restricted access Making Change at the Grocery Store: Government, Grocers, and the Problem of Women's Autonomy in the Creation of Chicago's Supermarkets, 1920-1950
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Making Change at the Grocery Store:
Government, Grocers, and the Problem of Women’s Autonomy in the Creation of Chicago’s Supermarkets, 1920–1950

In the fall of 1932, in the midst of the worst economic depression of recent times, the National Tea Company poured money into remodeling its Chicago-area grocery stores. Robert Rassmussen, a member of the National Tea Company's board of directors, proudly described gleaming chrome on 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 told the trade press, a "housewife's paradise."1

What Rassmussen did not say, but what his competitors certainly knew, was that his claim had yet to be proven. Shoppers' loyalties were notoriously fickle and especially so in the 1930s. The very middle-class neighborhoods so coveted by retailers were also home to new and increasingly successful cooperative societies. Moreover, even as National Tea attempted to open larger stores, small neighborhood groceries continued to pepper the retailing landscape, far outnumbering [End Page 607] stores operated as parts of chains. Other independent firms had dropped the idea of neighborhood stores entirely and had begun to open enormous stores in abandoned warehouses and factories. These new kinds of grocery stores featured a spectacular array of choices and lured customers with concerts, mass weddings, and celebrity visits. The air of festive chaos in these stores was far different from the streamlined orderliness that National Tea wanted to encourage.

By 1950, however, the National Tea Company's strategies no longer seemed risky. Regardless of firm organization, (chain, independent, or co-op), most grocers had come to pursue very similar strategies—enlarging their stores, embellishing the décor, and encouraging customers to serve themselves. The growing similarity among Chicago grocers was a pattern repeated all over the country. Small "mom-and-pop" stores that had offered individual attention, cooperatives that had offered a chance to control store policy, and independently owned supermarkets that had seemed to outdo chain grocers' promises of low prices and a wide array of choices, all lost their distinctive look and policies. The strategies firms employed and the stores they operated achieved remarkable convergence in the post-World War II era.

That convergence had profound implications for consumer society, consumer capitalism, and the consumption-oriented political economy that emerged in the United States. The success of upscale, centrally managed supermarkets transformed the ways that people shopped, the ways that grocers did business, the ways that policymakers governed, and the places in which women claimed and exercised power. The story of supermarkets in Chicago opens a window onto the changes that would come to mass retailing and that put it at the center of twentieth-century American life.

This dissertation investigates the history of mass retailing by analyzing the rise of the modern supermarket. In particular, I ask why the National Tea Company's version of a "housewife's paradise" emerged as the definitive kind of grocery store out of the many possibilities that existed in the 1930s and 1940s. To answer this question, the dissertation tracks changes in grocers' strategies from the rise of mass retailing in the 1920s, through the diversity and unsettledness of 1930s retailing, to the stabilization and standardization of grocers' strategies that accompanied the rise of the modern supermarket in the 1940s and 1950s. It attends not only to those strategies that retailers followed, but also to those alternatives that they discarded. In doing so, it also tracks the changing political and social contexts that shaped their choices.

Retailer strategies alone, however, cannot fully explain the emergence of the particular kind of store that we have called the supermarket. [End Page 608] The supermarket—an important purveyor of mass retailing and a crucial source of daily necessities—became an institution in the broader political economy, part of the laws and politics that sustained mass retailing. Both government policy and women customers shaped its development. A series of government policies (such assales taxes and wartime price controls) gave important advantages to large, centrally managed stores. Simultaneously, a different sort of politics was also at play. The widely held...