Nathaniel Gilman was born in New Hampshire before the United States declared independence from Great Britain. His birth year remains a mystery. As a young man, he became interested in shipbuilding. The New York Times reported that young Nathaniel “manifested a singular ability to accumulate money.” By the time the War of 1812 began, Nathaniel had acquired several ships. Through privateering and trading, Nathaniel made a small fortune. Nathaniel was a shrewd businessman. In the 1820s, he established a hide and leather business. The Times described him as being “a queer individual, a daring speculator, a taciturn, secretive trader. Images of the Charles Dickens character Ebenezer Scrooge come to mind. Within a few years, Nathaniel had turned his small fortune into a large fortune. Nathaniel died in 1859. Upon his death, his heirs began a bitter battle over his large estate worth millions of dollars which lasted thirty years.
Shortly after Nathaniel’s death, one of his sons, George Gilman, founded a tea and coffee business he named the Great American Tea Company. George quickly expanded the business with the promise of low prices for quality products. In addition to having multiple stores, George began a mail order business and operated wagon routes to deliver tea and coffee to his customers. In 1869, workers completed the transcontinental railroad. People throughout the country, including George, were fascinated by the linking of the west coast and east coast and all points in between with the new form of safe, reliable, and speedy transportation. George recognized this as a good marketing opportunity and changed the name of the company from the Great American Tea Company to the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company.
In 1880, George’s company began to sell sugar, a needed product for tea and coffee, in its stores and through mail-order. George slowly added other self-branded products including baking powder, condensed milk, spices, and butter. George continued to add grocery products to its inventory and unknowingly and unintentionally created the first grocery store chain. During his lifetime, George’s tea company expanded to 285 stores. One of his unique business practices was the requirement that each of his 285 stores send him a one dollar bill each day. In addition to his $1 per day per store income, his profits from his stores averaged about $8,000 per day at the time of his death. Adjusted for inflation, his profits would be nearly $288,000 per day in today’s money.
George was an eccentric character. He had a “handsome residence,” others described it as a mansion, in Black Rock, New York. At George’s insistence, his home had no mirrors to remind him that he was aging and “no bells or knockers at any of its entrances. There are no clocks in the house, for time was nothing to Mr. Gilman. His aversion to the subject of death was so pronounced that he refused positively to talk or read about it. If he met a funeral on his drives about the country, he would turn about so as not to pass it. He would not ride on a train on which there was a corpse.”
Despite George’s best efforts to elude death, he died on March 3, 1901, of Bright’s Disease. The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company lived on and continued to expand under the direction of his long-time manager George Hartford. At its height, it was twice as large as the second largest retailer, Sears, and four times larger than the second largest grocer, Kroger. However, the company began a slow, gradual decline following the death of John Hartford in 1951. Despite numerous attempts to return the company to its former glory, the last of its stores closed in Hewitt, Texas in 2015.
At its peak, The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company was as well known as Amazon, Walmart, and Google are today. Since the name The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company was too wordy to be practical on store signage or in advertisements, the company went by a shortened version. You and I remember the oldest grocery store chain in the country as A&P.
1. The Brooklyn Citizen, March 4, 1901, p.3.
2. Democrat and Chronicle, March 4, 1901, p.1.
3. The New York Times, March 24, 1901, p.19.
4. “Goodbye to the Local A&P and to America’s Oldest Supermarket Chain.”Www.westmilfordmessenger.com, 5 Nov. 2015, www.westmilfordmessenger.com/