Paradise Found?

History professor Tracey Deutsch traces the evolution of the grocery store, and finds that food shopping is still hard work.

Shopping cart in grocery store.

Even with modern conveniences, history professor Tracey Deutsch's research shows that feeding our families is as challenging today as it was 100 years ago.

by Kelly O'Brien

Like lots of kids, especially girls, Tracey Deutsch spent part of her childhood Saturdays grocery shopping with her mother and grandmother. She didn't know it at the time, but those were formative experiences. Learning how to tell if a melon was ripe, or whether to buy a sugary cereal or take a chance on a healthier version that the kids might not eat, "I was being socialized into adulthood," she says.

Memories of those shopping excursions served Deutsch well as she researched her new book, Building a Housewife's Paradise: Gender, Politics, and American Grocery Stores in the Twentieth Century (UNC Press). "Intellectually, I knew I wanted to do a book about women and the economic significance of consumption," says Deutsch, an assistant professor in the Department of History. So she set out to research the emergence of chain stores, and how they began selling their products at such low prices. But as she explored original source material she found a more complicated story.

Working for Food

In the early years of the 20th century, food procurement shifted from the products of one's own garden and farm, supplemented by nearby, often locally produced goods, to a retail/service model where (primarily) women shopped from peddlers, public markets, and stores, and purchased frequently in small quantities. As shoppers, women haggled over price and quantities, sought healthy food, and demanded personal service. They exerted, and were expected to exert, energy and authority in the process of food buying.

What Women Want

The concerns of women shoppers 100 years ago were much the same as they are today: What will my family eat? What am I used to cooking? What will give my family energy? What will keep? What can I afford? With all the demands women juggled to feed their families, it may come as no surprise that grocers routinely referred to their female clientele as, well, demanding.

Deutsch found no shortage of grocers' trade journals describing women customers in this way. And although grocers worried about a variety of factors, Deutsch says, "[they] justified what they did in terms of women's desires. They had changing ideas about what those desires were over time, but they always referenced gender in their language."

As the 20th century progressed, store layouts and display cases, product lines, and even lighting, were adapted to create a "housewife's paradise," according to a board member of the National Tea Company. These changes created a new rhetoric of "women's" desires that obscured women's individual circumstances and efforts. Never mind that women might be mothers or childless, poor or wealthy, working outside or inside the home. "They lumped all kinds of women into one term: women," Deutsch says.

It's Still Not Easy

The basic concerns about feeding ones family remain the same as 100 years ago but the political aspects of food shopping have changed tremendously in the 20th century. Many Americans have easy choices, with some neighborhoods boasting multiple supermarkets, specialty stores focusing only on meat or seafood or baked goods, and local farmers markets. Yet many people complicate their food shopping by embedding multi-layered, political decision-making into it. Attempts to buy sustainable or locally raised food require shopping in multiple locations. Farmers markets are open only certain days of the week. Paying attention to where fish and seafood are sourced requires research outside of the grocery store.

Food shopping is especially difficult for people in poorer neighborhoods who often have a harder time obtaining fresh food now than they did 100 years ago, when Deutsch's story starts. Today's "food deserts" once held countless stores, public markets, and peddlers but are now often bereft of sources of fresh produce or dairy.

And even if you can find a decent source of food in a poor neighborhood, poverty itself—living check to check or on monthly government assistance or the unpredictable and often low wages of service and low-end jobs—creates its own limitations on when or where you can buy. You may end up visiting the food shelf at one point, or even asking friends for food. Poor people are less likely to have the resources (large storage spaces, easy transportation) that allow them to make use of mass retail.

This finding, that grocery shopping has always been and continues to be laborious is one of Deutsch's biggest surprises in researching the book. "People from all walks of life feel that food shopping is an effort, is work, is a challenge," she says. And that, says Deutsch, is at the center of the story of supermarkets.

Lighting, layouts, and displays that encourage consumption cannot alleviate the essential struggle that women—and all people—go through to feed themselves and their families. Supermarkets aren't the "paradises" that have been promised; and yet people often understand consumption and shopping as fun—or at least a break from the sometimes intense power relations of the workplace. Politics—of all kinds—are obscured in mass consumption, but seeing the politics reveals new possibilities for change.

People who care about food and our food system can work to change stores and laws—just as the food system was changed by politics earlier in the century. And the first step, Deutsch argues, is to take seriously the enormous importance of an everyday trip to the grocery store.

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on July 21, 2010 3:30 PM.

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