Stay Connected

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Grocery Shopping, Then and Now: The Booming 50s and 60s, My Mother's Day

My mother's experience as related to me over my childhood and younger adult years and my own observances

My mother was born in 1937. Most of her childhood memories were from the WW2 years and then the post-war boom.

When my mother went to college for the first time (she would leave to start a family and finish her degree when her kids were older), beginning in 1955, she was a Home Economics major. The study of homemaking included meal planning, grocery shopping and cooking in addition to budgeting and organization, sewing, creating a pleasing home, and rearing children.

Home Economics in the university was treated as a science, with researchers investigating the best way to do just about anything regarding keeping a home. This would affect how my mother grocery shopped, among other tasks.

My father and mother married in the late 1950s. They lived in the city for the first three years of their marriage. My father was furloughed several times, which necessitated them moving to other states twice, finally settling in California. My mother was a stay-at-home wife, for the most part. She worked a couple of jobs during periods of my father's furloughs. They, too, just had one car for their early marriage years. Because they lived in the city, my mother could drive my father to and from work on a day she needed the car for shopping. After those first three years, they bought a small house in the suburbs and lived in suburbia for the rest of their lives. 

Planning meals

My mother's cookbook, a wedding gift from an aunt in 1957

My mother was a fabulous planner (frankly, she was a fabulous homemaker in general). One day a week she would get out a pencil and 2 sheets of paper. On one sheet she would plan all of the meals and snacks for the week, using favorite cookbooks as inspiration and guide. 

With uncertain employment at times, my mother would rely on recipes which were deemed frugal. The Better Homes & Garden cookbook, © 1953, had pages of menus that were "money-saving." I remember a lot of these meals from my early childhood.

This cookbook also used a tiny icon of a piggybank next to recipes which were deemed frugal at that time. When I first lived on my own, my mother gave me this cookbook. I relied on some of these recipes to feed myself and roommates.

On the other sheet of paper for planning, my mother would write out everything she would need for all of a week's meals and snacks, down to the last apple or onion. With just one car and a couple of small children in the early years, shopping once per week made my mother's life simpler. 

Paying for groceries

My father gave my mother an allowance each month to pay for household things and clothing for herself and the kids. I recall grocery stores only took cash at the check-out in the early 1960s. If you were short on cash, you could cash a personal check at a "teller" they had set up near the front of the store. This teller was also useful for workers who wished to cash their pay check in the grocery store. In the end, though, stores began accepting personal checks at the point of purchase, sometime in the mid to late 1960s. 

Grocery operating hours

Most grocery stores in the very early 1960s were open Monday through Saturday from 9 AM to 6:30 or 7 PM, with occasionally a store offering evening hours one day per week. I can recall a couple of occasions when my mother would have been waylaid during her regular grocery shopping day in some manner, and she would have to pile us all (my brother would have been a baby then) into the car late in the afternoon to go out and do a last minute week's worth of grocery shopping before Market Basket would close for the evening.

By the mid-60s, grocery stores had a new competitor which offered longer operating hours -- the 7-11 (named for its original operating hours, 7 AM - 11 PM). The first 7-11 that I can recall opened in my area around 1967 or 1968. It was a real novelty to have a store open longer hours and on Sunday, too. It may have been what prompted grocery stores in my area to be open 7 days per week and hours later into the evening. We wouldn't see 24-hour grocery stores for my area until the late-1970s.

Alternatives to the grocery store

Living in the suburbs, my mother had a few more shopping choices than my grandmother ever did. Still, my mother preferred one particular store (Market Basket) for in-store, weekly basic shopping and supplemented with other sources of obtaining groceries.

Helms Bakery truck, sold donuts, bread, cream puffs

Living in the suburbs had its benefits in the 1960s. Several vendors drove through the neighborhoods weekly. Most families in the early 60s in our neighborhood had just one car. So milk delivery service or the bakery truck were popular with the housewives. The Helms Bakery truck would drive through the neighborhood and stop at houses that had a placard in their front window indicating they wanted to buy baked goods. Additionally, the Helms driver would pull on his whistle to call housewives into the street for their purchases. 

My sister was in kindergarten and first grade during this time, but I was home all day with my mother. When my mother went out to buy bread for the week, if I had been very good that morning, I might get a donut. Of course, this wasn't a given. But I knew that if I was naughty, there was no chance I would get a donut. Being able to get bread and milk brought into the neighborhood meant that housewives could throw together some sort of meal between what was in their kitchens and these more perishable foods. 

Around the time Market Basket adopted longer operational hours (about 1970), both of my parents had a car, which meant my mother had more flexibility for grocery shopping. I don't recall ever seeing the Helm's bakery truck again after about 1966. But my mother continued to have milk delivered to our house through my high school years.

Milk was delivered weekly to the doorstep in clear glass quart and half-gallon bottles. The milk man would come before anyone was awake for the day and leave our order of milk on the front porch. Each week, my mother would put out the empty and cleaned out glass bottles from the week before. The milkman would pick these up and take them back to the bottling factory. The empties would be scalded and reused for customers. At the end of the month, the milk man would leave both a bill (with envelope) and an order form to make requests for the next month. The following week, my mother would put the payment into the envelope with the order form and place this out on the front porch with the empty milk bottles to be picked up.

The milk was not homogenized. Homogenization keeps the milk fat from separating from the milk solids and water. In our non-homogenized milk, the fat would rise to the top. My mother would pour off this fat into a small pitcher, and this became our family's weekly supply of cream (mostly used in my parents coffee, but occasionally sweetened and poured over a bowl of berries or peaches for dessert).

drive-thru dairy -- customer drove in similar to a full-service gas stations of the time, the attendant came out a door and took your order, came back a minute later with your products, you paid and drove off. No getting out of the car.

In addition to shopping at the grocery store and having milk and baked goods delivered, we also had a couple of drive-through stores. The one I remember most was the drive through dairy that also sold ice cream! The drive-thru sold milk, cream, butter, cheese, ice cream, fresh orange juice (not from concentrate), eggs, bacon, and popsicles/fudgsicles. If we were out running errands in this part of town (the drive-thru was directly across the street from Woolworth's), my mother would stop and buy some frozen treats to take home.

How to save money in the 60s and 70s, housewife edition

My mother used coupons, mostly getting them from magazines. Some of the earliest coupons in my memory reflected a new age we were entering -- the computer age. These coupons were heavier weight than magazine paper, were inserted into the folds of the magazine, and had punch-outs across the coupon. At the time, I didn't know why my mother's coupons had holes. I just thought it was something space age-y or the like. Now, I assume it was for the product company's use to speed processing when it came time to reimburse the stores. The punchcard coupon was phased out sometime around 1970. My mother then began clipping coupons from magazine pages and the newspaper.

There were so many stores in the area and ways to procure groceries that stores began competing against each other, not through lowering prices but by offering trading stamps in exchange for your purchase. Trading stamps could be redeemed for hard goods. We had both Blue Chip and Green Chip stamps offered in our area. My mother preferred the Blue Chip stamps, only because we had a redemption store nearby. The number of stamps the grocery store would give to you depended on the amount of money you spent for your purchases. Stores also provided the booklets you would need for collecting the stamps. Once home, you would adhere the stamps to the pages of the booklets. (This was a Saturday afternoon kid-job.) There were larger stamps and smaller stamps. A larger stamp represented several of the smaller ones, so you would only need a few of these larger ones to fill a single page in the booklet. You would need several completed booklets to redeem for an item at the redemption store. A redemption store was a showroom-type store. You walked around the showroom looking at all of the items, which were priced in booklets needed not dollars/cents. Items my family "bought" with our Blue Chip stamps included a world globe (I still have this), a set of TV tray tables, games, puzzles and a lamp. It would take a year of grocery shopping to save enough stamps to redeem for something we would want. Gas stations also participated in trading stamp promotions in the 1960s, boosting a family's ability to save for something "good" in less time.

Sometime in the 1970s, grocery stores dropped the trading stamps and began offering products for free or to be purchased at a small cost in exchange for spending X amount of dollars. My mother collected an entire set of almost-free, blue and white patriotic dishware just in time for the 1976 Bicentennial in exchange for shopping only at Ralph's Supermarket. You could also buy the dishes by the piece for the full price. I'm sure that Ralph's counted on many well-intentioned housewives filling in a few gaps with purchased pieces to make their complete dish set.

Keeping foods

Sometime in the mid-1970s, my parents bought a stand alone freezer for the garage. It was your basic, tall upright freezer. With this, they bought a side of beef. My mother also froze fresh produce and sometimes stocked up on special breads when her shopping would take her the 30 minutes away to a favorite bakery. 

My paternal grandmother was a single mother of 5 children and worked as a bookkeeper during the day. My father had been in charge of the family's victory garden when he was a kid, having to coax younger siblings into doing their share of the work. He really grew to dislike keeping a vegetable garden. As a result, my parents never had a vegetable garden. But they did have some citrus trees at a couple of the houses where we lived. We had fresh-squeezed orange juice and fresh grapefruit every morning during those years. 

on CSU's Extension page for what not to do when canning -- using paraffin wax seals

My mother canned some -- mostly high-sugar or vinegar products. During her day, paraffin wax was an acceptable lid for a jar of home-canned jam. One of my earliest memories of my mother was sitting on a stool across the counter from where she was making plum jam. I watched her pit and chop plums, cook them with sugar, while simultaneously melting wax in another saucepan to pour over almost full jars of hot plum jam. When you went to "open" a new jar of jam sealed this way, you dunked the edge of the wax round into the jam and pulled it out by the edge that popped up. To reseal the opened jar, my mother used a square of waxed paper and a string tied around the top of the jar. 

To bake from scratch or not

My mother became a housewife at a time when packaged products exploded on supermarket shelves. She used a lot of convenience foods, by my standards. But that was the norm and was considered a good use of time, as it would free up valuable time for other homemaker pursuits, such as sewing all 5 of us matching outfits for our family vacation. (I'm glad I don't have that photo to show you!) My mother only baked yeasted bread a couple of times in their early marriage. And she said she preferred the texture and reliability of cake mixes over scratch cakes. She also bought canned soups instead of homemade soups most of the time. And my father preferred instant mashed potatoes over fresh potatoes boiled and mashed. My mother was either insulted or amused when I bounced into the house exclaiming loudly, "did you know you could make mashed potatoes from regular potatoes? Stephanie's mom is making mashed potatoes and squishing them herself!" 

My mother's use of these boxed and canned products was what I think was part of a greater emphasis on learning from experts (as in the Home Ec as a science) instead of learning to cook from your mother and her mother. The boxed cake was more reliable.. The canned soup always tasted good. That line of thinking. In many ways, buying mixes and prepared products saved money, too. No need to buy special cake flour if you're only baking one cake in the coming months. Cake flour, like any other flour, can get pests. Unfortunately, product labeling requirements in the 50s and 60s was not as extensive as it is now. A homemaker might not know that the can of soup contains cheap fillers. The tide would change drastically for a sector of Americans (the counterculture) in the 1970s, with a rejection of mass-produced foods. Anyone here have a copy of Laurel's Kitchen?

Throughout my mother and father's marriage, my father always gave my mother an allowance that covered groceries. They never had a shared bank account. I thought this was standard practice until I talked to other friends as a young adult. At that time, I discovered that while some partners choose to have separate banks accounts, some also choose to have joint accounts. I can see the merits in doing it both ways. My parents both experienced some humble beginnings in life. I think this shaped their approach to financial planning. Even when my father's career was successful and furloughs were a dim memory, they were still frugal. My mother continued to clip coupons and shop at what would be considered the discount supermarket in their town, even when it was probably no longer financially necessary. 

My mother passed away 2 years before I was married. In my first year of marriage, it was my father who told me stories about their very early marriage meals. Hotdogs and fish sticks came in packages of 10 pieces at that time. They ate hotdogs and fish sticks often those first few years. When they had hotdogs, my father would have 2 and my mother would have 1. After 3 meals, that left 1 remaining, which my mother would slice and add to a stew of sorts. When they had fish sticks, my father had 3 and my mother had 2. This worked out perfectly for the package size, 2 meals and no leftovers.

Stories of my parents' experience of financially-lean years in early marriage really helped me when my husband and I dealt with the same. I went into marriage knowing that we might be relatively poor at first, but if we worked hard and were frugal, we could save enough to buy a house and the life we have now.

Stay tuned for my story . . .


  1. Wow, you have a lot of details from your mom's years of shopping and cooking. I don't remember nearly as much as you do. I have a vague memory of my mom using blue stamps. She also couponed a lot.

    1. Hi Kris,
      Some things just stick in my mind I guess.

      There was a time when coupons were quite valuable. When my husband and I were first married, I found coupons in magazines and the newspaper for $1 or $2 off some products. I had a store nearby that had triple coupon days 1 time per month and double coupon days once per week. I would take my coupons on those days and basically get multiple free boxes of cereal or laundry detergent each week. Your mother likely found a lot of good deals using coupons, too.

  2. I remember the stamps that were placed in the booklet. S & H green stamps that you could buy things in a showroom. I also remember that powdered laundry detergent often came with dish towels in them and then there was different colored plastic cups with a handle in the detergent. Each of the kids got their own plastic cup at dinner time and I still see them in dad's cupboard. I also remember mom paying bills and balancing her checkbook Saturday morning and then she made a grocery list. She and I went to Market Basket (now it is Big Top Market) to get our groceries. I always asked for Cracker Jack because it had a prize in them. Sometimes if there was enough money I could get one for each of the kids and sometimes money was so tight that I couldn't. I also remember paraffin wax on top of jelly. Mom saved the wax and remelted it for the next year. Canning techniques back then were not as safe as they are today and even in mom's last years, she was not using proper canning techniques. We all lived so I guess it wasn't too bad.

    1. Hi Alice,
      Such good memories. I don't remember the dish towels or cups with detergent. But I do remember the grape jelly jars were reused as juice glasses. I think there were cartoon characters on the jars/glasses. The jars didn't have threads for turning the lid around onto to seal, but instead the lid snapped onto the jar. As a result, there was no awkward edge when drinking out of them. I remember the prizes in Cracker Jack. That was always so fun to get something extra in with a food or treat item. My mother saved the paraffin from year to year, too. I'm sure that made canning jam and jelly a pretty frugal endeavor. Thanks for sharing your memories, Alice.

  3. I enjoyed reading about your mother's experiences buying food. It looks like she passed on her organization and approach to homemaking skills to you. I could relate to many things in your accounting, but things were different in a small town where I grew up. We never had anything like a 7-11 or even a fast food place. We had an A&P, but the rest of the grocery stores were owned locally. We never got milk delivery, but some of our neighbors did. There were no other kinds of delivery. We, too, had stamps to redeem and I still have some my mother never cashed in. We canned a lot and had a big freezer full of veggies, fruit, and meat. Very early on, we helped in the kitchen (and around the house) and by middle school and high school, my mother had gone back to work (for college tuitions) and we were responsible for most of the meals, laundry, etc. And I don't every remember her packing me a school lunch. If we wanted to take a lunch, she would make sure we had things to put in it, but we were responsible for that from 2nd? grade on. My mother, too, was very organized.

    1. Hi Live and Learn,
      It's interesting to read about different communities from the same period in history, urban, suburban, small town, rural, etc. I agree, it does sound like you and I had some similar experiences, but also many different ones. By the time I was in middle school, I was biking to 7-11 a few days a month on my way home from school. In high school, we'd often gather at nearby fast food restaurants, and in the suburbs, there were plenty from which to choose. You also had more responsibility at a younger age than I did. My mother packed our lunches until we were in middle school. It was also about that time that I became responsible for making dinner once per week. The kids were responsible for their own laundry beginning in middle school. The one responsibility I did have at an early age was baking cookies for the family and making pancakes. But this was more a privilege than a responsibility. I loved baking from about age 8 or 9 on.


Thank you for joining the discussion today. Here at creative savv, we strive to maintain a respectful community centered around frugal living. Creative savv would like to continue to be a welcoming and safe place for discussion, and as such reserves the right to remove comments that are inappropriate for the conversation.


Be a voice that helps someone else on their frugal living journey

Are you interested in writing for creative savv?
What's your frugal story?

Do you have a favorite frugal recipe, special insight, DIY project, or tips that could make frugal living more do-able for someone else?

Creative savv is seeking new voices.


share this post