Tag Archives: vintage stuff

The Story of the Shopping Cart

Flashback Friday.

Behold, the taken-for-granted, unexceptional shopping cart:

Until last week I had never truly thought about shopping carts. I mean, I occasionally notice one stranded in an unexpected place, and as a kid I loved the occasional chance I had to push one a bit and then jump on and race down an aisle. But last week I started reading Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell, and it turns out that the story of the shopping cart is fascinating!

So, way back in the day, stores weren’t like they were today. You went in and there was a long counter and you had the clerk show you the wares. If you’ve read some Jane Austen or Laura Ingalls Wilder, you’ve undoubtedly come across a scene where a clerk is showing someone bolts of cloth. That’s how things worked: almost everything was behind the counter; you told the clerk what you were interested in and they showed you your options. You haggled over the price, decided on a nice gingham, the clerk wrapped it for you, and off you went. Most retail outlets worked more or less along these lines (think of a butcher, for instance).

But if you were a shop owner interested in keeping prices down, this situation might be less than ideal. It required a lot of clerks, and experienced clerks who knew all the goods and could be trusted to set an acceptably profitable price for them, too.

Eventually retailers, including F.W. Woolworth, tried putting more products out on display in the store so customers could help themselves. Some customers liked the ability to pick items off the shelves directly, but more importantly, you didn’t need as many clerks, and certainly not such highly-paid ones, if their job was mostly reduced to ringing up the purchases at the register.

Of course, this presents a new problem: how are customers going to carry all their purchases around the store while they make their selections? Well, a basket they could carry over an arm would work. But these baskets had a downside: they didn’t hold much and they quickly got heavy.

As Shell notes, in 1937 a man from my home state of Oklahoma, Sylvan Goldman, came up with a solution. He owned the Humpty-Dumpty grocery store chain (I still remember Humpty-Dumpty!). He and a mechanic he hired came up with a cart on which two shopping baskets could be suspended. And thus the shopping cart — or, as Goldman named it, the “folding basket carrier” — was born. As Goldman suspected, people bought more when they didn’t have to carry a heavy basket on their arm. The folding basket carrier was advertised as a solution to the burden of shopping:

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The only problem was…people didn’t like the new contraptions. From a 1977 interview (via):

I went into our largest store, there wasn’t a soul using a basket carrier, and we had an attractive girl by the entrance that had a basket carrier and two baskets in it, one on the top and one on the bottom, and asked them to please take this cart to do your shopping with. And the housewive’s, most of them decided, “No more carts for me. I have been pushing enough baby carriages. I don’t want to push anymore.” And the men would say, “You mean with my big strong arms I can’t carry a darn little basket like that?” And he wouldn’t touch it. It was a complete flop.

Goldman eventually had to hire attractive models to walk around the store pushing the carts to make shopping carts seem like an acceptable or even fashionable item to use.

Over time the basic design was changed to have a single basket, with a flat shelf on the bottom for large items. The baskets could also then “nest” inside each other (instead of being folded up individually), reducing the amount of space they required for storage.

The Baby Boom ushered in the final major design change, a seat for kids:

Notice in the illustration above how small the cart is compared to what we’re used to today. I remember as a kid going to the local grocery store, and the carts were quite small; eventually a big warehouse-type grocery store came to the nearest city and their baskets seemed gigantic in comparison. Because obviously, if people will buy more if they have a cart instead of a full arm-carried basket, they’ll buy even more if they have a bigger cart — not just because there’s more room, but because it seems like less stuff if it’s in a bigger cart. Restaurants discovered the same principle — people will want bigger portions if you give them bigger plates because it visually looks like less food and so they don’t feel like they’re over-eating.

Without enormous carts, Big Box discounters and wholesale club stores couldn’t exist. You can’t carry a box of 50 packages of Ramen noodles, 36 rolls of toilet paper, a box of 3 gallons of milk, enough soup for the entire winter, and a DVD player you just found on sale around without a huge cart.

So there you have it: labor de-skilling + marketing – stigma of feminine association + Baby Boom + profits based on increased purchasing of ever-cheaper stuff = the modern shopping cart!

I love it when I learn totally new stuff.

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Just for Fun: The Social Construction of Chest Hair

Back in the heyday of Burt Reynolds, having a hairy chest was oh-so-sexy. What a departure from the hairless chests of today’s masculine icons. At least it makes some sense to associate chest hair with masculinity, since men on average have more of it than women. It just goes to show that everything’s a social construction. But you knew that. ;)

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Found at Cult of the Weird.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

That Weird Thing About Lipstick

Flashback Friday.

I have always found it bizarre that lipstick is supposed to make a woman’s lips more irresistible, yet kissing a woman with lipstick gets sticky red or pink smudge all over both faces. So women dress up and look all gorgeous and then their dates can’t kiss them. Or, it’s the end of the night and a woman wants her date to kiss her, does she put on lipstick or go for the chapstick?  Gah, being a woman is hard. And I supposed it can’t be that easy being the person who wants to kiss her in that situation either.

It’s odd to me that this kiss-ability paradox is never addressed in lipstick advertising.  So I was intrigued to see it in this vintage ad:

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Text:

Now water cannot mar your lipstick… it’s protected by a coat of clear Lip-Stae.  Just brush on its liquid lustre… lips stay brillint, alluring for hours.  And clothes, cigarettes, glasses and the man in your life can’t carry lipstick’s tell-tale marks!  Safe, economical, and easy to use. At cosmetic counters everywhere. (my emphasis)

There is so much to unpack here, but I think it all revolves around the fact that women are supposed to wear makeup, but pretend that the face that they put on is their real face.  As the copy reads, lipstick leaves “tell-tale marks.”  Those marks reveal a degree of deception regarding her true attractiveness and, in fact, this is exactly how makeup was characterized in the Victorian era.  This is why a woman’s lipstick must remain on her lips (and be left nowhere else) even when swimming or kissing.  Because, in principle, she’s not wearing lipstick at all.

This post originally appeared in 2009.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Cheap Scots and Disappearing Stereotypes

Flashback Friday.

A website called Found in Mom’s Basement posted this vintage toilet paper ad that plays on the stereotype that Scottish people are cheap. From the post:

Although the stereotype of the cheap Scotsman isn’t as widely known in the U.S. today, going back a few decades it was an ethnic stereotype that was used freely, often making the Scots the butt of jokes.

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The post has links to other examples, such as the Studebaker Scotsman, a low-cost, minimal-options car:

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As a commenter to that post pointed out, Safeway’s store brand cigarettes, advertised as being inexpensive, was “Scotch Buy” (found at Cigarettespedia):

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For a more recent example, we have McFrugal, a hardware site (now down):

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A reader, Julia, noted that Scotch tape was named that because:

it originally had adhesive only on the edges of the tape.  [An early user] told a 3M salesman to go back to his “Scotch bosses” (presumably too cheap to put adhesive all over the tape) and make it stickier.

The Scots-are-cheap stereotype is a great example of how ethnic stereotypes can lose their power. Maybe I’m just oblivious, but until a few years ago, I’d never heard of the stereotype that Scots were cheap. Without that context, the associations the ads are attempting to make would be meaningless to me — I would have just thought it was odd that McFrugal had a guy with bagpipes, but not understood that it might have any meaning. When I asked students in my race class about this, only a couple had ever heard this stereotype.

Obviously, though, it used to be a very common, widely-recognized notion. Much like the Irish and other European ethnic groups, as Scots became part of the larger “White” racial category, ethnic distinctiveness and stereotypes have become less prominent.

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

The Manliest Shoes You’ve Ever Seen (1971)

When you hear the phrase Hush Puppies, think of basset hounds, and see these shoes, do you think “rugged, masculine, virile”? Because that’s what the copy says. In fact, this ad argues that wearing these shoes might make a women’s rights advocate call you a male chauvinist pig because they’re that masculine.

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If this isn’t evidence of the fact that masculinity is socially constructed and changes over time, I don’t know what is.

Found at Vintage Ads.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Bathing Suit Fashion and the Project of Gender

I came across this ad for bathing suits from the 1920s and was struck by how similar the men’s and women’s suits were designed.  Hers might have some extra coverage up top and feature a tight skirt over shorts instead of just shorts but, compared to what you see on beaches today, they are essentially the same bathing suit.

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So, why are the designs for men’s and women’s bathing suits so different today? Honestly, either one could be gender-neutral. Male swimmers already wear Speedos; the fact that the man in the ad above is covering his chest is evidence that there is a possible world in which men do so. I can see men in bikinis. Likewise, women go topless on some beaches and in some countries and it can’t be any more ridiculous for them to swim in baggy knee-length shorts than it is for men to do so.

But, that’s not how it is.  Efforts to differentiate men and women through fashion have varied over time.  It can be a response to a collective desire to emphasize or minimize difference, like these unisex pants marketed in the 1960s and 70s.  It can also be, however, a backlash to those same impulses.  When differences between men and women in education, leisure, and work start to disappear – as they are right now – some might cling even tighter to the few arenas in which men and women can be made to seem very different.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Sunday Fun: The Flintstones take a Smoke Break

A blast from the past.  Fred and Barney let their wives do all the work, pull out a pack of Winston’s:

Originally posted in 2008.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Invention of the Playboy

Flashback Friday.

In Hearts of Men, Barbara Ehrenreich talks about the launching of Playboy in 1953 and how it forever changed how we thought about single men.

At that time, a man who stayed single was suspected of homosexuality.  The idea of being an unmarried heterosexual adult of sound mind and body was totally foreign.  Hugh Hefner changed all of that by inventing a whole new kind of man, the playboy.  The playboy stayed single (so as to have lots of ladies), kept his money for himself and his indulgences (booze and ladies), and re-purposed the domestic sphere (enter the snazzy bachelor pad full of booze and ladies).

With this in mind, check out this attempt to attract advertising dollars from a 1969 issue (found at Vintage Ads).  It nicely demonstrates Playboy‘s marketing of a new kind of man, one who lives a free and adventurous life that is unburdened by a boring, dead-end job needed to support a wife and kids.

Text:

What sort of man reads Playboy? He’s an entertaining young guy happily living the good life. And loving every adventurous minute of it. One recipe for his upbeat life style? Fun friends and fine potables. Facts. PLAYBOY is read by one of out every three men under 50 who drink alcoholic beverages. Small wonder beverage advertisers invest more dollars in PLAYBOY issue per issue than they do in any other magazine. Need your spirit lifted? This must be the place.

Today, we commonly come across the idea that men are naturally averse to being tied down, but Hefner’s project reveals that this was an idea that was invented quite recently and promulgated for profit.

This post originally appeared in 2008.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.