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Pop History: ‘Pile it High, Sell it Low’: The Saga of the Supermarket by Flashbak

In the US, there is a gigantic supermarket seemingly everywhere you look. A Wal-Mart Super-Center on one corner, a Costco on the other… but it wasn’t always this way. The transition from small town grocer or big-city corner market to the massive mega-stores of today took decades, and the ramifications changed our world more than you might think.


At the start of the twentieth century, grocery shopping meant walking up to the counter and telling the store clerk what you wanted. It also meant going to several different establishments to get what you needed: the butcher, the general store, the baker, etc.

The “self-service” grocery store, where you could pull items off the shelf yourself, and had a bakery, butcher shop, and general store all in one place, didn’t come along until around 1915. Vincent Astor sunk a lot of money into his vision of the new food market on Broadway, but it was an abysmal failure. In 1916, Clarence Saunders brought Piggly Wiggly to the waiting world. It was a big success, and more franchises soon followed. But these were still just grocery stores – not “supermarkets”.

If you define a supermarket as containing “self-service, separate product departments, discount pricing, marketing and volume selling”, then it’s generally agreed that the first was King Kullen. It was started by a former Kroger employee, and opened in Jamaica Queens on August 4th, 1930. Their slogan was “”Pile it high. Sell it low.”

Kroger, Ralph’s and Safeway were quick to follow King Kullen’s lead; with Kroger being the first to surround its store with a big parking lot. The Great Depression actually helped spur supermarket growth since the prices could be reduced. There was a natural public backlash since “mom and pop” grocery stores were being run out business, but the spread of supermarkets continued unabated.

The wave of new supermarkets, each bigger than the last, is the object of jest in this Woody Woodpecker cartoon.


And so, here we are in Mid-Century. The war is over and the US economy is skyrocketing through the stratosphere. The supermarket was perfectly at home in booming Cold War America…..

RTWT AT ‘Pile it High, Sell it Low’: The Saga of the Supermarket – Flashbak

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Richard October 10, 2018, 9:44 AM

    Man, does the pic of that old Jewel take me back.

  • pbird October 10, 2018, 9:56 AM

    Just thought I’d put this here: I do love Wallace Stevens work.

  • ghostsniper October 10, 2018, 11:08 AM

    Well, well, well. Lemme tell you about the Helmsburg General Store, about a mile down the road from here. It’s about this big ||. See it? If you go down the road from the opposite direction you might not see it cause it don’t look like nothin. But if you’re going to say, Lake Lemon, it looks like this: https://jameshaverstock.smugmug.com/Sanders-General-Store/i-x9gwns2

    They have bait in there!
    And every kind of brew you can think of, plus 2 more.
    I only bought brew in there once, my wallet still hasn’t recovered. I think it was about $15 for a 12pak of Bud 16oz cans. shwew Never again.

    They have other stuff too. Standard grocery store items, milk, bread, sketty in the can, purple soda waters, I even seen an old sewing machine in there one time, you know, the kind you work with your feets. I think they have lottery tickets in there too, but don’t quote me.

    But the thing that keeps me coming back, but not often, is their made on the spot Hunt’s Brothers Pizza’s. Sometimes on Saturday evenings I’ll call them up and order one and in 13 minutes it ready, about the length of time it takes for me to get my wallet, keys, knife, flashlight, and pistol installed and get over there. Like I said, about a mile from here but as the crow flies. The way the Blazer flies it’s a little longer, maybe 1-1/2 to 2 miles. If the roads are iced it’ll seem like 4 miles.

    Anyway, the pizza is pretty decent, as pizza goes, nothing fancy, just the right size for the 2 of us. Regular crust, with everything on it, no hot peppers please. I always tell them to just cut it into 4 pieces rather than 8 cause we just aren’t hungry enough for 8 and the lady that runs the joint is always happy to oblige. Over the past few years pizza has been losing it’s pizzazz with us. Maybe we ate too much over the past lifetime together, or maybe the quality of pizza is dropping, dunno, but we just don’t eat it as often now as we used to. Maybe once a month, or maybe 2 months. The Hunt’s 12 incher will run you about $11.

    On Saturday evening we watch a movie on the big screen. A treat for us cause we rarely watch TV. If we do watch a movie it’ll be either an old western or a noir from the 40’s. You know, Hump, or Ladd, or Powell…. Or if there are no decent movies available we’ll watch an Alfred Hitchcock Hour show or an hour long episode of Gunsmoke. We’re up to season 13 now, from 1968. Full screen, and in COLOR! woo hoo

    If you’re in the neighborhood stop in at the Helmsburg store and say “Howdy” and you’ll get a friendly “Howdy” right back, that’s the way they are. Keep your eye out for Pool’s Sawmill, about half a block to the east and on the otherside of the road, county road 45 BTW, and be careful when you cross the railroad track cause that lonely ol’ train heading to Btown is going about 15mph! Keep going east toward 135 and when you get to the first curve just keep on going, don’t turn down my road, cause we don’t want you around here, unless you’re bringing one of them Hunt Brothers, ‘za’s. If so, come on in and sit down and we’ll watch some Alfred. Or step out back and shoot shotguns. I might even drag a gallon jug out of the crawl. You won’t wanna leave…..

  • Blake October 10, 2018, 11:50 AM

    At the start of the twentieth century, grocery shopping meant walking up to the counter and telling the store clerk what you wanted, and now we have come full circle, order the groceries online, pull up and they bring them out to your car.

  • Rick October 10, 2018, 11:58 AM

    In the UK it’s still pretty much that way. Yes, there are Tescos and Aldis but in many in most towns, you have to go to 3 or 4 places to buy your food. There are very few “convenience” stores and even the big stores like Aldis carry very little compared to the average American store. I’m always amazed by what they don’t have.

  • JiminAlaska October 11, 2018, 8:37 AM

    Hum. Supermarkets. Surprised the A&P (I remember when anyone said the full name, it was all in caps: The Great Atlantic And Pacific Tea Company.) wasn’t mentioned.

  • Anonymous October 11, 2018, 10:34 AM

    I have a client in Edinburgh. If I go there again soon, maybe we could meet somewhere for a cup of coffee.

  • Snakepit Kansas October 11, 2018, 7:39 PM

    Snake here. Not sure why that last post came up as Anonymous. Coffee on me is open any time you have have a moment when I am in your AO.

  • ghostsniper October 12, 2018, 5:01 AM

    Sure thing Snake, let me know and we’ll make it happen.
    There’s a Cracker Barrel just south of there on 31, lots of other places close by.
    Was just over that way yesterday.