This morning I stumbled out of bed groggily to get to the 6:30am Senior shopping lalapalooza at my local Stop & Shop supermarket and I hit the jackpot.
It was nothing short of being like a contestant on Supermarket Sweep, racing through the aisles attempting to pack my carefully disinfected cart full of the most valuable items. There before me was a vision – fully stocked shelves as far as the eye could see, with toilet paper and paper towels aplenty, the meat department brimming with packages to make any carnivore’s heart skip a beat and that most coveted of items, I scored a lone bottle of Purell.
After countless visits to grocery stores in the past few weeks where bare shelves have been picked clean, I felt the same wonder and glee of a Soviet-era visitor to a 1950’s American s supermarket, overwhelmed by the consumer abundance.
To now have that freedom of choice, so uniquely American and unparalleled anywhere in the world suddenly snatched away, has been startling.
Long a showcase for the American way of life, supermarkets are a symbol of American affluence and freedom of choice. Each shopper free to select from the thousands of dazzling array of options.
During the Cold war, when Americans and Soviets were battling ideologically for the hearts and minds of people, the American supermarket was held up as the very embodiment of our capitalist system and the American way. American housewives the luckiest and most liberated gals on earth were given free rein to pick and choose between the thousands of new and improved no-fuss-no muss giant-sized selections available to her.
She stood in stark contrast to the poor, downtrodden Soviet woman already overworked from long hours in a factory who was forced to confront a barren grocery shelf day after day. Their bleak communist shelves so stark and empty compared to the technicolor snap crackle and pop of an American supermarket filled to the brim with the wonders of American corporate know-how.
These comparisons were constantly used in pitting the 2 systems against one another.
1955 was a milestone in food shopping history marking the 25th year of supermarkets and the silver anniversary was met with appropriate celebration.
“The Silver Jubilee Supermarket Cook Book” (“Dedicated to Maimie Dowd Eisenhower, the housewife of Americas No. 1 Household”) gushed that: “The supermarket is a symbol of America’s attainment of a high standard of living through democracy, and is so looked upon as one of the great institutions in the world.”
Life magazine ran a special issue devoted to the country’s “mass luxury”, food, described shopping in supermarkets as a major weekly ritual in American family life.
But, nothing paid homage to the supermarket more an article entitled The Lady is Queen of the Supermarket that ran Better Living Magazine May 1955. A veritable love letter to the dazzling world of mid-century supermarkets and the fortunate housewives who frequented them.
Even now, when supermarkets account for nearly half the groceries sold in the US, they continue to dazzle the ladies with new products and new methods of using familiar products. The supermarket is a cornerstone of the American woman’s economic existence as well as her home life.
To the woman of today (1955) the grocery store is not a challenge but an inviting place to spend an hour. Every week her supermarket features a new product just on the market: a dehydrated potato preparation, perhaps or a new kind of processed cheez.
“By making the housewife queen for the hour she buys she does a better job of selling herself than a dozen eager clerks. She likes the privilege of pulling a can off a shelf”.
That privilege came right after our right to vote and doesn’t even need an amendment to the Constitution for it.
“She has put most of her imaginative faculties to work in the hour she spent doing the weeks shopping. She has made 40 or 50 decisions one way or another as to the purchases; she has envisaged certain products as they will appear when served hot at the table.
“Yes, the woman of today is self-reliant as never before, sweeping aside old barriers winning new freedom. And when she shops for food she wants to be free to choose for herself!
Modern American supermarkets were more democratic than old fashioned grocery stores according to the article, because, for example, self-service meat counters allowed the customers to choose the cut they wanted rather than submit themselves to the whim and favoritism of an autocratic butcher, which now reeked of Communism.
In winning the Cold war, supermarkets would prove to be as powerful a weapon as a missile to showcase America’s might.
Supermarkets could show the Soviet Union and the rest of the world just how mighty the US was, a physical palace devoted to the bounty of the land built on freedom, liberty, and capitalism.
The United States was itching to display this abundance. Since the average citizen living under Communism wouldn’t have access to a supermarket, the U.S. government brought the supermarket to the communists. In 1957, the United States created a Supermarket U.S.A. exhibit in then-communist Yugoslavia at the Zagreb International Trade Fair t. The exhibit featured a fully functional supermarket full of affordable frozen and packaged foods, and fresh produce airlifted in from the United States.
The results were all they could hope for. The Communist housewive’s heart weres sent a flutter. At least according to a New York Times article from September 8, 1957, reporting the event.
“Typical American Supermarket is the hit of the Fair in Yugoslavia” ran the headline.
A typical American neighborhood supermarket the first ever shown in a Communist country was the rage of Zagreb. Scorning the heavy machinery and outmoded consumer goods displayed by the Soviet Union Yugoslav housewives jammed the new US Pavillion at the Zagreb International Trade Fair to see for themselves how American women do their shopping in a “veletrznica” ( supermarket in Serbo Croatian)
Their comments and those of the husband’s present- left no doubt that this year’s U.S. exhibit was the hit of the show. “Look at the meat,” said one goggle-eyed visitor. “its all packed and assorted, the price is marked on it and you just know its clean.
Say what you like but we don’t have such grapes in Yugoslavia,” a second woman remarked to her husband. “here we get those green sour grapes.
One Zagreb philosopher attracted by the crisp green vegetables flown over from the U.S. was moved to remark, “Here one can see the strength of the Americ soil, the influence of man over nature.
The most beautiful corn,” said one woman stroking the husk to assure herself it was real.
Compare this poor Soviet woman swooning over the produce to the lucky American counterpart where freedom was all around her. Aisle after aisle of fresh, pesticide produced produce, cheap hormone enhanced meat, chemical-laden processed foods, and sugary sweet cereals.
Shopping is a Social Adventure
“The supermarket is the woman’s store” waxed The Lady is Queen of the Supermarket article.
“Self-service is more than just a slick way of selling groceries to the woman customer it makes marketing day an adventure. To the woman of today, the grocery store is not a challenge but a relaxing place to spend an hour.
She enjoys mingling with her friends the store, and when she leaves the check out counter she has a feeling of accomplishment, not just the sense of having a dreary routine chore.
Yes, for my mothers and her generation, the supermarket shopping was an exciting, social adventure. For her daughter today, food shopping is still an adventure, but one she could never have imagined.