The grocery store has almost always been a part of American life. In the past, they may have been called provisions or general stores, but there have always been places for people to purchase goods. One of the best ways of tracking changes in American life is to look at the way they shopped, and when one looks at pictures of older grocery stores, it’s clear that life has really changed. Here are a number of ways it has.
Transportation Was Certainly Different
When making a trip to the grocery store, you better have a big vehicle to get home in. Of course, sometimes you have to go to the store for just one thing, but generally, people buy in bulk to save themselves the extra trip.
Today’s grocery shoppers might pack all their things in a minivan or an SUV, but things were a bit different way back in the day. In the 18th and early 19th century, a horse and buggy were typically needed to provide ample room for everything you might need. Imagine stepping over horse droppings to go get your food!
The Clerks Were Dressed To The Nine
Regardless of whatever grocery store you choose to visit these days, it is more likely part of a major chain. And just like any chain business, the staff is usually outfitted in a uniform specific to that store.
But back in the past, the clerks were dressed a bit differently. Just like, perhaps, a bank, the people behind the register wore shirts and ties. Their professional outfits were then covered with an apron to ensure they stayed clean.
They Offered A Bit Of Everything
Today, the goods that we purchase can come from stores that specialize in particular products. Some establishments only sell olive oil, baking supplies, or even spices from around the world for people who are looking for something specific.
In the 19th and early 20th century, however, there wasn’t this kind of broad specification. The general store had its name for a reason and was where shoppers could get everything they need for the coming week. Imagine a smaller version of a Target but with supplies from the time.
The Butchers Section Was Quite The Experience
People still consume plenty of meat, but there are also a lot more vegetarians and vegans than there were back in the 1930s and 1940s. The parts of the animal eaten today are also processed, displayed, and sold a bit differently than back then.
The butcher section of a grocery in the past was more prominent than today, and most likely to feature larger parts of pigs, cows, and chickens. Furthermore, while today’s meat-eaters may not go for tripe or pigs feet too often, they were pretty regular foods in the middle part of the 20th century.
Going To The Store Was A Big Deal
For a lot of people today, going to the grocery store is seen as a chore more than anything else. Rarely do people primp themselves before visiting the store, and people’s style usually consists of the clothes they wore to work that day or whatever they were wearing lounging around in at home before finally convincing themselves to go.
However, back when modern grocery stores became more popular, people wouldn’t be caught dead in a grocery store looking like they just got out of bed. Similar to how people used to dress for air travel, folks went to the supermarket dressed to impress.
Paying The Bill Was A Lot Different
The way you pay your tab at the grocery store changes every few years. In the 80’s you may have paid with checks, in the 2000’s you put your credit card in a reader, and today, you can scan and pay for your groceries without ever having to talk with the clerk.
But back in the 1940s, it was a bit different. When items were brought to the counter, the prices were calculated by hand, and the customer would most likely pay with cash.
Lots Of Products Were Displayed Outside
When you go to the supermarket today, certain items may be located outside of the building. Although these are typically things that would likely remain outside like plants, patio furniture, or other outdoor equipment.
In the early-to-mid 20th century, it was commonplace to see the entire produce section of a store displayed on the street. This practice helped to maximize indoor space, attract potential customers, or allow those passing by the opportunity to purchase something on the go.
Marketing Strategies Were Different Too
It was much more difficult for brands to market their products back in the 1930s and 1940s. There was far less television advertising, so marketing was mostly done in the paper and over the radio. When a brand did a display in the store, it was really eye-catching.
This is a different story with how stores market their products today. The makers of products blast their goods all over television and the internet, even personalizing advertisements for individuals. In addition, supermarkets have deals with brands concerning everything from discounting to shelf placement.
Some Markets Let You Fill Up
Groceries stores in the 1930s and 1940s could be profoundly different depending on where they were located. If you lived in New York City, you might have multiple places where you could shop for provisions within a few blocks.
If you lived in smaller, more rural communities, though, the market might have had to wear a couple more hats. Many of these stores, to offer full convenience, also had gas pumps where you could fill up your car. Like an early version of Costco!
Some Stores Lured Customers With Attractive Cashiers
There were a number of different methods stores used to attract customers. It might have something to do with the goods offered or giving deep discounts. Yet, some store managers made the decision to use attractive female cashiers as a way to improve foot traffic.
The Piggly Wiggly in Encino, California, would only hire pretty and young cashiers. The method was similar to the one utilized by airlines like Pan Am. Considering that most grocery shoppers in the time frame were women, it’s unlikely that the strategy was incredibly effective.
All The Bottles Were Glass
The stores of the 1940s and 50s didn’t feature products that were anywhere near as mass-produced in plastic as they are today. This meant that the items on the shelf, for the most part, didn’t look as uniform as they do today.
This mainly applied to containers that held fluids, as most of them were made of glass. Today, however, glass has been replaced by plastic to reduce cost and increase production. Interestingly, due to the negative environmental impact of plastic, many of these items are being stored using glass once again.
Milk Was Not A Popular Item
When most people think about the staples that one buys at the grocery store, they usually think of bread, milk, and eggs. While in the middle part of the 20th-century, bread and eggs were still popular, milk wasn’t.
This is because milk was acquired in a much different way back then. Back then, many consumers had the product delivered via a milkman. By 1963, only about 30% of customers used a milkman, and by 1975, that number was down to 7%.
Shoppers Clipped Their Coupons
Before people went grocery shopping in the 1950s and 60s, many people would check their daily newspaper for a circular. This circular would contain coupons that could be clipped and redeemed at the store for deeper discounts.
While certain markets still produce and redeem coupons, that practice has mostly been discontinued. Most stores will provide regular shoppers with a discount card they can keep on their keyring. Other markets have apps that customers can use at the checkout.
Sometimes, Shopping Couldn’t Wait
Shopping is much easier today than it was in the past. Many groceries, especially non-perishable goods, can be ordered and delivered to your door within a day. There are also a number of 24-hour stores, giving you the chance to visit the market at your convenience.
In the ’50s and ’60s, though, there was a specific time frame where shopping needed to be done. So women were forced to squeeze it into their schedule, even if that meant with curlers in their hair.
It Was A Hub For The Latest Gossip
Sitting at home all day while the kids went to school could be a bit boring for suburban housewives. Luckily enough, there was somewhere to go where you could not only be social and also check something off their to-do list.
In many small towns and suburbs, the supermarket represented an important meeting place for its inhabitants. Not only could you grab your goods, but you could also hear about what’s going on with the new family in the neighborhood.
The Lines Could Be Brutal
Today’s grocery stores are focused on hyper convenience. You can check out with a cashier, ring yourself up, or even have groceries delivered to your door!. When you pay, you can use cash or a credit card, but very few people pay with time-consuming checks.
Back in the day, plenty of checks were being written, and there was only one option to check out. Plus, the sheer volume of people led to plenty of long lines at the registers. With people needing to get their groceries regardless, they were in for a long wait.
Cereals Were Nowhere Near As Exciting
What was your favorite cereal when you were a kid? Odds are it was something like Trix, Fruity Pebbles or maybe even Cap’n Cruch: Oops All Berries. Not only were the cereals delicious, but most of them also came with a special prize inside.
The cereals of the 40’s and 50’s were nowhere near as fun. You choices were usually focused on grain, or wheat or bran. And the boxes certainly didn’t have toys on the bottom.
The Products And Diets Were Way Different
The way people eat has changed drastically throughout history. Even just a few decades back, people’s diets were much different than they are today. Back in the 1930s and 40s, people weren’t so concerned with their nutrition and ate most foods with little thought on how it could be negatively affecting them.
Then, when the 1970s and 80s came around, there was a significant influx of foods that were marked Diet or Lite of Fat-Free. And today’s grocery stores look significantly different now, with Americans looking to eat foods that apply to specific diets such as keto, veganism, and vegetarianism.
Say Goodbye To Variety
Back in the 1940s and 1950s, people cooked their food as a means to put food on the table, unlike many people today who consider it a hobby. Sure, some dishes were enjoyed than others, but for the most part, there wasn’t much joy in the cooking aspect.
Things then started to change thanks to Julia Child and her cooking shows and books. Today, there are entire TV networks dedicated to cooking. And as such, today’s supermarkets feature much more variety when it comes to ingredients.
How About Those Prices
One thing you may notice while looking at pictures of old grocery stores is the incredibly low prices. In 1946, you could buy a carton of a dozen eggs for .64, and in1947, a pound of chicken would only run you .55 cents.
Prices are much higher today, as the country has gone through several periods of inflation, but that still doesn’t mean anything is cheap!. Today a pound of chicken breast would cost a little over $3.00, and an organic carton of eggs could run $5 or $6!
A Self-Driving Car To Bring People Into The Store
In 1957, the supermarket Publix held a campaign to showcase their new and improved wide aisles and self-service dairy case. The marketing strategy included a self-driving car that would bring the shopped around the store. No longer would people have to wait at the butchers counter.
In the 20th century, wide aisles became a thing of the past. Shoppers are lucky to get their cart down the lanes without running into the products or another shopper. Hopefully, marketing strategists will bring back the bigger aisles.
Protest Signs During War Time
The day after the Pearl Harbor attack, December 8, a sign declaring “I am an American” went up in a Japanese-owned grocery store. During this time, anyone of Japanese descent was taken from their homes and placed in Internment camps in various areas on the west coast.
This particular store was owned by the Matsuda family, who utilized their right of Freedom of Speech in their shop window. The grocery store was closed after the evacuation orders were given. Today, such a store would switch ownership instead of closing for good.
There Were No One-Stop Shops
When supermarkets first came around, the streets would be lined with various stores. The “greengrocers” is where a shopper would go for their produce; then, there was the butcher, dairy shop, fishmongers, and grocers who sold solely dry and canned foods.
Today, people would go broke ordering take-out before they had to walk along a street to various shops. The practical application of a one-stop-shop store didn’t become popular until much later, in 1930, when King Kullen opened. It’s credited as the first supermarket.
All The Essentials Minus Meat And Produce
During the 1920s, more chain grocery stores were popping up around the country. People didn’t have to go to various shops anymore unless they wanted some fresh produce and meat. For items such as those, people still had to frequent their local butcher or farmer.
All in one shops started to pop-up within the next two decades. It was more and more common to see grocery stores catering to everything someone needed to make a nice meal in the kitchen.
Prizes If You Bought Enough Of One Product
If a shopper was lucky enough, they would win a prize at the grocery store, such as a bike or new pan for the kitchen. This happened by entering raffles at the store! It was a way to bring the community together and allow one lucky household to go away with a new toy, kitchen item, or something else for the household.
Now, the only raffles people see are those at sporting events. There aren’t typically huge raffles being hosted at grocery stores anymore.
People Helped Carry Out Groceries
Back in the good old days, supermarket employees offered to carry groceries out to a shopper’s car. People would like to say it was due to the time because everyone was brought up to be super polite during the 50s.
The fact is, groceries will still help bring bags out for people, just not everyone. While grocery shopping used to be a stereotypical job for the lady of the household, now, that is not the case. Men will go grocery shopping but they aren’t offered, while elderly folks are frequently being helped.
Free Things Were Offered Daily
Once Upon a time in the 50s, if a shopper bought enough of one product then they would be eligible to get something for free. For example, there was a time if someone bought a specific brand of soap week after week then a free set of china was coming their way.
In the 21st century, the only way to get free items is if you buy one then you get the second one free. And that’s a special sale!
Here’s a Happy Wife With a New Pink Range and Cooktop
Following World War II, many women who helped out by working outside of the home wound up back in the kitchen. Some women kept their jobs, but the majority returned to their traditional roles as homemakers. Men were the breadwinners, while the women stayed home and took care of the children and everyday tasks.
The ideal ’50s housewife would have been thrilled to cook meals with a pink range and cooktop (notice the pumpkin pie cooking in the oven here). This screenprint from 1957 reveals a stereotypical ’50s home where a happy wife represented a happy life. Some ladies loved being homemakers, while others sought a purpose in their lives in other fields.
Kids Got Excited by Toys Like This Robot
The ’50s were a simpler time. Kids weren’t exposed to the technology that’s prevalent today, and they had a lot of fun with items that were a bit more low key. Check out this young boy wearing a futuristic space helmet and goggles. He’s using a toy called Robert the Robot, which was manufactured by the Ideal Toy Corp.
The robot was showcased during the summer of 1959 at the American Fair in Moscow. The robot was touted for its ability to walk and talk. Even its eyes lit up with the help of a remote control. The robot cost just six dollars.
Greasers Were Rebels With Their Own Particular Brand of Fashion
Some teenagers, like this group of young men, passed the time by hanging out on their motorcycles in parking lots. This group of San Francisco teens was known as greasers. They were typically Italian-American or Hispanic-American youths who liked rock and roll music, rockabilly, and doo-wop.
Greasers were characterized by their rebellious attitude and working-class attire (t-shirts, jeans, and boots). They greased their hair back with products such as petroleum jelly in order to style it into various shapes, such as the pompadour. Female greasers wore leather jackets and tight, cropped pants such as capris and pedal pushers.
Kids Spent a Lot of Time on Their Bicycles and on Paper Routes
In the 1950s, it was common to see kids playing outside. The photo here shows several children in Fairfax, Delaware, riding around the neighborhood on their bicycles. One of the most coveted bikes between 1949 and 1960 was the Schwinn Black Phantom. These bikes featured a leather saddle, fender lights, brake light, and luggage rack.
While some kids rode their bicycles on their paper routes, the Phantom, a.k.a. “the swellest-looking bike in town,” was reserved for sunny days or impressing other kids. These days, kids don’t spend as much time outdoors. The proliferation of technology and video games keeps many of them inside.
Fallout Shelters Were A Legitimate Concern
Although World War II had ended, it wasn’t long before the United States was involved in the Cold War. This was a time of heightened fear of the Soviet Union and the use of atomic and even hydrogen bombs. Starting at the end of the 1940s and throughout the 1950s, fear of nuclear war families all over the country began creating fallout shelters of their own in case of such an attack.
These fallout shelters even began to be advertised and turned into an actual market for those who feared for the worst. The government had even announced that it would be the best way for families in suburban areas to survive in the case of an attack.
TVs Catapulted in Popularity, Bolstered by Shows Such as I Love Lucy
The stereotypical ’50s family spent quality time together on a regular basis. That often involved watching television programs like this family viewing a boxing match in 1950. Some popular TV shows during that time were I Love Lucy, Father Knows Best, The Honeymooners, Leave it to Beaver, and Gunsmoke.
By the mid-fifties, nearly two-thirds of all households owned a television, something that was a luxury item just a decade earlier. TV programs depicted ideal homes with working dads, housewives wearing pearls, obedient daughters, and sons who got into good, old-fashioned trouble. Few American homes actually had perfect families like the ones seen on TV.
Teens Went on Double Dates Before ‘Going Steady’
Much of the ’50s brings to mind one word: innocence. Check out these two teenagers sharing a milkshake in 1958. They look like they were on a date. While it was very innocent, it was also an intimate moment. It was common for teens to go on double dates, particularly for people who were a little shy. Eventually, couples would start single dating and eventually “go steady.”
In the ’50s, going steady meant a couple was exclusive but didn’t necessarily mean they were on the road to marriage. Often boys gave their girlfriends a class ring, letterman sweater, or an ID bracelet to wear.
Two-Piece Swimsuits Started Getting Popular, but They Never Revealed the Navel
The young women pictured here are wearing swimsuits in Palm Springs, California. Fifties swimsuits were often made of nylon, taffeta, and cotton. They hugged a woman’s curves and were more about making a woman look attractive than making her swim well. Bright patterns and tropical themes, such as flamingos, were common.
Most women preferred the one-piece swimsuit, but the bikini was starting to gain momentum. However, they didn’t reveal much more skin than a one piece. The bottom half often featured ruching and came up to the natural waist, never revealing the navel. Tops were typically either strapless, a bra-like top, a tube top, or a halter top.
Many Women Worked In Typing Pools
Pictured here is the typing pool at the offices of the London retailer Marks and Spencer in 1959. If a woman worked outside the home, one of the most popular jobs she would have held was a secretarial or typist position. Prior to the digital age, men often employed women who knew shorthand or could type.
Shorthand-typists took dictation and typed letters and documents, often working in a pool alongside other typists. Secretaries answered phones, took care of files, typed, and did her boss’s bidding. Similar positions exist today, but the jobs are referred to as office administrators or personal assistants.
The Ideal Nuclear Family Included a Mom, Dad, Two Kids and a Dog
The ideal nuclear family of the 1950s included a mother and father and at least two children. The white picket-fence family represented the American dream with a working dad, stay-at-home mom, two happy kids, and a dog. TV shows such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Leave it to Beaver waxed poetic on how wonderful life was like for these families.
The picture here is an example of a nuclear family (although how happy they really were is hard to decipher from the photograph). The family of four is settled in a Mercury Monterey in the driveway of their home in 1959. Their pet dog sits next to the car.
Teens Listened to Records and Liked Singers Such as Elvis Presley
Radio disc jokey Dean Calgano did just one show a week, but he had a large teen audience. He’s pictured here with a stack of records in 1955. The smaller records, 45s, were officially introduced to the public in 1949 with the following genres: folk and country, blues and rhythm, pop, classical, and international music.
Popular music of the ’50s included Dean Martin, Perry Como, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, Nina Simone, and Harry Belafonte. Records have made a comeback for vintage enthusiasts, but these days most people prefer listening to music on streaming radio stations.
Roller Skating, The Limbo, and Hula Hooping Were Popular Pastimes
Roller skating was a popular pastime for kids in the 1950s. The photo here shows two young girls sitting on a curb putting on a pair of skates. Notice how they kept their shoes on and simply attached the metal skates to the bottom of them. A key was required to tighten the skates to the feet. It wasn’t until 1979 that skates transformed into rollerblades.
What did kids do for fun in the ’50s? Typical games included a limbo contest, bubble-gum blowing contest, or hula hoop contest. A popular party game was Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Families also enjoyed watching Name That Tune on TV.
The Fashion Was on Point
This photo from a 1958 issue of Vogue shows two models in New York City with the Chrysler Building in the background. They have on fur muffs, velvet dome hats, and a sleeveless baby-waist dress in wool plaid (left) and a wool-tweed baby-waist dress (right). Iconic styles of the era for women included petticoats and full skirts, slim-fitting pencil skirts, and tight sweaters.
Women commonly accessorized with gloves, a waist-cinching belt, chiffon scarf, and red lipstick. Kitten heels and stiletto heels were also popular. Teens liked wearing poodle skirts, and Peter Pan collar blouses were also popular.