Building a Housewife's Paradise

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

Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Building a Housewife's Paradise
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0412-1
    Subjects: Sociology, Business

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[xii])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    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:...

  4. 1 Women and the Social Politics of Food Procurement
    (pp. 13-42)

    For much of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, urban Americans bought food from peddlers, public markets, and local grocers, and picked produce from their own gardens. They bartered, negotiated, demanded personal attention, and submitted themselves to the canny gaze of food sellers—when they were not scavenging or stealing. Too important to be done thoughtlessly or according to anyone else’s standards, food shopping in its everyday enactments was a complicated pursuit, which made it difficult to think of women as a unified group or of food selling as a peaceful procedure.

    This chapter argues that...

  5. 2 Small Stores, Big Business: The Rise of Chain Store Groceries, 1914–1933
    (pp. 43-72)

    In the years surrounding World War I, chain grocery stores remade Chicago’s retail landscape. It is difficult to overestimate the rapidity or the scale of this change. Neighborhoods once dominated by small, locally owned and operated stores were transformed into strongholds of national and regional chains. The singsong rhythms of peddlers hawking their wares and the raucous sounds of crowded public markets grew quieter. Names like “A&P,” “National Tea,” and “Piggly Wiggly” now marked the signage and the store windows of neighborhood shopping districts. “Voluntary” chains of independent grocers also sprang up, adopting the standardized aesthetic and foods of “private”...

  6. 3 The Changing Politics of Mass Consumption, 1910–1940
    (pp. 73-104)

    In the 1920s, the emergence of chain store firms, executives’ attempts to standardize stores and limit personal treatment of customers, popular protests against high prices, a new rhetoric of modern, independent women, and attempts by working-class whites and African Americans to capture some of the profits of retail for their own communities led to new questions about the social politics and, therefore, the organizational structure of grocery stores.

    There soon emerged yet another source of uncertainty about the social politics and organizational future of groceries—the new wave of state and federal policies directed at, and often administered by, grocery...

  7. 4 Moments of Rebellion: The Consumer Movement and Consumer Cooperatives, 1930–1950
    (pp. 105-132)

    In the fall of 1944, a columnist writing in a cooperative newsletter described the attractions that consumer cooperatives held for women consumers:

    I think most women have moments of rebellion against household tameness when they’d like to go out and weld bombers or paint houses or manage stores or dosomethingmore spectacularly of service for (and with) their fellow human beings. . . . And, then along comes the co-operative movement with its message that a new world can be made by consumers. . . . It raises shopping into an adventure when you know that with your dollars...

  8. 5 Grocery Stores Trade Up: The Politics of Supermarkets and the Making of a Mass Market, 1930–1945
    (pp. 133-154)

    The landscape of food retailing in the 1930s was, to put it mildly, unsettled. Chain stores continued to work toward dominance but struggled to fully standardize their policies; by the mid-1930s, they were losing market share. Firms and proprietorships operating only one or two stores continued to call on neighborhood loyalty and their promise of service to woo customers, even as they worked through voluntary chains to reap some of the rewards of mass retail. Finally, as the last chapter documented, consumer cooperatives offered yet another way of selling food, one that seemed especially appealing to the tantalizing demographic of...

  9. 6 Winning the Home Front: Gender and Grocery Stores during World War II
    (pp. 155-182)

    Through much of World War II, mass retailers worried that new government directives would upset efforts to bring order to their stores and to food distribution. Indeed, wartime rationing and price control policy not only imposed new constraints on what and how firms could sell; they also gave consumers new authority to police retail spaces. Over the course of the war, however, federal policymakers moved away from democratic methods of regulation that would have delegated authority to shoppers and instead (and in ways that mirrored the government’s growing cooperation with large manufacturers) formed alliances with large, centrally managed supermarkets and...

  10. 7 Babes in Consumerland: Supermarkets, Hardware Stores, and the Politics of Postwar Mass Retail
    (pp. 183-218)

    In the 1950s and 1960s, accounts of women’s grocery shopping differed remarkably from the gritty descriptions of earlier decades. Trips to the supermarket were described as exciting adventures. A 1962 piece reminded women that “one of the biggest revolutions going is in the neighborhood grocery. Its shelves are bursting with excitement. You’ll discover delicacies once reserved for kings’ feasts.”¹ Another unabashedly asserted, “Nowhere else in the world is such an abundance of food so lavishly displayed and so reasonably priced.”² Women, it seemed, had finally found the perfect store.

    This chapter concludes the story of the emergence of supermarkets by...

  11. Conclusion: The Point of Purchase
    (pp. 219-230)

    The 1976 sleeper hitThe Stepford Wivesvividly evokes the cultural and social importance of supermarkets in the last decades of the twentieth century. In the film’s haunting final scene, smiling women in long, flowing summer dresses calmly roll shopping carts through an immaculate, well-stocked supermarket. The scene is a fitting finale for the film’s disturbing plot, which slowly reveals that the Stepford Men’s Club has been systematically kidnapping the wives of its members and replacing them with robots who act as self-sacrificing and devoted homemakers, robots identical to the original women in all respects but for their vacant eyes....

  12. Notes
    (pp. 231-300)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 301-322)
  14. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 323-326)
  15. Index
    (pp. 327-337)