Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Supermarket Memories, Part 2

Still thinking about grocery stores ...

I found some websites that discuss the economic and cultural history of supermarkets, for instance, http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe50s/money_13.html The site mentions the Piggly Wiggly company, interesting to me because my dad began his trucking career hauling citrus from the South to Piggly Wiggly stores in central Illinois. But chains like that and others would eventually crowd out privately owned stores. Even chains eventually became endangered in the face of larger companies. Among its several former stores, my hometown has Aldi and IGA, but the Wal-Mart dominates.

Supermarkets developed in tandem with American affluence and automobile culture. (See http://www.groceteria.com/about/a-quick-history-of-the-supermarket/) Older markets specialized in meats or dry goods, but “super markets” carried a variety of selections displayed as a kind of journey, with certain kinds of products first, ice cream and frozen food toward the end of the last aisle, and treats like candy near the check-out. This was exactly the layout of the Day ‘n’ Nite that burned in ‘67. Supermarkets revolutionized food shopping and created numerous other cultural changes.

In certain ways, kitchen items came to represent American culture. As many people know, a notable Cold War exchange happened in 1959 between Khrushchev and Nixon, inspired by the typical contents of a kitchen. Nixon argued the merits of American capitalism as he and the Soviet leader toured displays of household items. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/24/opinion/24safire.html?_r=2 Not so long afterward, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol made art of things like beer cans, Brillo boxes and Campbell’s soup labels. Pop art continues to capture public imagination. Food for additional reflection (no pun intended): how American well-being, even American creativity, became handily symbolized by grocery and kitchen products.

And speaking of brand names: one of my favorite "bathroom books" is What a Character! 20th Century American Advertising Icons by Warren Dotz and Jim Morton (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996). Leafing through this book I think back on childhood trips to the grocery store via characters and products like:

Snap, Crackle, and Pop
The Campbell Soup Kids
Florida Orange Bird
Funny Face soft drink mix characters, like Goofy Grape and Loud-Mouth Lemon
Big Shot Chocolate
Mr. Bubble
Brylcreem (a little dab’ll do ya)
Jolly Green Giant
Sugar Pops Pete
Sugar Bear for Sugar Crisp cereal
Tony the Tiger
Toucan Sam
Poppin’ Fresh
Cap’n Crunch
Quisp and Quake cereals
Trix Rabbit
Sonny the Cuckoo Bird (Coco Pops)
Punchy of Hawaiian Punch

What happy memories of everyday moments! I also remember a brand of cereal in the early 1960s called Kellogg’s OKs, which had Yogi Bear on the box. The cereal bits were little O’s and K’s. I suppose it represents the triumph of marketing and consumerism to draw a close connection between advertising icons, brand names, and one’s childhood memories. But at least one can be aware of the larger cultural context of one’s life.

How do you end a set of recollections of grocery stores? You don't, because it's a part of your life that's ongoing, even if you think of your trips as a chore rather than grist for recollection. My father hauled his elderly self to the supermarket each week, purchasing bargains and using his coupons, right up till his last few days. So will most of us.


  1. I had no idea that Piggly Wiggly existed in Illinois or anywhere outside the South. I have a funny Piggly Wiggly story for you. In August, I went home to NC for a family reunion. I knew that one of my young cousins attending the event from "up north" is vegan, so I went out in search of some Boca vegan burgers so she could have something to eat at the dinner. My first stop was the Piggly Wiggly in St. Pauls (the closest grocery store to my parents' house). I must have walked around that store ten times looking for Boca products, to no avail. Finally, a young fellow stocking frozen food asked if he could help me find something. When I told him what I was looking for, he looked at me and said (insert sweet Carolina accent here): "Ma'am, the Pig's not Big on Vegetarian." (I eventually found Boca products at Food Lion!)

  2. My dad started trucking in the early 1930s, and so there must have been more Piggly Wigglies in IL back then. I only remember one or two myself in (I think) Decatur or Springfield, both bigger central Illinois communities. I just looked at the company's website and apparently there are 92 stores in Wisconsin and four in the very northern part of Illinois. Great story about the St. Paul's store! We used to frequent the Food Lion in Charlottesville; that must be a mostly-southern chain?