Bernheim and Piggly Wiggly

By volunteer

A Piggly Wiggly on 4th Street in downtown Louisville. Date unknown.

For many of us, one of the changes we have made during the COVID-19 pandemic is to pay more attention to our grocery shopping. I reduce the number of trips I make, prepare a list, and give some thought to where the items I need can be found (I hope!). Most people are likely unaware that Isaac W. Bernheim had a role on how we shop.

Prior to 1916 grocery shopping was very different. You still prepared your list. but there was no searching the aisles for the needed items – and fewer chances to make any impulse purchases. You took your list to the sales counter and handed it to the proprietor or one of the clerks and that person would go through the shelves, barrels and bins to find your items while you waited. Then, Clarence Saunders of Tennessee changed things. He opened the first self-service grocery store in Memphis, Tennessee, on September 6, 1916 and named it Piggly Wiggly. Customers could enter, pick up a wooden basket (shopping carts would not be invented until 1937), select the items they needed, and take them to the checkout counter to pay. Another store feature would be familiar to us today during this pandemic – in order to to keep traffic orderly, arrows were placed on the aisles to show the direction the shopper should follow.  While the new idea of self-service was popular with some, others thought it to be a foolish notion that would never catch on.

I.W. Bernheim was not a skeptic. Less than two and a half years after that first Piggly Wiggly was opened, he entered the grocery business. On April 10, 1919 he purchased the rights to operate Piggly Wiggly stores under his newly formed Piggly Wiggly Valley Company. The company acquired the territory that included all of Kentucky (with the exception of four towns) plus Cincinnati and areas in Indiana and Ohio within 50 miles of either Louisville and Cincinnati. Ironically, this corporation was formed just as one of the most deadly epidemics in America’s history, that of the H1N1 influenza (Spanish flu) of 1918-1919, was coming to an end. He chose his nephew, Lewis W. Cole, to be the president of the company. The chain found quick acceptance. By 1930, you could choose from 12 Piggly Wiggly stores on Bardstown Road in Louisville. While the word, “supermarket,” was not coined until 1933, it could have easily been applied to those early Piggly Wiggly stores.

Mr. Bernheim retained his financial interest in the company for many years with some of the shares eventually given to his children. The remainder would be added to the fortune he had made in the bourbon business and was given to the Bernheim Foundation Trust which  made our treasured forest possible.

Lewis Cole would also become chairman of the board of Steiden Stores, another grocery company which eventually became part of the Winn-Dixie chain. Mr. Cole would become a member of the Bernheim Foundation Board when it was formed in 1929 and served for many years as the work to develop the forest began.

Piggly Wiggly has not disappeared.  There are now over 600 independently owned stores bearing that name in 17 states including three stores in Kentucky.  For those curious about the unusual name of Piggly Wiggly, Mr Saunders’ standard answer was that he chose that name just so people would ask him why.

Enjoy your shopping trips, stay safe, and I hope to see you as we enjoy Bernheim before too long.

Ken Johnson, Volunteer Naturalist

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