What Grocery Stores Used To Look Like In The 1900s

September 09, 2019

Nowadays, a walk to the grocery store is an event. There are about 15 aisles in some places (every shop at Costco? You could straight-up get lost in that monstrosity), so you need to have a good freaking idea of whatever you’re looking for in order to get in and out. Otherwise, you end up perusing the long aisles, trying to decide between four dozen types of pasta and doing your best to avoid the tempting baked goods section. And the long cashier lines.

You can even find all the food you really need at places like Walmart and Target. These massive chain department stores are serving up frozen goods, avocados, and literally anything else we’d wanna eat — competing with not only chain grocery markets, but local mom and pop food shops.

In major metropolitan cities like New York City, places like Trader Joes become the go-to for affordable, healthy groceries. Pop in anytime, and lines will be long, aisles will be crowded, and you will fight someone to the death for the last vegan pesto.

But it wasn’t always like this. No, folks, there were simpler times — times when you didn’t have to walk through a warehouse-sized room to find a can of peas. A time when nice people helped you buy your goodies after you passed them a list of items you were looking to buy.

In the early 1900s, grocery stores were small, cramped, and sort of weird. But by the mid-century, supermarkets began booming. And some of them were kind of fancy.

Once upon a time, specialty stores (like a local butcher) were taken over by larger groceries and supermarkets.

According to Time, “For a long time, you had specialty retail stores like butchers and bakers and candlestick makers….and then you had these bigger stores that said, ‘let’s reduce the cost and make it more affordable.'” So began the era of supermarket shopping — and it happened around 1916.

Early stores looked like weird, sort of empty rooms filled with canned goods.

Just look at those can displays!

We’re not sure what’s weirder: The single creepy lightbulb hanging from the ceiling a la Texas Chainsaw Massacre of the meticulous triangular displays of cans against the wall. We just hope the cashier didn’t accidentally trip and fall over because that whole place looks questionable in terms of safety.

Then there’s this bizarre country store in North Carolina…

 

…where everyone just sits on the store porch, chatting it up.

It’s hard to believe that you’d pick up your grocery goods in a wooden shack where a bunch of dudes are sitting around having a chat. On a porch. But in 1939, this was totally normal. Oh, and notice the gasoline? Yep. You get your gas and your food in the same place — sort of like a gas station mini-mart these days.

This 1938 Omaha, Nebraska grocery store was housed…

…inside someone’s home.

These really were the good ol’ times. Things were simpler. And much, much weirder. This grocery store is housed inside someone’s house and it’s clearly full of two items: Coke (and Double Cola, whatever the hell that is) as well as Salada Tea, which opened in 1892 and revolutionized the sale of tea. They were the first to make foiled packages for tea bags to keep it fresh. Guess what? They’re still around today!

One of the first “supermarkets” was called Piggly Wiggly.

Yeah, you read that correctly. Piggly Wiggly.

It was September 11, 1916 when Clarence Saunders opened the very first Piggly Wiggly in Memphis, Tennessee, according to Time. The place did away with the ‘pass a list to the clerk and let him shop for you’ service style. Instead, this place gave shoppers a basket and let them loose into the market. Sounds basic, right? It wasn’t back then.

Suddenly, after the success of general goods stores, more and more of them popped up.

And all the store clerks looked pretty fancy schmancy.

They weren’t the mega stores we have today, but they were big enough. This grocery store in Bremerton Washington seems to have a fruit stand near the fruit, tons of cans on the selves, and — gasp! — suited cashiers and store clerks. Ah, the good old days.

World War II had a big impact on grocery stores, too.

And you’d be surprised at the impact a refrigerator had.

Most of the smaller grocery stores had to close up shop during the war, since so many of their employees were shipped off to war. Supermarkets, however, survived and thrived — like King Kullen, Safeway and Kroeger — all of which opened in the 1930s. And then after the war, something else happened — refrigerators became a thing, which meant that more people were shopping for goods that had to be kept cold.

Even the Queen of England visited and supermarket…

…and she loved it (especially the carts with seats!).

According to a 1957 article in the Daily Reporter, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip visited a grocery store in Maryland because it was such a novel idea. Apparently, she said, “it is particularly nice to be able to bring your children here.” And because parents were bringing kids into these stores, branding came into play. Advertisers started trying to appeal to kids. Smart.

Oh, and people looked really fancy at the grocery store.

Unlike today.

Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone at the grocery store who isn’t wearing jeans, PJs or a pair of yoga pants. Most of us peruse the aisles with conviction — we want to get in and out of there. But back then? People seemed to really enjoy the experience of shopping and socializing in their fancy blazers and HEELS.

Unless it was the 1960s…

…when everyone did their shopping while their hair curlers were still in.

The best thing about this photo is, hands down, is the aesthetics: The florals, the stripes, the thick-rimmed glasses, the intense stares. In the club soda aisle, so it’s pretty clear these ladies are looking for party mixers, right? In our imagination, they’ll do shopping, undo their hair, pour a wine spritz, and have a backyard pool party.

Look at these matching cashier outfits…

…which vaguely resemble French Maid costumes somehow?!

This 1960s supermarket is clearly huge, with several checkout counters and employees. It’s clear that by the sixties, people had abandoned the more limited, small-town grocer in favor of mega supermarkets. What is so unbelievable here is how everyone has perfectly white shoes. How did they pull it off?

But men worked as cashiers as well.

Look at them all in their baby blue suits!

You can really tell that the supermarket was a buzzing place by the looks of this 1964 photograph taken in Rockville, Maryland. The place is packed with goods, people, and adorably dressed cashiers. Oh, and check out those prices — 29 cents, 59 cents, 79 cents. We wish!

Mid 20th century customers could also get a ride around the supermarket…

…in a literal, actual SMALL VEHICLE.

We have questions, okay? We can understand the need to get around a supermarket quickly and easily. We can also understand the need for miniature cars — outside, on the road. But why did they have to be so literal in their replica of a car? A motorized cart would have done the trick. Bravo for accessibility, though.

Also a wild is this photograph of Jane Mansfield casually shopping…

…with two dogs in her arms.

In some strange grocery store in Las Vegas, someone captured this 1959 image. Not only is she wearing a sombrero-type hat, but she’s also got a gown on and she has two dogs in her arms. And because #Vegas, there’s a girl in a bathing suit behind her.  The grocery store looks pretty messy — and we’re not entirely sure how safe all those glass bottles stacked up behind her are.

By 1980s, supermarkets began looking a little more like we know them today.

Except everything was made with glass.

Can you imagine shopping for drinks and finding that every single bottle of soda or milk came in a glass container? We can’t, either. Not only does this seem insanely unsafe — it just seems super heavy, right? Thankfully, we’ve done away with that — except that now we have to worry about plastic causing environmental damage.

You can really see the evolution of America in the way we sell and buy our food.

Smaller mom and pop shops gave way to big chain stores, reflecting our need for consumption.

According to the Washington Post, American propagandists during the Cold War (a very weird time for food, FYI) “imagined supermarkets as ideological armaments: Abundant, affordable food stacked high on supermarket shelves was meant to illustrate the advantages of the American way of life, proclaiming that only democratic capitalism could provide for the basic needs of ordinary citizens.”

The major issue with supermarkets? They can also create class divides.

In fact, supermarkets preyed on farmers and made it hard for some consumers to buy food.

It may be weird to see those old little Southern and midwestern shops built into people’s homes, but the fact of the matter is that the bigger the supermarket, the more problematic the issue, says the Washington Post: “But the American supermarket was built upon foundations of significant power disparities for both farmers and consumers, inequalities that in our contemporary food system threaten to undermine the merits of capitalism today.”

It really makes you think, huh?