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A Piggly Wiggly history of chain stores on 15th Ave

The debut of a Starbucks-backed brand experiment on 15th Ave E wasn’t the first time that this Seattle commercial strip saw a large chain with an innovative retail concept move in. Capitol Hill historian Dotty DeCoster originally wrote this piece for the Capitol Hill Times where it appeared in early 2008 but it is not available on the Web. She is able to share her work with CHS and we’re happy to feature her take on the Hill’s history.

The former home of Piggly Wiggly as it appears in 2009 (Photo: Lucas Anderson)

At first glance, one sees the delightful canopy along 15th. It is almost as wide as the sidewalk, wide enough for two people to stroll together without getting soaked by the canopy drip. This building at 401 15th Avenue E (on the northwest corner of 15th and E Harrison) has been with us since 1930. Walking along, one might pause and peruse the intriguing house wares and gifts in the windows of Tilden, or go into 22 Doors and see what’s on offer. It’s not really until you see the building from across the street that the terra cotta ornaments on the front of the building are noticeable, although the lively brick design along E. Harrison still looks pretty flashy.

From 1930 until about 1938, this masonry building was 15th Avenue’s Piggly Wiggly store. The canopy wrapped around the building covering all the big windows just below the transoms. Originally a Piggly Wiggly/MacMarr store, the sign seems to say simply “Piggly Wiggly” in the 1937 photograph at the State archives. A grocery ad in the Seattle Daily Times, January 10,1930, shows a banner “MacMarr/PigglyWiggly” announcing the “first birthday sale” for all the stores in Seattle, and the ad looks much like grocery ads today. It also dates the merger between the two chain store companies.

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Piggly Wiggly stores have a fascinating history. Clarence Saunders invented the self-service supermarket, patented the system in 1914, and franchised it nationwide. He’s the person who came up with the name “Piggly Wiggly”. His first store was opened in Memphis, Tennessee in 1916. But he lost control of the company in the early 1920s.

In 1921, William Louis Avery came to Seattle from Boulder, Colorado, and established the first Piggly Wiggly store in downtown Seattle. As the self-service method of shopping became popular, he opened stores in other parts of the city. He remained president and manager of the company until 1925, when Harry A. Ruff took charge here in Seattle. Mr. and Mrs. Ruff lived near the University of Washington, where their son, Harry A. Ruff, Jr., was a student.

Also during the 1920s, Charles Merrill (Merrill, Lynch) became interested in grocery stores and drove the development of the Safeway chain which originated in southern California. By the end of the 1920s, many west coast grocery store chains, including the MacMarr and Piggly Wiggly chains, had been consolidated into the Safeway system. In some cases, and 15th Avenue was no exception, Safeway and Piggly Wiggly stores existed for a brief time within a block of each other although they were owned and operated by Safeway. In 1932, Piggly Wiggly and Safeway stores in Seattle were consolidated under the direction of John L. Heathcote, District Manager. By 1935 George M. Mangan was the District Manager and in 1938 the former Piggly Wiggly at 401 15th Ave. E. became a Safeway.

Grocery store chains were big business in the 1920s and 1930s. While the Depression encouraged consolidation and delivery of less expensive food, in general the grocery business thrived. Financiers were willing, as Charles Merrill was, to invest heavily in new stores, new warehouses, and expansion of grocery chains. Wheeling and dealing, merging and consolidating retail and warehousing, were continuous.

City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods Historical Site Record
Summary for 401-405 15th AVE / Parcel ID 3303700190 / Inv # CH009


Historic Name: Piggly Wiggly Market Common Name: none
Style: Commercial Neighborhood: Capitol Hill
Built By:   Year Built: 1927
In the opinion of the survey, this property appears to meet the criteria of the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Ordinance.
This is an unusually ornate and intact small commercial building in the Fifteenth Avenue East business district. Residential development of this part of Northeast Capitol Hill flourished in the early years of the 20th Century, when the developer James Moore platted and sold lots around 15th Avenue North (now East). A streetcar line was built on 15th, and by 1910 several groceries and drugstores were located in his area. This is one of the second generation of buildings, constructed in 1927. It originally housed a Piggly-Wiggly Market. The extensive terra cotta ornamentation and decorative brickwork distinguish it from surrounding buildings, no doubt a method of attracting shoppers away from the numerous nearby stores. Since grocery stores consolidated into large facilities, this building has housed a variety of restaurants and small retail and service businesses.
This small one-story building is clad in brown and tan brick, laid in a decorative X pattern on the south wall. The main entry is denoted by an arch in the terra cotta belt course above the transoms. The center storefront and the corners are delineated by ornate terra cotta pilasters with large finials. The pilaster design is repeated in the medallions descending from the terra cotta cornice. The storefronts have their original recessed entries, large display windows with transoms, black tile bulkheads and a suspended canopy.
Detail for 401-405 15th AVE / Parcel ID 3303700190 / Inv # CH009


Status: Yes – Inventory
Classication: Building District Status:
Cladding(s): Brick Foundation(s): Concrete – Poured
Roof Type(s): Flat Roof Material(s): Unknown
Building Type: Commercial/Trade – Specialty store Plan: Rectangular
Structural System: Masonry – Unreinforced No. of Stories: one
Unit Theme(s): Commerce
Changes to Plan: Intact
Changes to Windows: Intact
Changes to Original Cladding: Intact
Major Bibliographic References
Williams, Jacqueline B. The Hill with a Future: Seattle’s Capitol Hill 1900-1946. Seattle: CPK Ink, 2001.
King County Property Record Card (c. 1938-1972), Washington State Archives.
Polk’s Seattle Directories, 1890-1996.

By 1941, 401 15th Avenue E was vacant. In 1942, briefly, it became the Capitol Hill Evangelistic Church, Rev. Thorfin Brocke, Pastor. A year later, it became a grocery again, a service grocery run by John D. Shea. About 1953, Capitol Hill Furniture and Appliance Company took over the premises and remained there until about 1976. For a brief time in the late 1970s, the Capitol Hill TV store was there and then Tilden moved in from across the street. The store was divided in half and a restaurant has been in the space now at 405 15th Ave. E since Speedy’s, sometime in the 1970s or so.

While a history of Piggly Wiggly stores in the Northwest remains to be written, it is likely that the Piggly Wiggly at 401 15th Avenue E. was the last to be built in Seattle.

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4 thoughts on “A Piggly Wiggly history of chain stores on 15th Ave

  1. that’s what everyone called the piggly wiggly that was about a mile from my parents’ house in denton, tx. growing up, there were three in our town of now about 100k people, but the last two just closed earlier this summer:

    of course, the architecture of these suburban “pigs” paled in comparison to that of the the 15th/harrison outlet. thanks to dotty for pointing out the original occupant of this fantastic building, and reminding me that even though i live 2000 miles from where i grew up, i’m still within walking distance of a former ‘pig.’

  2. I am seeking to document the Astoria, Oregon Piggly Wiggly store(s). An old photo shows one store sometime in the 1930’s on Commercial St. My parents purchased the former Piggly Wiggly store located at 12th and Marine Drive sometime in the 1960’s. I own this building at the current time and am seeking historical designation. Does anybody have any information. I am restoring the building to as near original condition as I can. Thank you for any information you can give me. Yourt article was a very helpful start. William Allen 503 741 0645