Grocery shopping started out very different than we know it today. Customers were typically forced to wait behind a counter to request items stored beyond their view. Clarence Saunders, a Memphian born in poverty, revolutionized the industry by inventing the modern self-service grocery store. In the 1920s, Saunders built a massive fortune through the success of his company, Piggly Wiggly. However, just as his gaudy mansion, now known as the Pink Palace, was about to be completed, Saunders went bankrupt and lost everything.
Despite his fall from prosperity, Saunders never ceased to imagine new ways to build a better grocery store. Over time, he slowly rebuilt some of his fortune and prestige. In 1937, Saunders came up with an even more revolutionary innovation to the grocery industry. Inspired by the rise of electric vending machines, Saunders sought out to build a fully automatic grocery in Memphis called Keedoozle. Local newspapers called it "the robot grocery store." Though Saunders was able to construct several prototype establishments, contemporary technology was unable to enact his vision efficiently. No one had invented the transistor yet, let alone the microchip. It was therefore extremely difficult to automate at such a large scale. Saunders was forced to rely on complex pieces of machinery that malfunctioned frequently and only highly experienced engineers could repair. Saunders' second gamble ended once again in failure.
In 1936, Ernie Pyle stated that, "If Saunders lives long enough, Memphis will become the most beautiful city in the world just with the things Saunders built and lost." The Grocery Stores of Clarence Saunders Collection showcases the exploits of this bold Memphian. The collection contains photographs and documents related to both of Saunders' great grocery endeavors. The most impressive and extensive part of the collection is a collection of images of Saunders' Keedoozle prototypes. These images show the complex machinery and space-age displays in Saunders' prototype stores. Despite being over half a century old, these futuristic images reflect the dreams of a forward-thinking grocer, far ahead of his time.