There’s a super popular quote from Joel Salatin about the first supermarket that’s been making the rounds on the internet and is much beloved by the local food movement. It’s from Joel’s book, “Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World“, and reads as follows:
“The first supermarket supposedly appeared on the American landscape in 1946. That is not very long ago. Until then, where was all the food? Dear folks, the food was in homes, gardens, local fields, and forests. It was near kitchens, near tables, near bedsides. It was in the pantry, the cellar, the backyard.”
If you’re on social media at all, you’ve probably seen this attached to a smiling picture of Joel, or a backyard garden, or a chicken coop or a bucolic country scene. It’s been shared thousands of times. The thing is, as much as I love Joel’s work, this is an inaccurate and overly romanticized perspective of our food system.
The First Supermarket Appeared in 1946 – True or False?
A visit to the site Groceteria.com by David Gwynn offers a quick history of the supermarket. We’ll look specifically at the time frame before 1946:
Chain grocery retailing was a phenomenon that took off around the beginning of the twentieth century, with the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (established 1859) and other small, regional players. Grocery stores of this era tended to be small (generally less than a thousand square feet) and also focused on only one aspect of food retailing. Grocers (and most of the chains fell into this camp) sold what is known as “dry grocery” items, or canned goods and other non-perishable staples. Butchers and greengrocers (produce vendors) were completely separate entities, although they tended to cluster together for convenience’s sake.
Clarence Saunders’ Piggly Wiggly stores, established in Memphis in 1916, are widely credited with introducing America to self-service shopping, although other stores (notably Alpha Beta in Southern California) around the country were experimenting with the idea at about the same time. Self-service stores came to be known as “groceterias” due to the fact that they were reminiscent of the cafeteria-style eateries that were gaining popularity at the time.
The Chain Store Explosion (1920s):
It was not until the 1920s that chain stores started to become a really dominant force in American food (and other) retailing. Small regional chains such as Kroger, American Stores, National Tea, and others began covering more and more territory, and A&P began moving toward a more national profile, operating over 10,000 of its “economy stores” by the end of the decade. Most of these stores remained small, counter service stores, often staffed by only two or three employees, with no meat nor produce departments. Some still offered delivery and charge accounts, although most chain stores had abandoned these practices.
In 1926, Charles Merrill, of Merrill Lynch set in motion a series of transactions that led to the creation of Safeway Stores, when he arranged the merger of Skaggs Cash Stores, a chain with operations in Northern California and the northwestern United States, with Los Angeles-based Sam Seelig Stores. In 1928, the new chain bought most of the west coast’s Piggly Wiggly stores, and later acquired Sanitary Stores in the Washington DC area as well as MacMarr Stores, another chain that Charles Merrill had assembled. Growth by merger became common in the late 1920s and 1930s, and led to numerous antitrust actions and attempts to tax the chain stores out of existence.
The Supermarket (1930s and 1940s):
As early at the 1920s, some chain grocers were experimenting with consolidated (albeit still rather small) stores that featured at least a small selection of fresh meats and produce along with the dry grocery items. In Southern California, Ralphs Grocery Company was expanding into much larger stores than had been seen before in most of the country. Los Angeles was also seeing the beginning of the “drive-in market” phenomenon, where several complimentary food retailers (a butcher, a baker, a grocer, and a produce vendor, for example) would locate within the same small shopping center surrounding a parking lot. These centers were often perceived by customers as a single entity, despite being under separate ownership.
In 1930, Michael Cullen, a former executive of both Kroger and A&P, opened his first King Kullen store, widely cited as America’s first supermarket, although others have some legitimate claim to that title as well. King Kullen was located in a warehouse on the fringes of New York City, and offered ample free parking and additional concessions in a bazaar-like atmosphere. Merchandise was sold out of packing cartons and little attention was paid to décor. The emphasis was on volume, with this one store projected to do the volume of up to one hundred conventional chain stores. The volume and the no frills approach resulted in considerably lower prices.
The supermarket, as it came to be known, was initially a phenomenon of independents and small, regional chains. Eventually, the large chains caught on as well, and they refined the concept, adding a level of sophistication that had been lacking from the spartan stores of the early 1930s. In the late 1930s, A&P began consolidating its thousands of small service stores into larger supermarkets, often replacing as many as five or six stores with one large, new one. By 1940, A&P’s store count had been reduced by half, but its sales were up. Similar transformations occurred among all the “majors”; in fact, most national chains of the time saw their store counts peak around 1935 and then decline sharply through consolidation. Most chains operated both supermarkets and some old-style stores simultaneously for the next decade or so, either under the same name (like Safeway, A&P, and Kroger) , or under different banners (such as the Big Star stores operated by the David Pender Grocery Company in the southeast).
Even without David’s detailed research, any historical reading where food is mentioned – or even watching some TV shows and movies – will show that people depended heavily on dry good stores well before the advent of the modern supermarket. From the Little House on the Prairie series, where the talked about endless meals of nothing but salt pork and corn bread, to The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, which brought national attention to food safety and health issues in the American factory, it’s clear that folks in both the country and the city depended on purchased foods.
Canned (commercially tinned) food was invented in the early 1800’s, and eventually became a staple in many households (and still is today). Even those who lived largely off the land, like my grandparents back during the Great Depression and WWII, still purchased some dry goods, like flour and salt, from the grocery store.
Our food system has extended well beyond local food production for over 100 years. Implying that a magical switch was flipped in 1946 that ended local food production is oversimplifying a trend that has been building for decades.
Combining the Best of Old and New in the Food System
I don’t know about you, but there are some things I truly love about the modern food system. Refrigeration is awesome, and it’s great to have access to fresh produce when the root cellar and canned goods are getting low and nothing is ready in the garden. To have such abundance available would have amazed folks 100 years ago. Being able to get salt, pepper and other spices and basic dry goods is very handy, too.
What I don’t like about the modern supermarket is the aisles and aisles of “almost food” – things that are heavily processed to have the shelf life of an Egyptian mummy with flavors created by a team of chemists. There are over 4000 products in the average supermarket that contain corn in some fashion (most of it genetically modified). No one really needs that many ways to eat corn. It gives the illusion of choice, but in reality most of this “almost food” is generated by a small group of very large corporations.
Hyperbole might get people inspired or outraged, but reality is needed to get things done. I think the convenience of the one stop grocery stop isn’t likely to lose its attraction, but I hope we can continue to make progress in improving the quality of supermarket foods. I also encourage people to think outside the Big Box store, and support independent local growers and grow their own food. Making it as a small market grower is a heck of a lot of hard work, and your purchase is noted and appreciated. At the supermarket, for the most part, you’re just another number.
What do you think is the best way to build a healthier, safer food system with ample food for all? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
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