Nowadays, the likes of Walmart and Target reign supreme when it comes to grocery shopping. But for much of the 20th century, things were totally different. Independent stores and specialist sellers were the order of the day for decades, in fact, until the gradual takeover of supermarkets and big-box stores. And thanks to these fascinating historical photographs, we can see that change happen through snapshots taken over the years – one of them being the beguiling picture above, which was shot in the 1960s.
20. Grocery shopping (late 19th century)
In their infancy, grocery stores weren’t typically places in which you’d go for a look around. In fact, generally you’d just take a list of the things you needed and hand it to the clerk. They’d then go around the building, finding and bagging up your goods. And self-service stores didn’t arrive until around a couple of decades after this photo was taken.
19. The original self-service store (1918)
Piggly Wiggly broke new ground in the early 20th century, however, by introducing self-service grocery stores. When the first branch opened its doors in 1916, it was the inaugural supermarket of its kind to allow customers to walk around and pick out their own items rather than passing a list to an employee. Piggly Wiggly still exists as a chain, too, and its stores can be found around the Southern and Midwestern U.S.
18. Chicago grocery store (1920)
Early grocery stores in the U.S. didn’t concern themselves with selling meat, fish, dairy or other fresh goods. Instead, those items had to be sourced from specialist businesses such as butchers or farmers’ markets. As a result, these “general stores,” which evolved from early trading posts, mainly offered dried goods – as seen in this Chicago outlet.
17. Washington grocery store (1925)
Up until the 1920s, most grocery stores had been independently run. By 1930, however, chains including National Tea and Kroger were in full swing, expanding from their regional origins. Nevertheless, independent, family-run stores – such as this one in Bremerton, Washington – could still be found throughout the U.S.
16. Illinois grocery store (1940)
Here, a man sits with his dogs outside a grocery store in Robinson, Illinois. By 1940, supermarkets had become a major phenomenon, with many chains swapping smaller stores for larger venues. The older-style grocery stores still stuck around for a few years after that, however.
15. Grand Grocery Company in Lincoln, Nebraska (1942)
Can you imagine paying one cent for an orange or five cents for a grapefruit? In fact, these prices may have been cheap even by 1940s standards. After all, one Illinois store is reported to have charged 49 cents for 12 oranges in 1947 – so the deals on offer at the Grand Grocery Company are bargains by comparison.
14. Inside Ralphs, Los Angeles (1943)
This checkout counter was actually quite unusual for mid-20th century grocery stores. Ralphs was something of an innovator in the field, then, with its self-service ethos and checkout stands littered around its stores. Several of the company’s branches were designed by prominent architects too.
13. Cashiers at Tulip Town Market, Tennessee (1945)
When the U.S. joined World War II, “boomtowns” were established to support the increased production of weapons, ships and aircraft. Other more clandestine cities sprang up, too, to house those researching and creating the atomic bomb. And those towns needed grocery stores – such as the one pictured here in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
12. Kroger, Kentucky (1947)
Kroger is currently America’s biggest supermarket by revenue, but the chain had humble beginnings. In 1883 Bernard Kroger opened his very first grocery store in Cincinnati, having put in his life savings of $372 to do so. Six decades later, though, the company had stores all over the country – including this one in Kentucky.
11. Kentucky grocery store (1950s)
By the time the ’50s rolled around, supermarkets reigned supreme; they had even begun making their way into suburban locations. This Houchens outlet in Kentucky typifies the difference between the supermarkets and the grocery stores of old. Most notably, the branch offered everything in one place – including fresh meat and frozen seafood.
10. James Dean grocery shopping (1955)
In the year of his tragic and untimely death in a car crash in California, James Dean reminded us that celebrities are regular people too. How? Well, through this image, which shows the Rebel Without a Cause pictured doing his grocery shopping in Marfa, Texas.
9. Michigan grocery store (1958)
The 1950s and 1960s are looked back on as “the golden age of the supermarket” – and for good reason. After all, new stores were opening all the time; these unveilings even became newsworthy events for local papers. And it’s fair to say that this Michigan outlet looks worlds ahead of its early 20th century counterparts.
8. Piggly Wiggly (1959)
Before the concept of self-service shopping was introduced by Piggly Wiggly, brand recognition and flashy packaging were low on the list of priorities for grocery stores and manufacturers. But once customers began picking out their own items, that all changed. That phenomenon may also explain the bright, attention-grabbing nature of the signs in this late ’50s store.
7. Indiana grocery store (1960)
While independent supermarkets and convenience stores may still operate across the U.S. to this day, this shopkeeper looking over his grocery store is nevertheless a snapshot of a time gone by. And for anyone old enough to remember visiting one of these stores in the mid-20th century, the photo may also prompt some feelings of nostalgia.
6. Vancouver grocery store (1960)
We think these kids may just be going into this store for a 7 Up, or perhaps a Coca-Cola. After all, there’s so much advertising covering the outside of the building that it would surely make anyone give in to temptation. Well, remember, you have Piggly Wiggly to thank for that, as its self-service style made brand recognition relevant to manufacturers and consumers alike.
5. Paying for groceries (1970s)
Nowadays, you probably wouldn’t dream of whipping out a checkbook in a grocery store – although if you really want to, you still can. But back in the 1970s, before the days of chip-and-signature cards, writing out a check for your purchases was common. We dread to think how long those lines must have been…
4. A full cart (1974)
You may recognize some of the brands in this grocery cart. After all, Kellogg’s and Schweppes are still going strong today – as is the discount mentality that many supermarkets had adopted by this point in the ’70s. Cutting prices was somewhat of a response to customer criticism about store interiors becoming more and more lavish.
3. In the cereal aisle (1978)
Heading into the 1980s, supermarkets generally moved to one extreme or the other: either they were upscale and expensive or low-cost, “warehouse”-style emporiums. The “value” sign here suggests that this was one of the latter stores. And the image certainly provides a fascinating window into the past – not to mention the state of supermarkets in decades gone by.
2. “No-frills” Kmart, Michigan (1979)
For a time in the 1980s, superstores offering general goods alongside groceries were big business – much like Walmart is today. Before then, though, Kmart offered its customers “no-frills” shopping, as evinced by this branch in Michigan. The novelty apparently didn’t catch on, though, as this particular store reportedly only remained in its stripped-back state for a matter of weeks.
1. Glass bottles (1980)
Back in the mid-20th century, Coca-Cola and other beverages were sold in glass bottles. Customers would also pay a few cents’ “deposit” on their purchases, which they’d regain after returning their bottles. The receptacles would then be sterilized and reused by the manufacturer. And while plastic bottles are now the norm, shelves full of their glass equivalents were still around as late as 1980 – as this picture proves.