"Speaking of Tomatoes": Supermarkets, the Senses, and Sexual Fantasy in Modern America

By Mack, Adam | Journal of Social History, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

"Speaking of Tomatoes": Supermarkets, the Senses, and Sexual Fantasy in Modern America


Mack, Adam, Journal of Social History


In 1960, Chain Store Age reported that Publix Super Markers had hidden tape recorders in the produce departments of selected stores. Placed in a small barrel on a display island, the recording devices had been programmed, according to the retailing trade journal, to deliver "intriguing selling messages" to the Florida-based chain's best customers, middle-class women. Lest readers think that the turn to mechanical salesmanship furthered an atmosphere of sterility in Publix stores, Chain Store Age pointed out that the recorders complemented other enticements intended to enhance the sensory pleasures of supermarket shopping. Customers, for instance, could enjoy the soothing sounds and pleasant smells of a floral department that featured a "cascading fountain" installed behind a display of fresh flowers. A series of spotlights hung above the produce department to provide visual stimulation by accentuating the "ripe freshness" of the peaches, plums and bananas for sale. Chain Store Age left it for readers to decide what women actually thought when, as they passed the display island, the tape recorder delivered its message: "What Peaches!" - followed by a whistle. Yet the follow-up, "luscious, delicious ripe peaches for you at special price," clearly encouraged them to treat their senses of touch and smell by handling the fresh merchandise. As the trade magazine suggested, Publix invited women to indulge their senses to stimulate greater sales through "impulse buying." (1)

When Chain Store Age's celebration of new techniques in produce sales arrived on readers' desks, merchandising practices designed to stimulate the five human senses could be found in supermarkets across the nation. Starting in the mid-1930s, American supermarket companies, determined to make their large self-service stores attractive to discerning female shoppers, developed a commercial aesthetic designed to loosen shoppers' purse strings by, literally, stirring their appetites. Since supermarket operators appealed directly to consumers' eyes, noses, ears, hands and tongues, the development of supermarkets is especially ripe for an historical analysis of sensory perception, U.S. consumer culture, and gender politics. One of the chief values of such a study involves the practice of sensory history--a growing branch of the interdisciplinary social sciences literature on the human senses that examines the role of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting in shaping all sorts of past experience. Following germinative works by a small group of European historians and anthropologists, a series of influential books by Richard Cullen Rath, Leigh Eric Schmidt, Mark M. Smith and Emily Thompson have established the significance of the sensate in U.S. history by carefully tracing the role of one of the human senses - heating, in these cases - in shaping events as disparate as the colonization of the Americas, American religious practices, slavery and the coming of the U.S. Civil War, and the development of modern architecture. (2) Sensory history has since expanded to include an even broader range of topics, places, and time periods, leading practitioners to recommend methodologies that move beyond a single sense to the sensory apparatus as a whole.(3) "We are now beginning to accumulate enough work for specific places and times, .." writes Mark M. Smith, "where historians can profitably begin to think seriously about the interpretive value of examining how the senses worked together, sometimes in complimentary fashion, sometimes in tension." (4) Anthropologist David Howes, also one of the first scholars to outline a research agenda for the senses, has similarly called for historical work on "intersensorality," a term he coined to describe the relationships among the individual senses. (5) This essay takes up the calls of Smith and Howes by tracing how supermarket operators, between the 1930s and early 1960s, developed a multilayered sensory aesthetic for their stores.

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