Clarance Saunders: The Man Behind Piggly Wiggly

In this episode of Memphis Type History: The Podcast, Rebecca meets with Caroline Mitchell Carrico at the Pink Palace to learn the insane story of the man who started Piggly Wiggly and the concept of grocery stores as we know them today. Hear how he lost it all in a gamble and then started the brilliant process back over.

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Caroline Mitchell Carrico is the Supervisor of Exhibits and Graphic Services at the Memphis Pink Palace Museum. That means she researches and writes for the exhibits at the museum and also has a hand at the designs and installations of the exhibits as well. The massive project they have been working on is a complete redesign of the Pink Palace mansion. She’s been working on it for about 3 years now. You’ll hear a little bit about what we can expect to find in the new layout.

Clarence Saunders. Photo courtesy of Pink Palace Family of Museums.

Clarence Saunders, The Idea Man

Caroline gives a bit of Clarence Saunders job history. One of his first jobs was at a country store. You could buy anything you want to there. That’s where his start was and then through a series of job transitions, he landed as a Wholesale Drummer in Memphis. That’s the person who would go to all the different country stores and drum up business. He would convince the store owners to buy things and talk to them about how to improve their sales and improve their products. He developed enough ideas to decide he wanted to start up his own store. Carolynn talks about how he got together with a group of other store owners and started the United Stores company in town, where they did bulk purchasing. And she also talks about how the old country stores ran during this time.

Picture shows turnstiles in a wooden railing at the front of an early Piggly Wiggly store. A cashier stands with his back to the camera near a bin filled with shopping baskets. A sign visible on the display shelves in the background reads: “Patented Oct. 9th 1917.” Image courtesy of Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center

The Birth of Piggly Wiggly

Clarence decided his store would be cash-only and a self-service grocery store. He designed it so that you had to walk through a serpentine path of the entire store, requiring you to pass through every item. At first, people had to rent a shopping basket but then he quickly changed that so you could just borrow the shopping basket at the front. Also, the only time you interacted with staff was at the end of the store when you were paying. At the time, a lot of grocery stores let you order your items and they would deliver it to you. But Clarence did away with that. People bought their items and took it home with them.

A floor plan of a Piggly Wiggly from a 1920 patent. Image courtesy of Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center

The store we’re talking about is Piggly Wiggly and Clarence Saunders made sure to patent the self service design. He actually got numerous patents, such as the store fixtures. There were arguments that there were already other self service style stores but Clarence was the first person to franchise it and turn it into a really big model that fundamentally changed the way that we shop.

Carolyn told me Clarence Saunders did his own advertising as well and it was quite the advertisement. Here’s an ad she provided for our reading enjoyment. 

October 1, 1916 Piggly Wiggly Ad courtesy of Pink Palace Family of Museums.

His store also essentially changed advertising for products as well because if people were now passing through goods and deciding which products to buy, businesses would need to make sure their product stood out from the others.

Store located at 181 Madison Ave. 1930s. Photo courtesy of Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center.

So Why the Name Piggly Wiggly?

One story is he was on a train and saw a bunch of pigs wiggling to get under a fence. Another story is during time he opened the store there was syndicated stories that ran in the newspaper called Uncle Wiggly’s bedtime tales and people speculate that it may have come from that.

It’s also possible that he just completely made up a funny name to be memorable but also possibly so to easily find people who were infringing on his copyright. He sued Hogglety Wogglety stores in Missouri and won because it was similar to his concept and name.

But Then He Lost it All

Saunders was the President of the corporation and he with the board of directors decided to list Piggly Wiggly stock at the New York Stock Exchange to raise capital. You’ll have to listen to the episode to get the 101 on the stock market and how a sneaky plan backfired on Saunders, causing him to lose the company.

Construction of Pink Palace courtesy of Pink Palace Family of Museums.

Did We Mention The Pink Palace Was Intended To Be His Mansion?

While the whole stock market incident happened, his mansion was still getting built (The Pink Palace). When he lost everything, the inside of the mansion wasn’t complete and he couldn’t live in it. He declared bankruptcy and lost the mansion and the estate which included Chickasaw Gardens and the Memphis lake. The plans for the Pink Palace was for it to be a millionaire’s playground. It was going to have a bowling alley, an indoor swimming pool, a Roman atrium, ballroom, a trout stream, a ridiculous amount of bedrooms. But, to have an estate this massive to build on, he cleared people off of the land. Families were living on the property when he purchased it and they were forced to move and their houses were burnt to clear the land.

Families had to relocate to clear the land for Saunders’ mansion to be built. Image courtesy of Pink Palace Family of Museums.

What ended up happening is the Garden Development Corporation from Kentucky purchased the land and mansion at the bankruptcy auction, they subdivided the neighborhood and created Chickasaw Gardens. At the time, this was just outside the city. However, they didn’t know what to do with the mansion. They gave the property to the city with the expectation that it would become either a museum or art gallery or art conservancy and they wrote into the contract that it would only be for caucasian race because you know.. this was 1920. At the time there was already the Brooks Art Museum, The James Lee Art Academy was up and strong as an art conservancy, what the city didn’t have was a natural History museum. So they decided to turn the Pink Palace into the city’s Cultural and Natural History Museum.

And by the way, make sure to listen to the episode to hear additional fun facts about the mansion, such as how Clarence had a different name for it, its beginning days as a museum, and who the actual first people were to live inside it.

Courtesy of Pink Palace Family of Museums.

Clarence Doesn’t Stop With the Grocery Stores

Clarence Saunders Stores was the name of his second grocery store. And then he was sued by Piggly Wiggly because they said his name was synonymous with Piggly Wiggly. The corporation lost the lawsuit and Saunders kept the rights to his name. So he named it Clarence Saunders Sole Owner of My Name Stores.

Store sign seen off Lamar. Photo was taken in May 2014. Sign has since been painted over.

Clarence started building a second millionaire’s playground further out East. It’s where the Lighterman Nature Center is today. Caroline thinks he called it Woodlawn. The guy was an avid golf player and built another golf course which was the longest golf course in the world at that time. He had built another lake and another house but this time he lost his business to the great depression and sold his estate to Bill Terry, the famous baseball player and manager for the Giants. 

Courtesy of of Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center.

Things Are Better In Threes

Clarence started a third grocery store and named it Keedoozle. It stood for “Key Does it All.” The concept was to make it an automated grocery store where you would go in and take your key (the big metal box-like thing) and you would stick it in the drawers of the items you wanted for it to punch your key and then you’d take your key to the check out line where a machine would read your key and a conveyor belt system would bring your items out. The idea was to not have to carry anything until the end. Unfortunately it had lots of problems since it was a bit ahead of its time.

Images of Keedoozle’s key system courtesy of Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center
We want to give a huge thanks to Caroline and the Pink Palace for sharing this story and images with us! Make sure to make a trip out to the museum. We highly recommend it!
Links Mentioned:

The Pink Palace

The Piggly Crisis

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By Rebecca Phillips

I am a female born in the United States though I generally fear the border patrol. Buy me an ice cream cone and maybe I'll paint you something.

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