The Murphy Grocery Store

Daniel Joseph Murphy (at right1) was a hard-working man born to Irish parents in 1860 in Woburn, Middlesex County, Massachusetts, USA. The main industry in Woburn was the Tannery2 business, where animal hides were processed into leather, a foul and dangerous occupation. Daniel began working in the tanning pits before the age of seventeen.

After several years, he was able to become a teamster, someone who

handled freight. This was back-breaking work. In 1886, he used his connections to become a sales clerk in the town of Woburn. In 1891, he clerked for Moore & Thomas Grocers at 451-453 Main Street.

This line of business was more enjoyable. Not only was he no longer exposed to the toxic side effects of the tannery business, now he was able to work indoors, a benefit in the cold and snowy Northeast. He decided to go into business for himself. In 1892, Daniel took out an advertisement
in the Souvenir Memorial for Woburn's 250th Anniversary. He wrote, "Anniversary year will soon be gone, but we are still here doing business at 492 Main Street, where you will find constantly on hand a full line of goods usually kept in a first-class Grocery Store, including Flour, Butter, all kinds of Spices, and a full line of Crockery and Glass Ware. Call and examine before purchasing elsewhere."

Customers would keep a small notebook
with a copy showing what items they had purchased from the shop, at what cost, and when they paid off their balance due. If they forgot to bring it in with them, the grocer would update their booklet on their next visit.

For example, one customer was an Irishman, John Thornton
. John was a local currier (tanner). In August 1892, John started making purchases, beginning with sugar and johnnycakes (plain corn bread).3

Click here to read the grocery booklet

Daniel's brother Jeremiah Murphy was born in 1866. As soon as he could, he began earning money for his poor Irish family as a tanner, like his father and older brother. When Daniel began his grocery business, Jeremiah continued to work as a tanner. But by 1893, he began to help Daniel by clerking in the grocery store.

On 19 October 1893, Jeremiah Murphy married the customer's daughter, Margaret Thornton
. In 1970, their great-grandson documented (an incorrect version of) a family story4 that Margaret's father was the grocer, and that she met Jeremiah when Jeremiah began working for him! The week they were married, nothing unusual was purchased from the store to indicate a lavish wedding supper5 was to be provided, other than two dozen eggs the day before. The day of the wedding, her father purchased matches (18 cents) and some merchandise (40 cents).

From 1893 to 1897, Daniel and his brother Jeremiah owned and operated Murphy Bros. Grocers, located first at 492 Main Street, then at 494 and 494½ Main Street
.6 Then Jeremiah left the operation of the business to Daniel, although he may have continued to work there.

An 1898 Woburn Business Directory listed "Murphy, D.J." Grocer at 494-496 Main Street. The 1899 City Directory did not list the business, nor did it list the occupations of either Daniel or Jeremiah. In the 1900 city directory, Jeremiah was said to be a grocer and Daniel worked in a saloon. Since many grocery store owners operated saloons from their business, this may have been the next incarnation of the Murphy Grocery Store.

The Woburn voters were annually presented the question of whether or not it was legal to sell spirits in town. In the 1890s, they said yes to liquor for all but one year. In 1900, they finally voted no.7 Shortly after this, Daniel left Woburn permanently to open a store in Rhode Island, and Jeremiah returned to the tannery business, where he would remain until he was 78 years old.

The Grocer's
Encylopedia of 1911

Sources and ackowledgements:

  1. Photograph from the F. Paul Murphy collection.

  2. From the Ye Olde Woburn web site by Toni Lasseter (see Related Sites).

  3. My eternal gratitude goes to Jane, the current owner of the John Thornton home, who found this booklet after a kitchen renovation and kindly mailed it to me. John Thornton is my great-great-grandfather and Daniel Murphy is my great-granduncle. His brother Jeremiah is my great grandfather.

  4. Notes by Paul Cullivan for his seventh grade class, 1970.

  5. The Woburn Journal, 27 Oct 1893; accessed at the Woburn Public Library.

  6. From the "Historical Woburn - Pictures and Drawings" CD-ROM available from the Woburn Historical Commission Office at City hall.

  7. "Woburn - A Past Observed" by John D. McElhiney, 1999, Sonrel Press.

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