Piggly Wiggly, Sole Proprietorships and the Green Bay Packers |

Tennessee History for Kids

The rise and fall of Memphis businessman Clarence Saunders involves Piggly Wiggly, the Pink Palace, the New York Stock Exchange, sole proprietorships and (footnote) the Green Bay Packers. It is difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.

Saunders learned the grocery trade as a youngster in Clarksville at the turn of the 20th century. He moved to Memphis and in 1916 opened his first Piggly Wiggly store, changing the face of grocery stores.

At the time, most grocery stores were owned and operated. Customers walked through the door and handed their lists to a clerk, who collected their items. If the clerk had six people on standby, the customer would have to wait for those ahead of them to be served. In addition, most grocery stores extended credit to their customers.

Saunders created his store to be completely different. Every store was the same, with every product in the same location in every store. The stores had one-way aisles to speed up traffic. Piggly Wiggly has done a lot of publicity, more than any mom-and-pop grocer could. And the stores operated on a “cash only” basis. “Your dollar at Piggly Wiggly will not help pay for the BAD DEBTS of others,” a Tennessean ad said.

And where does Saunders get its name from? “It took me two hours to come up with a name that was ridiculous enough,” he said later.

As his chain and wealth grew, Saunders developed a reputation for flamboyance in Memphis. He built a huge Georgian pink marble mansion, aptly named the Pink Palace.

Customers flocked to Saunders stores, and he took his company public a few years after it was founded. By 1922, there were 1,200 Piggly Wiggly locations in the United States, about half of which were owned by the company and the other half by franchisees.

However, in 1923, Saunders lost control of Piggly Wiggly after a series of complicated events involving the ownership of shares in the company. While the explanation of what happened is very complicated, here’s a quick recap: Saunders borrowed millions of dollars in an attempt to buy control of his own shares. But on Wall Street, his plot backfired and Saunders went from rich to destitute overnight. In a last-ditch effort to retain control of his business, Saunders and Tennessee Gov. Austin Peay traveled to Detroit to ask Ford Motor Co. founder Henry Ford to intervene. Ford declined to meet with the two men from Tennessee (which gives you an idea of ​​how important Henry Ford was at that time).

Piggly Wiggly stores remained open, but no longer under Saunders management. For a while, the grocery chain was run by a Nashville man named James Bradford (who then started a brokerage house in Nashville called JC Bradford & Co.).

Saunders didn’t quit and went on to start another grocery chain called (oddly enough) Clarence Saunders: Sole Owner of My Name. (Saunders apparently got the name because a bankruptcy judge once berated him, saying, “You, sir, don’t own anything. You are only the sole owner of your name.”) Sanders ran his stores. sole proprietorship – as they were called – quite aggressively. In fact, he tended to build them right across from the Piggly Wiggly stores.

To promote his chain of grocery stores, Saunders even organized a professional football team known as the Sole Owner Tigers. On December 15, 1929, a week after winning the NFL Championship, the Green Bay Packers lost to the Sole Proprietorship Tigers, 20-6.

The sole proprietorship chain closed during the Great Depression. Today there are still Piggly Wiggly stores across the South, franchised to independent owner-operators under a myriad of arrangements. Meanwhile, Saunders’ former mansion, the Pink Palace, is a museum. Among its many exhibits is a replica of a Piggly Wiggly store.

{em style = “font-size: 20px;”}Bill Carey is the founder and executive director of Tennessee History for Kids, a nonprofit organization that helps teachers cover social studies. He is also the author of several history books and a former Capitol Hill reporter.{/ em}


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