughout the city. But this one: this is my corner grocery store.

And would you believe it? Only a block farther the east, at 12th and Diamond, there’s another grocery store, one of the competing chain owned and operated by William Butler. By the time the city photographer got to it in September 1901, Butler’s had opened 73 stores. By 1903 he’d have 101; a few years after that he’d have 117 well-stocked stores all around the city.

It’s part of a massive food-distribution system if you can believe E. M. Patterson from the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce. Why is there so much demand for groceries from the corner store?  Patterson explains: “The housewife lacks a large store room and so must buy in small quantities rather than in bulk. A limited supply of cash makes impossible large purchases from a distant point. … Unexpected guests and other emergencies create demands that must be promptly met. A lack of foresight in buying makes a local supply a convenience if not an actual necessity. These reasons and others seem to insure a steady, continued demand for the retail grocer.”

Butler’s Grocery Store, Northeast Corner – 12th and Diamond Streets, September 4, 1901. Detail. (PhillyHistory.org)

And so, by 1911, Philadelphia would come to have, according to Patterson, an astounding “5,266 retail grocery stores in addition to 257 delicatessen stores that sell some groceries and 2,004 butchers and retail meat dealers, of whom probably 10 per cent or 200 also sold groceries.” The total: 5,723 in a city of more than a million and a half. That’s “one store for every 270 people or one for every 54 families.”

No wonder there seems to be a grocery store on nearly every corner. There just about is.

Take a look at Butler’s bargains, as advertised in the Inquirer from last March: ¼ lb. “very best cooked corned beef” for 3 cents (the price would soon rise to 5 cents); a “large glass of prepared mustard for 4 cents (a penny less than it was last week); 12 “nice crisp pickles” for 2 cents; a pound of the “very best full cream cheese” for a dime. Also for a dime: a bottle of Manzanilla Olives . You like sweet biscuits? Butler’s “fresh Nic-Nacs,” sell for 2 cents a quart. The “best evaporated peaches and apples are 7 cents per pound. And if you try their Crescent Gilt Edge Butter for 18 cents a pound, and are not fully satisfied, Butler’s will happily refund your money.

Butler’s Grocery Store, Northeast Corner – 12th and Diamond Streets, September 4, 1901. Detail. (PhillyHistory.org)

Let me tell you about their flour! “Butler’s Best Flour is the best and most reliable brand of flour on earth,” they say.  They claim it “makes more, whiter and better bread than any four milled.” If you walk in their door with the advertisement printed in the Inquirer, they’ll sell you a 7 pound bag for 14 cents or a 24 ½ lb. bag for 46 cents—your choice.

Not convinced yet? Purchase a pound of Golden Santos Coffee for 25 cents and you’ll get a free “imported china decorated cup and saucer.” (That’ll keep me coming back until I have a full set.)

But wait! Even closer to home, only half a block from Clarion Street, Acme Tea is selling their “Head Coffee Roaster’s Pet Coffee,” at the bargain price of 20 cents per pound, or 3 pounds for 50 cents. “You are not experimenting when you buy a pound of this coffee,” they assure prospective customers, “we did the experimenting …we know exactly what kind of a flavor suits the majority of coffee drinkers and it’s right here in this blend.”

It seemed like a life and death struggle between the Butler and Hunter chains. They competed hard. They had to if they wanted to stay in business.

And as a well-fed resident of North Philadelphia, I definitely want them to.

[Sources: Marc Levinson, The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011); E. M. Patterson, “The Cost of Distributing Groceries,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 50, (Nov., 1913), pp. 74-82; Inquirer advertisements for Wm. Butler: March 30, 1900; April 7, 1900; April 23, 1900; June 18, 1903 and advertisements for Acme Tea Company June 18, 1902.

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3 Comments

  1. Aaron Bauman
    Posted March 22, 2018 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    Can you please explain “fresh baked cracker dust”?

    • Ken Finkel
      Posted March 23, 2018 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      Good question! I asked Rick Nichols, of the Inquirer. He responded: “As far as I can discern, ‘cracker dust’ is merely pulverized crackers (probably more like those round, hard oyster crackers like they have at The Oyster House powdered to a silky, flour-like consistency. Thus ‘dust.’ It was long a secret to particularly Philadelphia style fried oysters, as Will Weaver reports in The Larder Invaded. The crack dust would be used to coat oysters that had been well drained and patted dry. And the dust was applied next, further blocking moisture from leaching into the final breading and cooling the hot frying oil. (In other words, it created something of a vapor barrier.) The next step was to dip the dusted oysters in beaten eggs, then breadcrumbs and then fry them in super-hot oil. They didn’t have a chance to get soggy and limp!!

      • Aaron Bauman
        Posted March 23, 2018 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

        Sounds delicious. Thanks for the explainer.

        RIP Snockey’s

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