Seattle Trademark History Tour, Part 8: The Invention of the Super Market

by Foley Hoag LLP - Trademark, Copyright & Unfair Competition
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Foley Hoag LLP - Trademark, Copyright & Unfair Competition

This year, the great city of Seattle, Washington is the location of both the International Trademark Association Annual Meeting (May 19-23) and the American Intellectual Property Law Association Spring Meeting (May 15-17). If you are one of the many lawyers attending these events and you want a Seattle trademark experience, you could do the obvious and visit locations associated with the city’s famous modern Washington became the 42nd state in 1889, the same year the Great Seattle Fire destroyed much of the city. A combination of new railroad lines and post-fire construction led to a boom in population and commercial activity. On July 17, 1897, this already-promising economic climate went into hyper-drive when the S.S. Portland arrived from Alaska, heralding the beginning of the Klondike gold rush. The trademark disputes that arose from this economic activity started working their way into the published opinions of the Ninth Circuit and the newly christened Washington Supreme Court in the first decades of the twentieth century.

We took a look at the first ten trademark disputes involving the city of Seattle (which date from the turn of the century up to the start of World War I). To our delight, we found them riddled with connections to celebrities, shootouts, world politics and the multicultural fabric of migration in the American west. So, if you need something to do in Seattle, why not review our ten part Seattle Trademark History series. You can even create your own Seattle Trademark History Tour by consulting our handy map (also reprinted at the end of this post) and visiting one of the locations that gave rise to these disputes. This is Part 8. You can find the other nine parts of the series (once they are published) by clicking here.

The Invention of the Super Market

From the December 15, 1916 Seattle Times

The Seattle Groceteria was both created and destroyed by World War I. At the turn of the twentieth century, grocery shopping wasn’t like it is today. You gave the grocer a list of items (in person or by phone); the grocer did the labor-intensive work of collecting the goods for you, and often took care of delivering them to your door.

With the onset of World War I, food prices rose. New store models began to surface in which some of the labor, and the associated cost-savings, was shifted to the customer. This was the birth of the modern self-service supermarket. Tennessee’s Piggly Wiggly chain, founded in 1916, became the most notable and successful purveyor of this new model. But before the Piggly Wiggly, there was the Groceteria.

Alvin Monson was born into a merchant family in Osceola, Nebraska. After observing grocery store innovators in his home state and during a trip through California, Monson and his brother Walter settled in Washington and set out to create a state-of-the-art economic model for grocery sales, which transformed both the food distribution chain and the consumer experience. On November 6, 1915, they opened for business under the brand name GROCETERIA. It was Seattle’s first self-service discount grocery market, located in the O’Shea Building at 5th and Pine (now the home of the GAP and Old Navy). Economic forces and clever advertising helped drive customers to the store, and the Monsons quickly became the owners of a successful mini-empire.

Tacoma grocer M.C. Tibbett decided to take advantage of the new self-service fad, and the Monsons’ good will, by changing the name of his store to “Pacific Groceteria.” The Monsons, who had been planning to open their own stores in Tacoma, sued Tibbett for using their trade-name (never mind that the Monsons themselves likely borrowed the name from an even earlier store in Santa Monica). A Tacoma judge told the Monsons to go back to Seattle, citing the Washington Supreme Court’s controversial precedent in Eastern Outfitting Co. v. Manheim, 59 Wash. 428 (Wash. July 28, 1910), in which a divided court held that certain Seattle trademark rights didn’t extend as far as Spokane. The Tacoma judge held that, since Tacoma and Seattle were separate cities in separate counties, the Monsons’ exclusive rights to the GROCETERIA trade name essentially stopped at the city limits.

On appeal, in Groceteria Stores Co. v. Tibbett, 94 Wash. 99 (Wash. Dec. 29, 2016), the Washington Supreme Court reversed. The Court distinguished the earlier Eastern Outfitting ruling on the ground that in the present case, the Groceteria chain was already servicing the greater Tacoma area and getting ready to open stores there before Tibbett put up his sign. Tibbett also argued that a merchant who was merely sold goods made by others, and not manufacturing them, could not acquire trademark rights in his business name, citing to Section 9492 of Remington’s Codes and Statutes of Washington, which provided that for trademark rights in “goods, wares, merchandise or other product of labor.”  But the Court disagreed, holding:

There can be no doubt that . . . a person is entitled to a trade-mark and the protection afforded thereby, not only when is the originator and manufacturer of the goods bearing the trade-mark, but also as a label when the goods are only packed and put on sale by such person, which was exactly what was done by appellant in this case, as all the goods sold by appellant were put in wrappers marked with the label ‘Groceteria.’

Finally, the Court rejected Tibbetts’ argument that GROCETERIA was merely descriptive of the grocery business, because there is no such word in the English language. The Court thus enjoined Tibbett’s “piratical” use of the GROCETERIA mark anywhere within the state.

At the two year anniversary of the Monson’s Groceteria, the chain had grown to thirty stores.  Then World War I took back what it had given.  Alvin was drafted in 1917, and in 1918 he was sent to France along with another brother, Martin. Within weeks of his infantry unit’s arrival in Europe, Monson was involved in one of history’s most gruesome train wrecks, in which 30 soldiers were killed and over 50 wounded. Shortly after the accident, the remains of Monson’s unit fought in the Battle of the Argonne Forest, which ended over 50,000 lives. Although Monson only served a few months on active duty, he returned from the war a broken man, crippled by posttraumatic stress disorder.

With Alvin unable to work at the same level as before, Walter ran the Groceteria chain for a while, and it even expanded to forty stores. But Alvin had been the heart and soul of the company.  By 1921, the Piggly Wiggly chain (and other competitors) had reached Seattle. By 1926, the Groceteria chain was down to one store in Pike Place Market, which closed in 1928. In the 1930’s, Monson sued the United States Government in United States v. Monson, 84 F.2d 1018 (9th Cir. 1936). As a result of this lawsuit, Monson was awarded disability pay related to his military service, but he never fully recovered.

Read the rest of the Seattle Trademark History Tour Series:

Special thanks to the following excellent sources, all of which were consulted for this blog series: Gary Flynn’s Brewerygems.com; Historylink.org, a free online encyclopedia of Washington state history; Blackpast.org, an online reference guide to African American History; librarian Alan Michelson’s Pacific Coast Architecture Database; the University of Washington library digital collection; the Orbis Cascade Alliance’s Archive West; Lost Restaurants of Seattle by Chuck Flood; the Pacific Shellfish Institute website; Historian Rob Ketcherside’s ba-kground blog; the Capitol Hill Seattle Blog; the DorpatSharrardLomont blog Seattle Now & Then Series; the Seattle Times; the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods website; and Seattle-Tacoma radio station KNKX.

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