Introduction: background of a revolution and the birth of an institution.
For three-quarters of this century Progressive Grocer magazine has chronicled the relationship between a uniquely American institution--the modern self-service supermarket--and the nation that gave it birth. Over the course of seven and a half decades, the supermarket has evolved and spread to other parts of the world. But even today, on the eve of a time when some suggest it will be supplanted by other forms of retailing and when others look to Europe for the model of the future of retailing, the supermarket remains uniquely American. It is the product of a vision of unlimited prosperity and endless natural bounty and resources, combined with a notion of democratic purpose, the cornerstone of which is a belief in and commitment to the principle that there should be universal access to the finest goods and services available.
The American supermarket is as much a product of a social vision as it is a commercial vehicle. If you don't believe that, walk the aisles of the most Spartan supermarket on Main Street in Fourcorners, U.S.A. with a visitor from Central or Eastern Europe. What you'll experience is a sense of near bewilderment, not just at the range of products available but at the ability of the population to access those products at will. Taken at a metaphysical level, the supermarket is in many ways a reification of the American Dream. On a more pragmatic level it is, like all institutions, a product of its times, reflective of the social forces that gave it birth. And as those forces changed, so did the supermarket.
The American supermarket represented a revolutionary step in the history of commerce, making a full range of goods available to a mass audience. Access, however, came at a significant cost. Prior to the creation of the supermarket, food retailing was an intensely individualized and personalized process. Food was sold either by those who had actually produced it or by neighborhood-based retailers who "picked" each order for the consumer.
Interestingly, these retailers shared several characteristics that many "cutting edge" retail strategists hope to reinstitute. They practiced exceptional community relations, largely because they, as often as not, lived in the same neighborhoods where they operated stores (usually over or behind the store itself). They had what we now refer to as micromarketing knowledge of specific neighborhoods and target consumers. They also had what data-mining proponents refer to as "almost perfect customer knowledge"--they knew exactly how many people lived in the household whose order they were filling; how old they were; what they liked and didn't like; where they worked; where they lived; and how much they earned.
As institutions go, the supermarket is singularly ahistorical. Tradition tends to be defined by the contents of last week's ad circular. But all great institutions grow and evolve in response to the social conditions in which they exist. This Special Progressive Grocer report looks back at the 75 years of Progressive Grocer, tracing the special relationship between the magazine, the industry and the nation that gave birth to both.
Preface to a revolution: 1900-1922
At the turn of the century the U.S. Census Office reported a total population of 75,994,575, with the "population center" of the nation located six miles southeast of Columbus, Ohio. Eight thousand automobiles were registered, traveling over 10 miles of paved roads and scattering chickens across countless rural routes. Four thousand additional cars were produced in 1900, and 10 years later 187,000 additional units rolled out of the factories. Illiteracy reached a new low of 10.7% and telephone service "wired" 1,335,911 phones together.
The year 1900 saw the incorporation of The Quaker Oats Co. and the formation of American Can Co., as well as the invention of the first soluble instant coffee.
In 1901 the country's first billion-dollar corporation was formed with an initial capitalization of $1,402,846,000. Fueled by developments like the 1902 incorporation of International Harvester Co., which produced 85% of all farm machinery, concern quickly grew as to whether or not big corporations A substantial rethinking of the relationship of business practices resulted in a 1903 investigation of the mining industry by President Theodore Roosevelt, which established the principle that "No person shall be refused employment, or in any way discriminated against, on account of membership or non-membership in any labor organization."
Support continued to grow for the Progressives, urban populists who were concerned with issues such as industrial monopoly, government corruption, assimilation of new immigrants and ending poverty. Progressive writers formed the backbone of the so-called "muckrakers," authors and journalists who warned the public about what they saw as the corrupt side of capitalism. Much of this anti-business attitude focused on the meat packing industry, typified by a 1902 headline in Joseph Pulitzer's New York World: "Prices That Stagger Humanity," which ran above an article attacking the "Beef Trust." Those prices, by the way, were 24 cents a pound for sirloin steak and 18 cents a pound for lamb chops, pork chops or ham.
In 1903 Milton Hershey broke ground at Derry Church 13 miles east of Harrisburg, Pa., for a chocolate factory, and Best Foods Inc. has its beginnings in the Simon Levi Co., founded by a New York wholesaler with 10,000 square feet of warehouse space and a horse-drawn wagon. A year later hamburger sandwiches gained popularity at the St. Louis exposition. New food product introductions included the ice cream cone, the banana split, puffed rice, Campbell's Pork and Beans, Dr Pepper, iced tea and peanut butter, which debuted at the St. Louis exposition as a health food for the elderly. Pure Food Law advocates took space at the exposition to dramatize the fact that U. S. foods were being colored with potentially harmful dyes.
Food processing continued to grow increasingly sophisticated, with 41 million cases of canned food packed in America in 1905, the same year Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle, which attacked the meat industry, was published.
On June 30, 1906 the Pure Food & Drug Act was passed, prohibiting the sale of adulterated foods and drugs and demanding that product contents be honestly stated on labels. Congress passed the Meat Inspection Act, requiring meat plants to maintain sanitary conditions and establishing federal inspection programs for all plants involved in interstate commerce. That same year W. K. Kellogg and Charles D. Bolin opened the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Co. in Baffle Creek, Mich. And the seeds of mass media were sown when Reginald A. Fessenden of Branch Rock, Mass., created the first known radio broadcast of voice and music on Dec. 24. Sales of Jell-O reached nearly $1 million. Francis Woodward, who once offered to sell the brand for $35, stopped making Grain-O to devote his full attention to Jell-O.
In 1907 the first canned tuna fish was packed at San Pedro, Calif. Two years later J.L. Kraft Bros. & Co. was founded in Chicago, and across the country strawberries were frozen for market in the Pacific Northwest.
By 1910 the U.S. population had swelled to 91,972,266, with the population center of the country located in Bloomington, Ind. The Mann-Elkins Act extended the rights of the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce its rate ruling. The act also extended the ICC's jurisdiction to cover telegraphs, telephones and cable companies. The return of Halley's Comet convinced thousands of people that the end of the world was coming, creating a market for "comet pills," a new product designed to protect the user from the harmful effects of the comet. As the first decade of America's century came to an end, the farm population continued its steady decline. In 1910 there were 32,077,000 Americans living on farms; 20 years later that population was reduced to 30,529,000; and by 1950 only 25,058,000 Americans lived on farms.
Home-baked bread demonstrated a sharp decline by 1910, with 70% of U.S. bread being produced in America's kitchens, down 10% from 1890 levels.
In 1911 two of the stores claiming to be the first self-service grocery stores--Alpha Beta Food Market of Pomona, Calif., and Ward's Groceteria, Ocean Park, Calif.--opened their doors, followed quickly by Bay Cities Mercantile's Humpty Dumpty Stores. Under the leadership of John Hartford, The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. began an aggressive expansion plan, moving from a base of 500 stores and opening a new store every three days for the next three years. A&P suspended charge accounts and free delivery, basing its growth on "economy," operating on a cash-and-carry basis.
On June 19, 1912, U.S. food prices rose sharply, and Congress passed a new labor law extending the eight-hour working day to all workers under federal contracts. A year later the Federal Reserve Bank opened for business, and Henry Ford set up the first automobile assembly line. Modeled after a meat packer's conveyor system, the assembly line allowed Ford to produce 1,000 new cars a day. Thanks to increased production efficiencies, the cost of a Model T dropped to $290 in 1924 from $950 in 1909. New products for 1912 included Morton Table Salt, Hellmann's Blue Ribbon Mayonnaise, Prince Macaroni, Oreo Biscuits and Lorna Doone cookies.
Food technology took another giant step in 1914 when Clarence Birdseye pioneered fish freezing after observing that fish caught in Labrador froze stiff the instant they were exposed to air and tasted "almost" fresh when defrosted and cooked weeks later.
In 1915 the year after World War I broke out in Europe, the Victor Talking Machine Co. brought out the phonograph (under the tradename Victrola). By 1919 sales of recordings and phonographs exceeded spending on musical instruments, books and periodicals or sporting goods. The fledgling taxi industry picked up its first fare, and the first transcontinental telephone call was placed. In Detroit, the millionth Model T rolled off the Ford assembly line.
Unable to keep the U.S. neutral, President Wilson called a special session of Congress on April 2, 1916 to deliver his "war message." A war resolution passed the House and Senate in four days and was ratified by Wilson on April 6. The war was over by Nov. 11, 1917. In 1918 the War Industries Board was reorganized under Bernard Baruch, and food and fuel were rationed. On July 26 of that year the sugar ration was reduced to 2 pounds per person per month. A year later the 18th Amendment to the Constitution made prohibition the law of the land.
1916 saw U.S. food prices rise 19%, paving the way for the opening of The Piggly Wiggly in Memphis, Tenn. The self-service store was the beginning of what would become America's first true supermarket chain. The year also witnessed the introduction of Coca-Cola's contour bottle and the introduction (in Los Angeles) of the "Chinese" fortune cookie. The following year, high food prices led to food riots in New York, Boston and Philadelphia.
By 1920 America was well on its way to becoming an urban nation. The U.S. Census reported a population of 105,710,620, with the population center of the country eight miles south-southeast of Spencer, Own County, Ind. For the first time in history the rural population represented less than half of the total U.S. population, with farm residents representing less than 30% of the nation's citizens. By 1921 5 % of Americans lived in towns of more than 2,500.
On Nov. 2 public radio was born when radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh broadcast the results of the presidential election. In 1921 Americans were to spend about $10,000,000 on radio sets and parts, and by 1922 there were approximately 500 radio stations in operation. By 1924 there were more than 2,500,000 radios in American homes.
By 1921 there were more than a million trucks traveling America's 387,000 miles of surfaced roads. Several state legislatures passed sanitary dairy practice laws and regulations.
Women's suffrage was guaranteed in 1922 when the U.S. Supreme Court held the 19th Amendment to be constitutional. That year the first radio commercial aired on Aug. 28 over station WEAF in New York City (which had begun operation on Aug. 16)--a 10-minute spot for the Queensborough Corp., a real estate firm. The commercial tried to interest listeners in Hawthorne Court, a group of apartment buildings in Jackson Heights, Queens.
And in New York on Jan. 22, 1922 the first issue of The Progressive Grocer hit the streets. Announcing its first issue, the magazine proclaimed, "If ever there was a time when wholesalers and retailers should work together, that time is now--TODAY... Various agencies have sprung up which seem to offer the consumer an opportunity to cut the high cost of living. We are convinced, however, that no method has yet been developed that can more economically serve the consumer than the present triumvirate of manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer."
Billing itself as "a magazine that is small in size but large in purpose," The Progressive Grocer offered readers "feature articles by well-known writers and practical, helpful information on what the other fellow is doing to get more business and to make more money. It will be an interesting magazine, but its object is to more than interest--it is to serve you."
"In this country," the magazine continued, "there are 350,000 retail grocers. Among these are a good many merchants who have used original and aggressive methods to build up a substantial profitable business... By means of unusual facilities we are enabled to search among all the grocers in the country for sensible, practical ideas that can be passed along to you and that you in turn can probably use in your store.
"We have no desire to preach or to tell any man how to run his business. But it is our intention to have in The Progressive Grocer a wealth of ideas that will be welcomed by the man who is always on the lookout for something new to add to his business.
"The Progressive Grocer is dedicated to you as a magazine of service. If it fulfills that obligation we shall be very happy indeed."
Some things, as they say, never change.
This Special Report, "Social Change & The Supermarket, "was written by Ryan Mathews, editor-in-chief of Progressive Grocer, with research assistance from Darrell Stewart, research librarian.
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|Title Annotation:||Special Report: Social Change & the Supermarket|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1996|
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|Next Article:||1926-1936: entrepreneurs and enterprise: a look at industry pioneers like King Kullen and J. Frank Grimes, and the institution they created.|