"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. That is, how supermarket executives, store managers, and advertisers sought to excite consumers' five senses simultaneously (and in different ways) to move merchandise.
The sensory approach to supermarket history promises to enrich the historiography of American commercial culture--a literature that has been weighed heavily in favor of one of the senses, vision. A large body of scholarship has made clear that turn-of-the-century advancements in production and visual technology, the creation of a national advertising industry, the promotion of new leisure pursuits, and the development of a mass market gave rise to a modern, nationally disseminated culture oriented around consumption. (6) Since that culture introduced a plethora of new sights to American consumers --department store window displays, motion pictures, brilliantly lit signage, for example--historians have emphasized visual spectacle as the dominant expressive mode for those actors who worked to create a "land of desire," often implying that the other four senses played little role in promoting consumption. (7) As historian Grace Elizabeth Hale argues in a study that deals with consumer culture and racial identity in the turn-of-the-century South, "the invention of photography and motion pictures and changes in lithography, engraving, and printing as well as the construction of museums, expositions, department stores, and amusement parks emphasized visibility, the act of looking and the authority of the eye--the spectacle." (8)
There can be no doubt that the act of looking and spectacular visual displays expressed the values and promises of U.S. consumer culture in powerful ways, but it does not necessarily follow that historical actors neglected the other four senses in creating a society organized around getting and spending. Howes, in fact, has recently suggested that modern selling--including product design and advertising--has become increasingly hyperesthetic over the course of the twentieth century. The "sensual logic of late capitalism," he explains, has been marked by the development of ever more sophisticated efforts to engage "as many senses as possible in the drive for product differentiation and the distraction/seduction of the consumer," a process exemplified by the turn-of-the-twenty-first-century attempts to address shoppers' senses at the subconscious level such as the ZMET (Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique) developed at Harvard University's "Mind of the Market" Laboratory. (9) Howes's concept of hyperesthesia is helpful because it encourages a broad sensory approach to the study of commercial culture, but it has yet to be elaborated historically. An examination of the rise of supermarkets is especially valuable in this regard because it traces the long tradition of linking the senses to consumer desire. At the same time, it tracks how changes in sensory-oriented selling shaped the dynamics of gender politics in specific historical circumstances, in this case the changing conventions of gender roles, sexuality and family life in the decades between the late 1930s and the late 1960s.
This effort to historicize the relationship among the senses, supermarkets and gender relations follows in the tradition of scholars who have examined how merchants and advertisers worked to outline the broad contours of American commercial culture. (10) When supermarket operators sought to titillate shoppers' senses to increase grocery sales they assumed far greater powers to dictate spending than they deserved, but that is one of the reasons that their efforts are so revealing of their assumptions about consumer desire, sensation, and gender. A close analysis of the supermarket industry's internal discussions - conducted in the industry's extensive trade literature and reflected in advertising - reveals the prominence of sensual and sexual themes in shaping male conceptions of female buyers. (11) The merchants who developed supermarkets clearly followed in the tradition of the urban department stores in using visual appeals to make consumption exciting, fun and pleasurable. Yet supermarket leaders also invited customers to enjoy the range of sensory pleasures associated with food, a sharp break from the service-oriented nature of traditional grocery sales and the "scientific" retailing of the chain stores of the World War I era. (12) The supermarket approach represented continuities in thinking on the senses, however, because it rested on age-old gender stereotypes that cast the desires of women's noses, skin and tongues (that is, desires of the "lower" or proximate senses) as ones with a strong erotic charge. (13) Leaders in the supermarket business, in other words, deliberately targeted what they saw as women's base physical desires, contending that female consumption derived not from rational calculations, but rather from irrational "impulses" encouraged by sellers who knew how to manipulate the female sensory apparatus.
The key interpretive point about grocers' sensory approach revolves around the suggestion that female consumers might fill the erotic and sexual voids of their lives through supermarket shopping. Influential works on retail culture have consistently emphasized merchant's efforts to attract women consumers by "feminizing" the marketplace, an approach that, as Lizabeth Cohen has demonstrated, applied as much to the postwar suburban shopping center as it did to the turn-of-the-century urban department store. (14) Often implicitly understood as a visual phenomenon (embodied by Cohen, for instance, in color schemes or reassuringly visible security guards), "feminization" has yet to he explored as a complex sensory phenomenon. (15) When considered in sensory terms --that is, with attention to the full range of sensations that retailers hoped to evoke in consumers--"feminization" takes on new, erotic and sexual meanings. The result is a view of supermarket operators as key actors in creating a commercial culture that furthered Americans' sense of security by promoting conservatively demarcated gender roles. As Elaine Tyler May has argued in her influential study of the domestic politics of the Cold War, Americans--scarred by the vicissitudes of the Great Depression, newly married as the nation joined in World War II, and responsible for raising children in a new and dangerous Atomic age--increasingly looked to tame threatening forces, especially unrestrained female sexuality, by "containing" them in marriage and the suburban, family home. (16)" Supermarket operators made an unique contribution to the ethos of "sexual containment" when they suggested that consumption would strengthen the family not only by enhancing it's class profile, easing housework, or promoting leisure-time "togetherness," but also by serving as an outlet for female sexual energy. (17) Grocery retailers, in other words, offered up the sensorial excitements of supermarket shopping to exploit what they saw as a feminine longing for erotic excitement intensified by lives circumscribed by domestic norms. In so doing, they reinforced the notion that middle-class women should look to the excitements of the homemaker role itself--in this case, family shopper--and not to challenges to existing gender arrangements for contentment.
I. The First "Warehouse" Supermarkets
Although grocery retailers admired and eventually borrowed from the merchandising techniques of the urban department stores, the independent merchants who opened the first supermarkets strayed far from the aesthetic example of John Wannamaker and Marshall Field. Opened in the early 1930s in the northeastern United States, the first supermarkets appealed to depression-weary Americans with huge, no-frills stores that featured markedly low prices, including some items sold below cost, termed "loss leaders." (18) Big Bear supermarkets, to take one celebrated example, opened its doors in 1932 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Housed in an old automobile factory, Big Bear offered what an advertising manager admitted were "ridiculous" price discounts, all made possible through bulk purchasing, self-service and low overhead. (19) The strategy counted on a high sales volume to make up for deep price discounts, an approach that proved successful. In its opening weeks, Big Bear attracted thousands of bargain-hungry shoppers (so much so that local police had to be called out to help direct traffic) and considerably outsold established chains. (20) By the mid-1930s, according to one industry official, twelve hundred imitators operated throughout the nation. (21)
Big Bear's owners celebrated the festive atmosphere generated by the large crowds and bargain shopping. Indeed, they often furthered that atmosphere through promotional campaigns that featured lavish giveaways. Big Bear's original unit in New Jersey, for example, awarded twelve automobiles to lucky shoppers following its opening. In the summer of 1937, its store in Hoboken, New Jersey introduced a lottery promotion for customers that included a one thousand …
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Publication information: Article title: "Speaking of Tomatoes": Supermarkets, the Senses, and Sexual Fantasy in Modern America. Contributors: Mack, Adam - Author. Journal title: Journal of Social History. Volume: 43. Issue: 4 Publication date: Summer 2010. Page number: 815+. © 2009 Journal of Social History. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
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