October 1993

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Old-Time Retail

Food Stores


John Rezelman

Index of articles by John Rezelman

There must have been a lot of fascinating lore connected with the old-time grocery store—all the way from dealing with traveling salesmen promoting a new product to handling the farmers seeking to trade their never-uniform eggs and potatoes for merchandise and to buying the right amounts of everything so as to supply the customers yet not get stuck with stale inventory. There must have been, but I neither knew nor know anything of all that. All I know is the recollections of a small-boy customer or would-be customer. Those, as I review them, turn out to be quite vivid.

My first memories of the grocery stores of the 1920s were as a pre-schooler accompanying my mother, on those occasions when I didn't go with my father to the feed mill and hardware store. I had little interest then in what went on over the waist-high (to adults) counter where my mother and the grocer transacted business. Besides, I couldn't see that high anyway. I headed for the ranks of bin-like cardboard boxes with metal-bound glass doors at my eye level, containing Biscuit Company products. Now there were sights! Fuzzy coconut-covered pink things, chocolate covered slabs, cookies iced with strips of brown and white, varicolored creme-filled sandwiches, cookies bristling with raisins and peanuts, and more and still more. Each box proclaimed "Uneeda Biscuit." I was not in school yet and could not read much—but I could get that message, with which I definitely agreed. I did, indeed, need a biscuit, I thought, preferably several samples of each kind. I don't recall I ever got any.

My mother was very dedicated to getting the most satisfaction for her money. She could, and did, bake better cookies at home and she judged that five cents expended at Woolworth's for a pink, white and brown ice cream sandwich would yield more satisfaction to her son. She was right. Other than a little ice in an "icebox" in summer we had no refrigeration, so the requisite coldness of this confection left nothing with which to compare.

Later recollections came when I was old enough to be sent to the store on errands. It was in farm country where we lived, but at the edge of a village within walking distance of stores. In those days you got only "groceries" at a grocery store. Meat came from a butcher shop with glass display cases, refrigerated, and with sawdust on the floor. It was tended by men with stiff-brimmed straw hats, straw sleeve cuffs and bloody aprons. They wielded great cleavers, saws and knives that they frequently sharpened with a steel rod. They went in and out of doors in the rear where one might occasionally, through frosty vapors, catch a glimpse of animal cadavers hanging. They did not deal only in the products of big packing houses, but also bought local animals from farmers and slaughtered and processed them in mysterious regions farther back in the store. My mother discussed her meat needs and wishes with them. They went here and there, whacked and sliced and sawed, and produced what she wanted, often handed over in boat-like little wood-veneer troughs or trays. A bone or two for the dog could be had for the asking and usually was. I am not sure soup for the family was not sometimes extracted from these bones before the dog got them.

Ice cream you could get at the drug store, which usually had a "soda fountain." We got milk and eggs from our barn and henhouse; town people often got them from a horse-drawn van-type wagon on a regular route. Fruit and vegetables came, to town people, from a fruit-and-vegetable store. The one in this town was run by an Italian, as many of them were.

Here were all the standard fruits and vegetables in season but this spot being hardly 100 miles from the New York City seaport, there were exotics too—coconut with not only shell, but husks, too, intact, pink as well as yellow bananas, Persian melons, whole pineapples, avocados (alligator pears, so called)—all things not on the menu for most ordinary people. There might also be a few tired offerings like apples, potatoes and turnips in the grocery stores, but to us fruit and vegetables came from our orchard, garden and root cellar. A fish peddler driving a Model T Ford pickup truck with a loud horn covered the roads offering fresh sea food.

I had little to do personally with any of these, so that left only the pure "grocery" store. A 9-year-old boy could not be expected to have the judgment to deal with purveyors of perishables, but standard brands of dry items at a grocery were another matter.

Now I rose above counter level and could see all that the public was supposed to see. My parents were convinced there were some things here not meant for public viewing—such as the allegation made by my father from his experience working in such a store once, that all three grades of store-packaged coffee came from the same identical huge burlap sack, just as it was unloaded from the freight ship at the city docks.

The high-grabbing operation was very much visible, however, and I could get a good view of it. The walls back of the counter were always filled with shelves that reached to the ceiling. On the topmost shelves were light items like boxes of cereal and soap flakes, packs of toilet paper and such. Access to these was by means of what I'll call, for lack of another name, a grabber. This was a device with claws for grasping, mounted on a long pole and operated by a hand lever at the bottom and linkage between.

The store clerk would clamp the claws around a desired box of cornflakes, Hecker's oats or Pettijohn's. Then he'd flip it into a free fall and catch with his free hand as it fell. I suspect the likes of me watched this hoping to catch him in error, but I never did, so had to concede complete admiration for his skill.

If coffee were ordered the whole bean would be ground on the spot in a red-painted iron mill with hand cranks on two large flywheels. Properly cared-for children were not allowed to drink coffee, but if they could snatch a few beans before they disappeared into the mill there was a certain satisfaction in chewing them and wondering why grown-ups liked the stuff.

There were paper bags at hand on the counter, but they were of the smaller sizes and used to hold rice, dry beans and such, weighed out in customer-sized lots from bulk bags, boxes and barrels. They also were used for computations and served in place of today's cash-register tapes. When the total of purchases lay assembled on the counter the clerk would whip a pencil from behind his ear and, glancing from item to item, would write a column of figures on the bag. He then added these with lightning speed, announced the total and replaced the pencil behind his ear with a flourish.

To one who could still on occasion falter in the multiplication tables and who felt some dread and foreboding over long division upcoming in school, he seemed a mathematical marvel. In fact, compared with store clerks today who stand helpless before the simplest arithmetic problem unless they can punch buttons on a mechanical device, he still does. Further, the holding of a pencil behind the ear was an accomplishment I could not master. It was a manly thing to do; I saw carpenters do it regularly. I felt frustrated, not realizing that not everybody's ears were designed for this.

You could take the paper bag home. My mother had the continuing request that it be sent home with me. There, she made some display of checking it for accuracy. I don't recall her ever finding any errors.

With the purchases totaled and paid for, what next? Certainly not thrusting them into large paper or plastic bags. No, wrapping them, that's what.

This wrapping, I thought, represented the peak of the grocery clerk's skill. I'd hate to have to do it even now. From a roll of heavy brown paper fixed on the counter he tore off what his experience told him was the right amount for the particular bundles. He spread it on the counter and skillfully arranged the items on it-packages, glass jars of peanut butter and of molasses, loaves of bread, everything. There may occasionally have been some separation of goods into separate packages, but mostly all went into one. All arranged, he folded and tucked and then, seizing the end of a ball of string hanging overhead, he wound it strategically around the bundle with motions too fast to follow, cut it, tied it and there was your package.

If it was a heavy package that might be some problem to carry he might reach for a wooden handle. This was a stick of wood, often imprinted with the store's name, through which ran a wire hooked at both ends. He would twist the wire hooks into the string. Then you had a suitcase-type handle to grasp.

Just why things were packed this way I do not know. Surely producing paper bags large and strong enough was not beyond the technological capacity of times that could turn out in volume Model T Fords, Atwater Kent radios and Victrolas. Perhaps it was nothing more than tradition. In any case, I can testify it worked, for I have trudged home with many such parcels. A heavy shower could be a disaster; one learned to pay some heed to the weather before setting out for the store, perhaps preparing by taking a basket or cloth sack. Once home, any paper not grease-stained was carefully smoothed, folded and added to the family supply for re-use. The string was wound around one's fingers in coils and likewise saved. This was hard-twisted cord of some dark gray material. It had little durability out in the weather, but kept dry, it was very strong for its thickness.

I don't think I would trade today's supermarkets for a return to such stores, if I could. I can think of only one really significant advantage the old-time store had. It was much easier then to stay within a budget, to return from the store with only those items you set out to get. You had to ask for everything one by one; you were not continually confronted on trips through the aisles with displays designed with fiendish cleverness to induce you to buy something you hadn't intended to buy. That happens to me often today.

Surely the grocery store of seventy years ago could be described and analyzed from several different standpoints—economics, health and hygiene, nutrition, sociology—but the foregoing is what I can contribute to its historic lore.

© 1993, John Rezelman
Index to articles by John Rezelman
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