Mystery Photo: The J.B. Murphy Store

This faded old photo of the J.B. Murphy store, offering "Groceries and Notions," keeps drifting around the Internet, occasionally turning up on various Facebook groups devoted to local history, and it's a puzzle.

Because all too often it is identified as a store located on Main Street in Memphis.

Well, I don't think so.

First of all, the city directories I've looked through don't list a "J.B. Murphy" or any similarly named person or establishment in the late 1880s or early 1990s. But just look at the store itself, and its surroundings. Memphis at the turn of the last century (oh, I hate that expression: "last" century) was a thriving metropolis, with paved streets, streetcars, electric lights, and tall buildings.

This certainly looks like a country store, not something you'd find in downtown Memphis.

I do like all the signs plastered on the front, for such soft-drinks as Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, and Gay-Ola (a drink with the simple slogan, "It's Better). There's also a sign for something called Jersey Cream and two signs, mounted vertically promoting "Celluloid" but I can't make out the next line, so celluloid WHAT?

And you know what else I like? The fact that the sign painter put a neat triangle-shaped period after the "J" and the "B" and then another period after word "NOTIONS."

Nice touch.

Now, where was this place?

Reader Comments:
Jun 26, 2013 03:50 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Per Wikipedia, the name Pepsi-Cola didn't exist until 1903, and the logo in the picture came out around 1906.

Jul 9, 2013 07:34 am
 Posted by  catzeyes

Checking the 1910 census records, there is a John B. Murphy 30, wife Susie 25, daughters Thelma 6, and Marie 4. He is listed as a clerk in a grocery store. That looks right for the people in the picture. Along the side of their info, they lived on E. Joseph Place apparently not too far from Decatur St. since that street is listed for previous households. Back in that day, I would think they lived in or very near their store. Maybe this can help you pinpoint it!

Jul 9, 2013 08:22 am
 Posted by  catzeyes

Apparently, I have a lot of time on my hands today. John Bedford Murphy was born in Bonnville, IN in 1878. He died of TB in 1942 here in Memphis and is buried at Forest Hill Cemetery, Midtown. He and his wife Susie had another daughter, Shirley in 1914. His wife died of TB in 1917, and is also buried at Forest Hill according to her death certificate. She lived on Raleigh Road when she died. In 1920 census, he still lived on New Raleigh Road, is widowed, and is listed as working at a lumber mill. I would think there would be a lumber mill in the Raleigh area around that time since it was the boonies back then! He lived with his three daughters and two minor cousins. I would think his store may have been rather short-lived, probably why no one can find anything about it.

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and MBQ: Inside Memphis Business.  Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

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