BRYAN COUNTY HISTORY: Help Yourself

Bryan County Genealogy Library

The grocery shopper of 2021 can expect the convenience of complete customer service: visit a website, shop for a variety of supplies, pay by credit card, and pick them up at curbside or have them delivered to the door. Ironically, the grocery shoppers of Indian Territory could expect a comparable level of service. They wrote out a list, delivered it to the store owner or clerk, waited while their supplies were chosen and wrapped, and then had the option of carrying them home in their wagon or having them delivered. Charges were written in a ledger and paid at the end of the month. A few years later the telephone made orders even more convenient.

This service model continued long after statehood. Stores competed with each other by bragging about their services and clerks, but some customers realized the added cost. In 1912 the editor of the Caddo Herald told them: “The telephone, the delivery wagons and the extra clerks are costly articles, yet we must have them. Don’t complain if your goods cost more, because you get them with less effort on your part.”

Only a few years later, a young man in Memphis, TN proved the editor was mistaken. Clarence Saunders was working for a grocery wholesaler in 1916 when he developed the concept of the “selfservice” grocery store. He claimed that he had the fixtures made and the first Piggly-Wiggly store open only two weeks later. His store had a consistent floor plan, clearly labeled products, and a strict procedure for shopping. He eliminated call-in orders, home delivery, and credit. Here is the Piggly Wiggly system as explained by a newspaper, reporting on the opening of one in Houston, TX in 1917:

• A customer enters the white enameled, screened store at the south end.

• To her left will be a rack of market baskets. She e will take one and pass through the mahogany turnstile at the left, into the first “wiggle.”

• These “wiggles” are four in number. The fourth wiggle narrows so the customers are in single file.

• On to the checkers and cashier’s desk. Purchases are added up. Basket is exchanged for strong sacks. Cashier ends the transaction and the customer leaves through a second turnstile.

Each store in the system was to be the same, so that a shopper in New York had the same experience as one in San Francisco. Of course, there were immediately other systems and franchises created. In 1918 the Tanner Bros. of Alva installed a new system that had “proved a fine success in many cities.” An “M System Store” was advertised in Durant in 1926. In 1927 Ward Sanderson of Cushing purchased a “Sipes franchise” for his Serve-U-Cash Store.

The new stores had clever names. McAlester opened a “Pure Food Groceteria”. Woodward had the “Help Yourself Groceteria”. Many were called “Cash and Carry” stores. With more adopting the new system, store owners had to think creatively to compete. One in Newkirk offered a free basket with $1 or more purchase. Another location had a “wrapping station” where customers could package fresh items like vegetables. Those opting to stay with the clerk service system emphasized “courteous” service, and the convenience of having large sacks of flour, sugar, and potatoes delivered. One drawback of the self-service system was that items had to fit on shelves and be light enough for the average woman to lift and carry.

Within ten years the self-serve grocery store was the new standard. In 1927 the grand opening of the Stevens’ Self-Serve Grocery in Caddo reported 1,730 registered visitors. Specialty stores, such as meat markets, bakeries, and confectionary stores retained their helpful clerks. Now it seems our grocery stores are revisiting history. 

Bryan County History is a weekly feature contributed by members of the Bryan County Genealogy Library and Archives in Calera. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group. Is there a historic event or topic you want to read about? Contact the library at P.O. Box 153, Calera, OK 74730.