Founded in 1919, Jitney Jungle remained a private, family-owned grocery chain until 1996. The history of this Mississippi-based firm documents important changes in food retailing in the twentieth century, from the earliest stages of self-service store design in the 1920s to the rise of the supermarket in the 1930s and the discount megamarket of the 1970s.
In 1919 Judson McCarty Holman; his brother, William Henry Holman Sr.; and their cousin, William Bonner McCarty, founded the Jitney Jungle in Jackson. The Holman-McCarty partnership had begun in 1912 as the McCarty-Holman Company, and within a few years the partners had created a small chain of Jackson grocery stores. Like most of their competitors, these stores offered credit and delivery services to customers, whose food orders were assembled by clerks in each store. During the World War I era, rising food costs and the difficulty of collecting from credit customers inspired McCarty-Holman to join a growing number of grocers converting their stores to cash-and-carry, experimenting with trends in self-service store design popularized by the Memphis-based chain Piggly Wiggly, founded in 1916. Shifting to cash-and-carry reduced the costs associated with credit and delivery, and self-service reduced the need for clerks and thus the cost of wages.
Local legend held that the name Jitney Jungle resulted from a printer’s error in the first newspaper advertisement that transformed Jingle to Jungle. According to W. H. Holman Sr., however, the name was a play on slang terms of the early twentieth century. Jitney was a popular name for the cheap taxis many customers used to travel to the store as well as a slang term for a nickel, thus echoing the firm’s slogan and advertising emphasis on saving money: “Every Jitney would be a jungle of bargains that could save the customer a ‘jitney’ on a quarter.” The Jitney partners estimated that customers could save 20 percent based on the cash-and-carry policy and self-service design, a viewpoint that inspired the longtime Jitney Jungle slogan, “Save a Nickel on a Quarter.”
The first self-service Jitney Jungle store opened on 19 April 1919 on East Capitol Street in downtown Jackson, just down the street from a rival Piggly Wiggly store. McCarty applied for a patent on the new store’s self-service design on 7 June 1919. The patent, issued 27 July 1920, asserted distinctive improvements in self-service store design by eliminating the problem of shoplifting, minimizing the number of clerks, and providing multiple entry and exit points that enabled customers to find the goods they sought without traversing the entire store. Soon thereafter, Piggly Wiggly filed a patent infringement suit against the McCarty-Holman Company. In the 1920s the Jitney Jungle expanded from Jackson to other towns in Mississippi, including Greenwood, Yazoo City, and Canton. The US District Court ruled in 1930 that Piggly Wiggly was not the inventor of self-service retail practices and could not claim patent infringement protection. Settlement of the lawsuit opened the door to McCarty-Holman’s expansion, largely through Jitney Jungle franchises in small towns across Mississippi.
Jitney Jungle weathered the Great Depression and continued to update its stores. In 1934 the company opened its first real supermarket in Jackson, with a parking lot to serve the increasing number of customers arriving by automobile. The store was also innovative as the second Jitney to be air-conditioned and the first to contain a women’s bathroom, amenities that signaled the increasing importance of women as grocery customers. By 1946 the partners estimated that 90 percent of their customers were women, and the company’s gross sales had reached $7.5 million. Jitney incorporated in 1946 as a strategic response to new tax policies.
The company embraced post–World War II trends that linked supermarkets and suburban expansion. Jitney Jungle was Jackson’s first supermarket to open an anchor store in a new suburban shopping center in the 1950s, with its supermarket at Morgan Center. While Jitney advertisements of the 1920s had stressed the bargains made possible by self-service, the new supermarkets were designed to promote the comfort and convenience of female customers. Holman described the store as a “super social institution,” where clerks were required to wear ties and women not only came to buy groceries but also made appointments to socialize and shop together.
Jud Holman died in 1950, and a second generation of Holmans and McCartys began to assume the leadership of the company. During the 1950s W. H. Holman Sr. managed the wholesale operations of the firm and the McCarty-Holman Company became the distribution and service warehouse for Jitney Jungle stores. In 1954 Jitney bought a bakery in Columbia, Tennessee, and began making its own bread and baked goods. Such wholesaling functions enabled the firm to keep retail prices low and compete with larger supermarket chains. In the 1960s Jitney launched Topco, a national cooperative purchasing association that enabled the company to obtain high-quality food products at the discount prices offered to much larger supermarket chains.
W. H. Holman Jr. became presiding officer of the board of the McCarty-Holman Company after his father’s death in 1962. Five years later the younger Holman was elected president of Jitney Jungle Stores of America, and he served as the company’s chief executive officer until 1998. Under Holman’s leadership, Jitney expanded from a chain of thirty-two stores, all located in Mississippi, to a southeastern regional chain of almost two hundred stores in six other states. Much of this expansion resulted from the strategic acquisition of other small chains in Gulf Coast states. In the 1970s Jitney opened a megastore in Jackson, just off I-55 North—a giant food discount store with a pharmacy and gas station.
In 1996 management of the company passed from the Holman and McCarty families to a New York–based investment firm, Bruckmann, Rosser, Sherril, and Company. With these new resources, Jitney began an aggressive expansion, including the acquisition of stores in new market areas—most significantly, the 1997 purchase of Mobile-based Delchamps. The expansion increased annual sales but also required corporate reorganization to manage stores beyond the Mississippi base and larger expenses for building and remodeling stores. Jitney Jungle filed for bankruptcy protection on 12 October 1999. In early 2001 Jitney Jungle Stores of America sold 125 stores to Winn-Dixie Stores and Bruno’s Supermarkets. The company’s bankruptcy marked an end of an era for Mississippi food shoppers.
- Tracey A. Deutsch, Untangling Alliances: Social Tensions at Neighborhood Grocery Stores and the Rise of Chains (2002)
- John W. Fiero, International Directory of Company Histories (1999)
- Mike Freeman, “Clarence Saunders, the Piggly Wiggly Man” (master’s thesis, Memphis State University 1988)
- William Henry Holman Jr. “Save a Nickel on a Quarter”: The Story of Jitney Jungle Stores of America (1974)