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In 1859, they opened their first store, The Great American Tea Co., on Manhattan's Vesey Street. They used all the glitter and tinsel of a circus. The store was painted a flaming red ("real Chinese vermilion") ; red, white & blue globes dangled resplendently in its windows, a huge gaslit "T" glowed above its door. Their first ads cried: "There's good news for the ladies." They had other come-ons: on Saturday nights they handed out dishpan premiums and lithographs of babies while a band played a song that was providentially popular at the time, "Oh, this is the day they give babies away, with a half a pound of tea." To spread the store's name, a team of eight dapple grey horses drew a big red wagon through New York streets, offered $20,000 to anyone who guessed the weight of team and wagon.
Soon the company spread. On the profits, the tea company opened new red-fronted stores in surrounding towns, started wagon routes to sell tea & spices to farm wives, changed the company's name to the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. Partner Gilman soon sold out and retired on his profits, but Hartford plugged on. By 1880, when his plump, 16-year-old son George quit school to become his cashier, he had 100 stores.
Hartford's youngest son, Edward, did not care for the grocery business. "One Hartford ought to be a gentleman," he said, and went to Stevens Institute, the only one of the three boys to go to college. (Edward, who died in 1922, made a fortune in his own right by manufacturing the Hartford shock absorber.) But John early proved his business sense. When his mother offered him 2¢ a dozen for every fly he killed in the house, he went outside and caught a whole jarful. At 16, John began cleaning inkwells and sweeping floors at Vesey Street for his father. He got $5 a week, but his frugal mother made him pay $1 board and put another $1 in the bank. Says John: "When I got a $2 raise, like a chump I told my mother. She raised my board $1."
Young George was just as frugal as his mother. It was he who started trimming costs by getting A & P to manufacture its own products. When George learned that baking powder consisted only of soda and a carbonate, he screened off part of the Vesey Street store and set a chemist to turning it out. But it was bold, adventurous John who gave A & P its biggest shove, and made it continent-spanning in fact as well as name.
Hobos & Hell-for-Leather. In 1912, John persuaded his father and brother George to make an experiment. Until then, A & P stores had had charge accounts and deliveries. John, spotting a new trend, proposed a cash & carry "economy store" run by one man, operating at the lowest possible profit and snooting for big volume. The Hartfords opened the first such store, without giving it any name, in a dingy building not far from A & P's most profitable store in Jersey City. In six months, the obscure little economy store drove the bigger one out of business.