Happy birthday, Supermarkets!

A few years ago I visited Italy with my family, sightseeing at the typical tourist destinations. The food scene was straight out of a movie: open air cafes lining the streets and fresh markets on every corner. When we traveled to a smaller town in the north, we noticed something we hadn’t seen in the metropolises: supermarkets.

The stores could have been transplanted directly from AnyTown, USA, except for the produce section providing plastic gloves for more sanitary handling and the minor detail of food labels being in Italian. The idea of a store stocked with food and household goods organized by different departments is an international convenience, but where did it start in America?

The Smithsonian Institute has recognized the chain King Kullen as the first American supermarket, with its doors opening 80 years ago on August 4, 1930. While you’ll only find King Kullen stores in the Long Island and Staten Island area, the business model is ubiquitous. Both national and regional establishments exist – Kroger and Harris Teeter, for example – but they all function on similar blueprints.

Tracey Deutsch, author of Building a Housewife’s Paradise: Gender, Politics, and American Grocery Stores in the Twentieth Century, discusses the history of both small stores and huge chains, and examines a variety of topics as connected to modern food distribution and consumption. Here’s an excerpt from a recent interview with Deutsch:

Q: When did the concept of a chain grocery store first emerge and how and why did it catch on so quickly?

A: Chain grocery stores first emerged very early in the twentieth century, but didn’t really start to dominate food retail until the 1920s. The question of why they caught on is complicated; the conventional explanation is that it was because they were able to charge lower prices. I argue in the book, however, that their popularity also reflected their promise that women would experience “modern” independence and autonomy in the stores. It’s also important to appreciate the limits of chains. While they did catch on quickly, their growth was not one big upward trend. In fact, chains ran into significant difficulty in the 1930s and the early 1940s, and that sparked what we might call “retooling.” Read More

Deutsch was interviewed on Access Minnesota recently; to hear her discuss the changes supermarkets have brought to American society, click here.

The next time you visit your local supermarket, take a second to appreciate the impact these businesses have had on convenient food both in the United States and abroad. What on earth would we do without a place to buy ingredients for spaghetti night and the fabric cleaner to remove the inevitable stains?