Quinn, born in 1869, did not arrive in the world chewing the proverbial “silver spoon.” He was born in Canada of Irish parentage. The 1910 census indicated his parents too were born in Canada but that their immediate ancestors had come from Ireland. The family pulled up stakes in Canada and came south to the United States when Matthew was a tot of about three years. His early education and work experience do not show up in documents, but we may assume that he served an apprenticeship in the mercantile trades, probably in Kansas City, Kansas.
Quinn surfaced in the written record in an early “History of Kansas,” teaming with a New Yorker named Martin Myers who had arrived in Kansas City in 1881 to work in the meat packing industry. In 1886 Quinn and Myers pooled their resources, purchased a stock of groceries and opened a store at 129 North James Street. According to the history, “they did a successful business at that place for two years....” The relationship between the two may have been fractious. In 1888 Myers sold out to Quinn but 15 days later took a new partner and opened another, competing, grocery store in the very next block of James Street.
The differences between Quinn and his partner may have been about the role of liquor sales in their offerings. Kansas had enacted one of the first statewide bans on alcohol in the U.S., beginning in 1881. State law imposed strong restrictions on beer, wine and liquor sales. Possibly as a way of escaping those prohibitions, about 1894 the Irishman moved away from James Street, crossed the river to Kansas City, Missouri, and there opened a grocery store at 549 Main Street. The building is shown here on a Quinn liquor catalog. According to an article in the Kansas City Times, the store was “leaning more toward the sale of whiskey than of groceries.” Quinn clearly was proud of his liquor department, showing it in his brochure and describing it as “the most complete and attractive in Kansas City.”
In the meantime he was having a personal life. The 1910 Census records Mathew Quinn, age 41, living at 2610 East 2610 28th Street in Kansas City, with his wife, Margaret Ross Quinn. She had been born in Cairo, Illinois, in 1870. Their family included four boys and a servant girl. According to the census taker the children were Ross, 15; Vincent, 12; Lester, 7, and Donald, 5. Mathew’s occupation was given as “merchant-grocer.”
Quinn did not neglect kitchen staples. In time he became a major wholesale and retail grocer in Kansas City. In 1899 he ran a large ad in the Kansas City Journal that merchandised “carloads of flour,” “tons salt meat,” and “carloads soap and washing material.” Among the last were house brand boxes of “M. Quinn’s Laundry Soap” selling for 25 cents. That same year the newspaper counted him among local store owners who had pledged to display in their street level windows goods made in Kansas City that they were keeping in stock. As with many grocers of the time, however, liquor proved to be the most lucrative part of Quinn’s business. As many of the states and localities around Kansas City were going dry, he found his mail order business booming.
He obliged by stocking and selling many top national whiskey brands. They included "Cascade," “Cedar Brook,” "Clarke's Pure Rye,” "Clover Springs,” "Diplomat,” "Duffy's Pure Malt,” "Four Roses," “Golden Wedding,” "Green River,” "Guckenheimer,” "Mattingly & Moore," “O E V (Old Enough to Vote),” "O F C,” "Old Chief,” "Old Ripy,” "Old Taylor,” "Pleasant Springs,” "Sherwood,” "Sunny Brook,” "Susquehanna,” "V B P (Very Best Procurable)” and "W J Garrett." He also had his own label, whether blended on his own premises or purchased elsewhere is unclear, a brand of rye he called “Quinn’s Quality Quantity” or “QQQ.” It sold for $1 a quart.
He packaged this whiskey both in bottles and in a highly distinctive ceramic jug. As shown here, it was a canteen shaped container that came in several sizes and shades of brown. It was decorated with Quinn’s name and a triangle. Today it is a favorite with whiskey jug collectors. He also used less dramatic containers for other beverages, including a bale-topped jug with his logo either at the bottom or the top, either underglazed or with no glaze. Like other whiskey men, Quinn also advertised through shot glasses, some of them emblazoned with his characteristic QQQ. As shown by a catalogue page, he also put his label on other liquors, like gin, and featured a line of wines and brandies.
Not simply content with terming himself and his business “Faithful Servitor of the People,” Quinn took special efforts to explain to the public and his customers how he operated. When his establishment experienced a fire in November 1899, for example, he took a newspaper ad to promise refunds to his customers for unfilled orders and pledged “...we will turn every wheel and work night and day to get our business running again.” He ask that patrons put off buying until he once more was able to open his doors.
In his 1916-1917 liquor catalog Quinn calls his establishment “the Largest Grocery, Wine and Liquor House in the West.” He explained his low prices in detail: “Of course we buy in car load lots. Of course we pay spot cash; we don’t even wait the customary twenty to thirty days, which enables us to go into the market and buy the same high class goods for less money than any retail store can purchase them.”
Much of Quinn’s exposition is about his dealing with customers, boasting of a reputation “of never having one complaint or one order returned.” He added that it was a “record we can point to with pride.” In another statement addressed to his customers, he said he would “boast just a little” about his policy of seeing to it that any time shipments were lost, broken or damaged in shipping to make good the shipment at once and bear the financial burden until the transportation company reimbursed him. “...During all these years,” Quinn declared, “not one man, woman or child has ever lost a penny by dealing with me.”
Unfortunately, Quinn’s 20 years of “square dealing” were soon to come to an end. Although, unlike Kansas, Missouri never declared a statewide ban on alcohol, the U.S. Congress in 1913 passed the Webb-Kenyon Act that banned mail order sales of liquor into “dry” areas, a law still on the books. Matthew found his customer base severely diminished. As National Prohibition loomed, M Quinn Company, an indication of its reliance on liquor rather than groceries, is recorded as shutting its doors in 1918.
The same year Quinn’s sons, Ross and Vincent, who probably had been working in his establishment, started their own business, the Quinn Candy Company. They are said to have sold their father’s remaining liquor out of their confectionary until National Prohibition in 1920.
Mathew Quinn died in 1921, the cause given as “apoplexy,” a diagnosis that covered everything from heart attack to stroke. His wife, Margaret, had preceded him in death, succumbing to pneumonia in 1911. They are buried together in Mount Saint Mary's Cemetery in Kansas City. A granite plinth says simply “M Quinn.”
The final picture shown here is of the firm’s “private offices.” I am intrigued by the thought that the gentleman at right looking at the camera was Mathew Quinn himself. In my imagination, I hear him say: “Yes, indeed, I was a faithful servitor of the people.”
Note: In the course of researching this vignette over the past several months, I have been in touch with a descendant of Matthew Quinn whose name also happens to be Matt Quinn. He has been helpful in adding some information about the family and his assistance is most appreciated.