Grocery Stores, Yesterday and Today


What a difference a few years makes! (Well, more like fifty, but what’s a half a century between friends?)

Just after World War II, we moved to a little town in upstate New York from Ohio. I remember going with my parents to the Atlantic & Pacific (A&P) store in the business section in our new town. In those days, this was situated in a row of brick buildings which backed against the Finger Lake for which the place was named.  On Saturday, the store was crowded with people, who stood in a series of lines up to a counter. Behind the counter was a two story wall—at least, that’s how tall it seemed to me, filled with canned goods and boxes. There were a pair of ladders which could be moved back and forth against the wall, section to section, which were climbed by teenage helpers. When it was your turn at the counter, you presented a list to the shopkeeper, who, in turn, got a cardboard box from beneath the counter. He called the items to the boys, who fetched them, climbing up and down the ladders like monkeys, tossing cans of peas, corn, spinach, soup and beans into the shopkeeper’s hands. There were also a section devoted to boxed products, the few baking mixes that were available and a selection of cereals, ones like Quaker Oats, Post Toasties, Shredded Wheat and Wheaties.  (We ate Quaker Oats or Wheatena in the winter and switched to Wheaties in the brief upstate summers. Later, I remember the corrupting delight of summer bowls of Sugar Pops or Frosted Flakes.)

Along the back of the store there was a small refrigerated wall unit, but it didn’t hold much except iceberg lettuce and some milk, butter and margarine.  We went next door to the butcher shop for meat, and waited while a hunk of chuck was ground to burger. We didn’t “stock up” because the freezer compartment of our refrigerator—itself a modern miracle—wasn’t very large and often was frosted over. Mom wasn’t a devoted housekeeper, and she went shopping every couple of days, as needed, for perishable items like meat. (The only times we ate fish was if someone opened a sardine can, or if a someone caught a fish, or, once a year, when Mom went the through the ceremonial two day process of cooking a batch of salt cod. The milkman brought us glass bottles to our door in his truck. The milk, I remember, sometimes froze and popped the paper lids.  I also remember the revelation that came from eating fresh peaches, all juice and fuzz They were so very different from the taste of canned, which was almost everything we ate.

Last week, in the vegetable section of the supermarket, I noticed pre-chopped tubs of “mirepoix.”  I won’t even begin to ruminate on the culinary developments which have led American consumers to ask for that! To say the least, the “grocery store” has undergone some drastic changes during my life time.

~~Juliet Waldron

Hand-me-Down Bride

Roan Rose

Historicals With a Time Travel Feel @ Amazon and Secondwind Publishing


Filed under writing

10 responses to “Grocery Stores, Yesterday and Today

  1. Takes me back! I had a similar childhood experience. Fresh food came off the local farms and everything else was canned, usually by you! Bushels of apples and potatoes in bins in the basement.

    • Well, my Mom (think Auntie Mame) was not a lady who would have been caught dead canning anything, although her parents certainly did. We had beautiful jewel-like bottles from Grandpa/ma, who always did tomatoes, pears, peaches and beans, and made jams, all from their own backyard.

  2. When I go into a supermarket and see the unnecessary variety of flavors and brands which are, in most respects exactly alike except for the packaging, I remember the small groceries that went out of business because they couldn’t compete. For one thing, the small stores didn’t have the room to stock all that stuff. Does it make us feel rich and important to walk down these aisles and see the products? Maybe we think we’re in a relationship with them and the corporations are doing this for our benefit… Aren’t we lucky?

    • Mickey: Have this feeling all the time. We still shop at a local store, a small (these days) 6 store chain, called Karns, instead of the Mega marts which surround us. A lot of older people go there too, as they have a full service butcher (not your “cup of tea,” I know, but something of a relic) and a shorter distance between front door and check out and fewer aisle/products to become confused by. They also carry more local fruits and vegs in season, than the big chains.

  3. A different world, to be sure, Juliet. A world in which customer service was tangible. That’s why I enjoy reading novels from fifty, a hundred or more years ago: they allow me to connect with the mind of someone long deceased, and live in a world that no longer exists.

    • Quite quickly a modern “supermarket” appeared on the outskirts of our town–a couple of years–but it was long enough enough that I remember very well, the narrow, dark grocery store and the lines of customers facing the clerks scrambling up & down the ladders. Definitely a different way of life for customers and proprietors.

    • This whole thought was started by the pre-cut mirepoix in the fresh veg. section. Frankly, I was gob-smacked by seeing it there. Times have changed indeed.

  4. Thanks for bringing back some wonderful memories. Walmart just doesn’t compare to the Mom and Pop general stores.

    • Thanks ofr commenting, Jill! We’ve still been able, in our part of PA, to avoid crossing the threshold of Walmart for anything. There are still some local businessmen for hardware, groceries etc., which is kind of nice.

  5. The grocery shopping experience has changed just from the time when i was a child. I like reading about other times in history down to the last detail. There are so many different places to shop. In the spring, which begins for me in March, we begin going to the outdoor fresh market for fruit, vegetables and sometimes cheese. We also go to the grocery store that carries a lot of Hispanic foods because it sales the fresh ingredients and fruits during our short winter. You also get Cuban baked bread.

    I did not realize that people would carry a list and others had to bring the canned goods back to the counter. That is an interesting fact.

    Thank you for taking the time to share your story!

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