Building a Housewife's Paradise: Gender, Politics, and American Grocery Stores in the Twentieth Century

Building a Housewife's Paradise: Gender, Politics, and American Grocery Stores in the Twentieth Century

Building a Housewife's Paradise: Gender, Politics, and American Grocery Stores in the Twentieth Century

Building a Housewife's Paradise: Gender, Politics, and American Grocery Stores in the Twentieth Century

Synopsis

Supermarkets are a mundane feature in the landscape, but as Tracey Deutsch reveals, they represent a major transformation in the ways that Americans feed themselves. In her examination of the history of food distribution in the United States, Deutsch demonstrates the important roles that gender, business, class, and the state played in the evolution of American grocery stores.

Deutsch's analysis reframes shopping as labor and embeds consumption in the structures of capitalism. The supermarket, that icon of postwar American life, emerged not from straightforward consumer demand for low prices, Deutsch argues, but through government regulations, women customers' demands, and retailers' concerns with financial success and control of the "shop floor." From small neighborhood stores to huge corporate chains of supermarkets, Deutsch traces the charged story of the origins of contemporary food distribution, treating topics as varied as everyday food purchases, the sales tax, postwar celebrations and critiques of mass consumption, and 1960s and 1970s urban insurrections. Demonstrating connections between women's work and the history of capitalism, Deutsch locates the origins of supermarkets in the politics of twentieth-century consumption.

Excerpt

In the fall of 1932, Chicago was in the throes of the worst economic depression in American history: nearly one of every four employable adults was without a job. Bread lines stretched for blocks on end. City officials warned of the potential for riots. The city’s economy, political culture, and basic social structures seemed poised to change dramatically, and no one knew what directions those changes would take.

While many businesses closed their doors for good in the early years of the depression, the National Tea Company—one of Chicago’s oldest and largest chain grocery firms—took a different tack: it dramatically remodeled 250 of its stores. Robert Rassmussen, a member of the company’s board of directors, described the gleaming new refrigerators, state-of-the-art lighting, and impressive arrays of meats, produce, canned goods, delicatessen items, and staples. The new “super-food stores” were, he said, a “housewife’s paradise.”

When Rassmussen made this assertion, he was reflecting his own hopes—he did not actually know what women shoppers would have called a “paradise.” Indeed, the very design and structure of these new stores made it hard to determine what individual women wanted, let alone to offer them the personal attention or services that might have adapted the store to their needs. Yet over the next few decades, Rassmussen’s claim came to undergird widely accepted ideas about grocery stores, women, and consumer society.

This book asks how and why a certain vision of what women wanted became so important to the National Tea Company, to women’s experiences of food shopping, and to mass retail generally. In so doing, it argues for a more complicated view of the emergence of supermarkets than that offered by Rassmussen. The large, standardized supermarkets that dominated the post– World War II retail landscape depended on an enormous transformation in the ways in which women sought to feed their families. For much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women shoppers had been expected to . . .

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