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Monday, January 8, 2024

Grocery Shopping, Then and Now: Post-WW2, My Grandmother's Day

I was thinking about how much grocery shopping has changed since my grandmother's day, piecing together tidbits of information from the recesses of my memory and wanted to write it all out. These are my family's experiences and may not be what your family has experienced, with relation to grocery shopping over the last 75 years.

Because my recollections for my grandmother's early years of grocery shopping were largely drawn from my mother's stories and my vague memories from early childhood, I only have bits and pieces for the years between when my grandparents married in the late 1920s until the end of WW2, when my mother was grammar school-age. I started this writing journey with the post-war years, when my grandparents moved back to their home state after moving house 6 or 7 times between the years of 1942 and 1948. (My grandfather worked for a government contractor during the war and was relocated frequently.)

My Grandmother's experience, as told to me by herself, my mother, and from my observations when visiting plus the two years that I lived with her

My maternal grandparents bought a house "in the country" at the end of WW2. "In the country" at that time and place didn't mean living in farm country, but more an area removed from the city but without the amenities of the suburbs, such as street lighting, sidewalks, and convenient shopping. Even so, there was a grammar school within walking distance for my mother. 

My grandparents had one car, which my grandfather drove to and from work in the city each weekday. All stores and markets were closed on Sundays. The nearest market was too far to walk to and carry very much back. Walking to and from the store would also use up valuable time my grandmother needed for keeping the home and caring for children. So, she did what many other housewives in that area did at the time, she ordered her groceries to be delivered. 

How grocery delivery worked back then

Twice a week my grandmother would phone in an order for next-day delivery. (By 1950, 61% of American homes had a telephone, according to The store clerk would shop her list for her, box it all up, and the delivery man would bring the grocery box to her house the following morning. Roles for the market employees often overlapped. The store owner might pack it all up and deliver it. Or, the delivery driver might also work as clerk and a stock boy, ringing up sales, restocking shelves, unloading new items, etc. The owner might also function as the butcher, helping customers at the meat counter. The market owner's wife likely helped with all of the lighter work, such as cashiering, bookkeeping, packing boxes, and dusting shelves and tops of canned and boxed products. The market where my grandmother bought her groceries was a small one. 

Small markets had small staffs, often just the owners and a couple of additional employees. As such, my grandmother had the opportunity to get to know the owners and employees well. The owner might make recommendations or offer a special item to her. He would cut meat to order, especially useful when my grandfather's boss and his wife would be coming for dinner. When the store introduced a new product, the owner sometimes would include a sample (meaning full-size product) with her order. These samples would be free of charge for her to try, if the owner felt it might be something my grandmother might like. Whoever delivered her groceries, they would come into her kitchen and put her perishable items away in the refrigerator for her. Everyone knew her by name and she knew them by name, as well -- no employee-name tags needed.

How she paid
My grandmother's groceries would be charged to her store account. At the end of the month, my grandfather would go into the market and pay off the account. By the 1961, they each had their own car. (The second car came from my grandmother's father's estate after he passed away.) With this addition, my grandmother began marketing in person. Their financial arrangement must have changed at this time, as well, as she paid for her groceries when she shopped and no longer carried a balance on an account. Just to note, she always (even in later years) paid cash at the grocery store, never brought a checkbook when that was an option.
Despite my grandmother's small grocery market experience, many housewives were enjoying a new way to shop. The 1950s ushered in the widespread appearance of suburban supermarkets, with larger stores boasting numerous aisles, shopping carts replacing hand-carried baskets, mostly self-service meat departments, and an abundance of new brands and products from which to choose. All of this meant parking lot sizes increased, too. 

Supermarkets changed the way many suburban Americans shopped. The shopping carts encouraged customers to buy more at a time, so housewives would need to shop less often. Menu planning beyond 3 or 4 days would be necessary to ensure a household would have all they needed for a 7-day week. These early supermarkets experimented with extending operating hours, staying open into the evening perhaps one day per week. Yet most held to the closed-on-Sundays tradition.

Keeping perishables

similar to what I remember from my grandmother's kitchen in the 1960s and early 70s

My grandmother never had a stand-alone freezer. The only freezer she had was a small compartment in the fridge. She did just a small amount of canning to preserve food, relying instead on commercially-canned and boxed products for pantry staples. While she and my grandfather lived "in the country" for many years, they were more flower gardeners than vegetable gardeners. Yet, they did have some fruit trees.

Her later years

Even after my grandmother moved to a smaller house in a suburban neighborhood in 1970, she still preferred to shop in a particular grocery store that was smaller and gave her more personal attention. She was less concerned about finding the best deal than she was about buying higher quality. She had preferred brands from which she would not stray. She also chose to shop a couple of times per week in order to serve the freshest of produce and meat products. I don't think she ever stocked her freezer with meat. The refrigerator section had a meat bin/drawer, where she would keep 2 or 3 days worth of fresh meat. 

In her later years, my step-grandfather and she would shop together. He would do the driving, push the cart, and keep up his end of the conversation, and she would select items, ask him questions about meals and preferences, and interact with the butcher in the meat department and the cashier at the check-out. Grocery shopping had become a "date" of sorts for this sweet, elderly couple. 

Return to some grocery delivery

My grandmother did begin to have milk delivery at some point in these later years. After my step-grandfather passed, the milk delivery order grew, and she shopped in-person less. The dairy service offered milk, cream, cheese, butter, bread, jello salads, eggs, and other foods. My grandmother would shop in a store to buy canned and boxed foods plus some produce and meat every week to 10 days and supplement meals heavily with what would be delivered by the milk man. If there had been full-service grocery delivery at this point in my grandmother's life, I know she would have chosen that option to procure her food and household needs.

My grandmother was born just after the turn of the 20th century and lived until the early 1990s. For the majority of my grandmother's grocery shopping years, natural food stores were considered "fringe," Costco warehouse stores weren't everywhere, and there was certainly no internet shopping available. Yet, she witnessed many changes in grocery shopping, from in-city specialty markets (butchers, bakeries, and produce shops from her childhood years), to small grocery markets with home-delivery, to the introduction of large supermarkets. She may have thought she was living in "modern times." Little did she know what would be right around the corner, in regards to shopping for food and household items.

Stay tuned for my next set of recollections from my mother's grocery shopping years.


  1. It's funny to me how having groceries delivered isn't a new concept. Delivery services really took off with the pandemic, and I tend to think of it as a new innovation, but your story of your grandmother's shopping techniques point out otherwise.

    1. Hi Kris,
      I agree, to us, it does feel like home delivery of groceries is new. Up until 2020, we were accustomed to doing our grocery shopping in stores. I never would have thought I would have someone else gather my products and either put them in my car's trunk or bring them to my house.

      While I appreciated having someone else do the work part of my shopping during 2020 & 2021, I'm now glad to be choosing my own products in person again. There were issues with produce at times, sometimes not a store's fault, just I have preferences or thoughts about what I wanted. There were no check boxes to indicate I wanted more ripe bananas or smaller heads of cabbage on the online forms.

      I think my grandmother's experience was different from what we get now in that there was more communication with the store and its employees for her. She could tell the store at the time of order that she needed very specific things, such as a smaller or large, riper or less ripe piece of produce, or ask to have her meat cut a certain way. She also had a great deal of confidence in the service she would receive. I had numerous issues with both delivered and pick-up orders, issues that required me to do something or go somewhere to resolve.

      Interesting, too, when my grandmother had the option to do her own shopping in person (with the extra car in 1961), she chose to shop in person. She could have continued to have the groceries delivered, but she liked both the outing during the day and having control over her purchases.

  2. This is a great post, thank you for sharing. Do you remember what kind of meal she prepared for her family? I'm wondering if there was less variety/ novelty back then and if the portion sizes were smaller.

    1. Hi Farhana,
      Many or perhaps even most of her meals were on the simpler side compared to how many Americans aspire to cook now. One of her favorite dinner meals was goulash made with ground beef, canned tomatoes, and spices. She would serve this either over noodles or as is with bread on the side. She might have served a custard type pudding for dessert with this. And that was the meal. I'm sure the portions were hearty enough to fill their tummies. Another favorite meal was a roasted whole chicken, stuffed with bread and giblet stuffing, a vegetable on the side, and a fruit cup for dessert. Lunches at home were often homemade soup and crackers. As she got older, her cooking style changed somewhat. When cooking for fewer people, it's easier to prepare even simpler meals, like a fillet of fish sautéed, a vegetable (always boiled, not steamed), and rice or baked potato for a dinner. In her last decades, a very small bowl (1/2 cup) of ice cream was the usual dessert after dinner, but not every night.

      There was novelty for her generation at that time. The novelty came in trying new cuisines, like the "Hungarian" goulash (I put it in quotes because my grandmother's was certainly an Americanized version) and trying new commercial products.

      Portion sizes -- I do think on the whole portion sizes are much larger now. The size of dinner plates made and sold today are often much larger than dinner plates from 80 or 90 years ago. But I really think the big difference between eating then and now (for my grandmother's family at least) is in snacking. There's a whole industry that focuses on snack foods now. That wasn't a thing in my grandmother's day. School-age children might have a snack when they came home from school to tide them over till dinner. But those snacks were ordinary foods. My mother once said her after school snack was either a glass of milk or an apple. No cookies, chips, crackers, etc. Crackers were something my grandmother bought to go with a bowl of soup at lunch. Cookies were for packing in a school or work lunch bag. A small handful of chips accompanied a sandwich for a Saturday lunch. Today, all of these foods seem to be marketed as snack foods. Aside from an after school snack for kids, when my mother was growing up (late 30s/40s/early 50s), they didn't snack. They ate 3 meals per day and that was about it. Of course, when I look at photos of my mother and her 2 brothers when they were kids, these were about the skinniest-looking American kids I've seen.

      Another difference for my grandmother at that time is they ate foods cooked at home almost all of the time. A lot of modern Americans eat out or get take-out frequently. Restaurant portions today are huge. I think this not only causes Americans to gain excess weight, but it influences what they think a home-cooked meal should look like, both in size and the foods cooked.

  3. This is an example of how history repeats itself but into a new generation. I have memories of a grocery store like the picture you posted back in the 60s that only had two aisles--one going to the back of the store and one going to the front of the store where the cash register was. I also my parents having a refrigerator like the one in the posted picture. Such good memories.

    1. Hi Alice,
      When I first lived on my own, I didn't have a car to drive to a supermarket, so I shopped at a mom & pop grocery store near my apartment. That market was about the size of the one in the photo of the smaller store. 2 aisles, a tiny produce section, lots of boxed and canned goods stacked high, and small frozen and refrigerated (meat and dairy) sections. And actual price tag stickers on everything. I would reach to the back of a section of canned or boxed foods, looking for one with a lower price on the sticker (that missed a recent price increase).

      I like the look of those older refrigerators, with the rounded corners. I think that's a "softer" look. I don't know about your parents old refrigerator, but my grandmother's old fridge lasted for several decades. Appliances were made to last back then.

  4. This was very interesting, Lili. It brought back some memories for me, too. What I have heard about my grandmother is that she went into town to the A & P every Saturday morning. She lived on a farm so most of their meat, dairy, and vegetables they raised themselves. They didn't always have a fridge, but did have a cellar house. My other grandmother often didn't know where her next meal was coming from, but shopped at a grocery store when she could. During the depression, the older kids collected food that was thrown out by grocers.

    1. Hi Live and Learn,
      I think it's interesting to read about how other people kept house, like your grandmother who didn't have a fridge in earlier days, but used a cellar. Someone I know grew up keeping fresh eggs in a divided wood box on the kitchen counter, not refrigerated. They kept chickens so the eggs ere very fresh and likely eaten soon after collecting.

      From what I've read, farming families were less affected by the Great Depression than urban families. Those who farmed had their food supply already. And they likely already employed many tactics we think of as money-saving today, such as hand-me-down clothing, patching and mending, etc, because farming could be hit or miss with regards to income. But they had what mattered, a place to live and food to eat, with a lot of hard work to get it all done. Urban families, by contrast, often lost their employment or their hours and wages were greatly reduced. My maternal grandfather was a stockbroker in the late 1920s. His income wasn't reduced to nothing overnight. It dwindled over the years. By the early 1930s, they had just enough to pay for rent, utilities and some of their food. My grandmother's father helped them out with food for several years, while my grandfather scrambled to find jobs. I'm sure this was hard on my grandfather's self-esteem to not be able to fully provide for his family.

  5. I find it so interesting how food has shaped our world and how it is going back . Foraging is huge now - farm to table is so popular. I loved the tv series showing the history of convenience food and how it has changed us - not always for the best. I appreciate you sharing the experiences of your family and the details of everyday life.

    1. Hi Ruthie,
      It is interesting, isn't it? I haven't heard of that TV series. I'll look it up. Thank you!


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