The Rise Of The Supermarket

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Late last year, on its obituary page, The New York Times acknowledged the passing of a multimillionaire Oklahoma businessman named Sylvan Goldman. SYLVAN N. GOLDMAN, 86, DIES ; the headline read. INVENTOR OF THE SHOPPING CART .

Born before the turn of the century in what was still officially designated the Indian Territory, Sylvan Goldman fought in the Argonne during World War I and returned to join his brother and uncle in establishing a wholesale grocery venture.

By 1936, the Goldmans had absorbed their principal competitor, Humpty Dumpty, and were expanding their Oklahoma City—based chain of Standard Food Stores. Everything seemed to be going well, but early that year Sylvan perceived a distressing phenomenon. He was watching women walk through the aisles of one of his stores, putting their prospective purchases into the wicker baskets supplied for the purpose, and as Goldman remembered it, “They had a tendency to stop shopping when the baskets became too heavy or too full.” Not long afterward, Goldman’s attention fell upon a pair of plain folding chairs. Inspiration struck. What if the chairs were fitted with wheels and baskets were attached to their seats? Wouldn’t that make shopping easier and shoppers thus inclined to purchase more? Goldman sought out a company carpenter and began a series of experiments. Initial prototypes proved unsatisfactory. They folded up on themselves at the slightest provocation and capsized entirely too easily. It took a year to perfect what he dubbed his “folding basket carrier,” a wheeled cart with two wire baskets mounted on it, one offset above the other. In June 1937 the contraption made its debut in Standard stores. The reception, Goldman recalled in a 1977 interview with Charles Kuralt of CBS News, was less than encouraging.

 
 

“I went to our biggest store—there wasn’t a soul using a basket carrier.” This despite the fact that an “attractive girl” was posted at the entrance offering shoppers the new cart. “The housewives, most of ’em decided, ‘No more carts for me. I have been pushing enough baby carriages. I don’t want to push anymore.’”

Goldman’s only takers seemed to be pensioners, and it occurred to the inventor that the public might benefit from some subliminal indoctrination. At each store where the carts were available, Goldman installed a covey of young and middle-aged men and women. He instructed them to wander about incognito, filling their folding carriers. “I told this young lady that was offering carts to the customers to say, ‘Look, everybody’s using them—why not you?’” She did, and they did.

On the short list of those things that Americans take most for granted, the shopping cart must rank fairly high. I am in my thirties. I proudly tell ten-year-old acquaintances that I somehow survived a life without pocket calculators, home computers, or video games. My parents used to say as much to me, only substituting different examples: television, jet travel, the Pill, or the Bomb. We divide our personal histories into eras, and our markers are for the most part tangible and technological. When less concrete events serve to separate these chunks of time, they tend to be grand in scale: wars, coronations, assassinations, and the like. This seems curious in light of the fact that the institutional transformations that have often had the most profound influence over the way we actually live are far less celebrated. Take supermarkets, for example.

Between 1916, when a maverick entrepreneur in Tennessee opened what is generally thought to have been the first self-service grocery in the United States, and roughly 1960, by which time supermarkets were selling 70 percent of the nation’s groceries, the evolution of the American supermarket irrevocably altered not only the way Americans bought food but, indeed, the very way they lived. If you are thirty or older, your parents were probably born before the supermarket. Go ahead and ask. Odds are you won’t get much of a response, because supermarkets have been so tightly woven into the fabric of our daily lives that it has become practically impossible to imagine the condition of being without them. And because supermarkets seem so basic, so intrinsically unremarkable, it’s difficult for most of us to comprehend the true impact of their invention. Supermarkets are not like telephones, for instance. Telephones are historically tidy. We can intellectually accommodate the notion of a time before and a time after telephones. Supermarkets, by contrast, seem timeless. They have permeated our entire existence. Even if we accept the proposition that once upon a time there were none, we’re tempted to regard their evolution, in retrospect, as almost imperceptibly gradual. It wasn’t.

Attempts to fix with any degree of certainty the precise time and location of the modern supermarket’s conception are clouded by a welter of competing claims, but the story has to begin somewhere, and Memphis, Tennessee, is as good a place as any, at Clarence Saunders’s self-service grocery on Jefferson Street in 1916.