18th & Monroe NE was once a bustling intersection
While searching through the Library of Congress website, I came across two photos that had very little information listed. This one I recognized immediately as the intersection at 18th & Monroe. The photo is from 1928, nearly a century ago, and what looks like sewer work is being done on both streets. The camera faces west from the grounds of the Burroughs School on Monroe Street, then just a few years old.
The only information on the original National Photo Company image is the name “S.W. Barrow.” After a little research, I found a Samuel Wheeler Barrow living on 20th St., right around the corner. Barrow was a real estate salesman, but why his name is on the photos is unknown. Zooming in, there are some interesting details visible. Grocer Joseph Kushner opened his market at 3500 18th Street in 1926.
It was part of what was then called the District Grocery Society (D.G.S.), a cooperative of single-room grocers around DC, Virginia, and Maryland, formed in a bid to get better wholesale prices.
They changed the name to District Grocery Stores in 1928. The stores were individually owned, and often the owners would live above the store, as was the case with the Kushners, and were therefore able to stay open longer hours. The cooperative was primarily a Jewish organization, the stores often run by new immigrants who spoke Yiddish. They would learn English on the job. The stores were usually open seven days a week (half-day on Sunday), and because they were located in many non-Jewish neighborhoods, would also sell non-Kosher products, such as pork. DGS became a powerful business and social organization that lasted until 1972.
John Tobin’s Service Station, on the southwest corner, opened in 1926. I count seven gravity-fed pumps, which makes it quite a large operation. A year later, the first electric pumps would be installed. Although owners and brands changed over the years, a service station has been in business at that location for 96 years. Today it is an Exxon.
Here is the second photo taken that day in 1928. The camera is on the southeast corner of the intersection, facing up 18th toward Lawrence Street.
From right to left, there is John Tobin’s variety store, opened next to his service station. Then there is the Tobin home, and next to it at 3418 18th Street, is the Sanitary Grocery Company store. John Letts started Sanitary Grocery in 1909 and it quickly grew throughout the Washington area. In 1928 they absorbed the Piggy Wiggly chain and in turn became a subsidiary of Safeway Stores, though they kept the Sanitary Grocery name until 1941.
The Sanitary Grocery Company became the focus of a major civil rights case in 1936. Although their stores were located in many African American neighborhoods, they would not hire Black workers. When a new shop opened at 11th and U Sts. NW, a group called the New Negro Alliance began picketing outside the store with a placard that read “Do Your Part! Buy Where You Can Work! No Negroes Employed Here!” Sanitary Grocery got an injunction to stop the picketing. The NNA fought back, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where Justice Owen Roberts ruled in favor of the NNA. Picketing and boycotting of discriminatory businesses then became a staple of the Civil Rights movement.
Next to the Sanitary Grocery in the photo is Walter Maguire’s tailor shop, and next to that, at 3414 18th Street, The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, better known as the A&P.
On their way to becoming America’s biggest retailer, by 1928 A&P already had a long successful history. Started in 1859 by George Gilman with a few tea and coffee shops in New York, it was the mail order business that first drove A&P’s success. The stores quickly spread through New York and then much further, soon adding their own brands of a variety of products such as baking powder, condensed milk, and butter. A&P became a retail juggernaut.
Finally, at the very end of the block is one more food outlet, the Piggly Wiggly. The chain was started in Memphis, Tennessee in 1916 by Clarence Saunders. An innovator, Saunders pegged his hopes on making his stores self-service. Up to that point, you would go into a shop and tell the clerk what items you wanted. He would then gather it for you. With self-service, you would pick up a basket and choose your own groceries from the shelves. It was a revolutionary change and quickly spread to other grocers. If you look closely at the front window, just below the Piggly Wiggly sign and their motto “All Over the World,” you can see a sign in the windows for meat. After World War I, and improvements in transportation and refrigeration, grocers began adding meats to their stores, giving shoppers more choice and fewer stops to make on their shopping excursions. Saunders franchised his stores, and then started issuing public stock in the company. That resulted in his loss of control and eventually being bought out by Safeway.
Grocery innovations would continue and expand, and soon would come the supermarket, which changed everything once again. The Food Marketing Institute and Smithsonian Institution have determined that the very first supermarket was opened by Michael J. Cullen in 1930 in Queens, New York. He called it King Kullen with the motto: “Pile It High, Sell It Low!” Safeway and others hesitated at first, but with the Great Depression kicking in, the search for low food prices became more urgent for consumers. Giant Food built the first supermarket in the Washington area, in February of 1936. It was an immediate success.
The success of the supermarket meant the eventual demise of the small grocer, though single-room stores would continue for decades. There are no longer any food stores or grocers on that stretch of 18th Street, with the Giant on Brentwood Road about a mile away.
As for the buildings in the two photos, almost all are gone. The building that held Kushner’s at 3500 18th Street still stands and is now the T&N Reliable Nursing Care office. But all the buildings on 18th south of Monroe have been razed, except for one. What used to be the A&P at 3414 18th St is now a childcare center (the little green building in the second photo below).
It’s fascinating to watch how things change and evolve over the decades. And how much history you can draw from an old photograph.
Eschner, Kat, The Bizarre Story of Piggly Wiggly, the First Self-Service Grocery Store, Smithsonian Magazine, 2017
Levinson, Mark, Don’t Grieve for the Great A&P, Harvard Business Review, 2012
Myers, Randy, Before There Was Walmart, There Was A&P, Fox Business, 2016
Vile, John R., New Negro Alliance v. Sanitary Grocery Co., Inc. (1938), The First Amendment Encyclopedia, 2020
Washingtonian Staff, From Piggly Wiggly To Wegman’s: How DC Grocery Shopping Got Cool, Washingtonian Magazine, 2018.