“I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you actually left them.”
–Andy, The Office
Our new normal isn’t feeling so new anymore, huh?
And while everyone expected “clarity” to be the 2020 word of the year? “Essential” quickly took over. Especially in labeling stores and restaurants.
Which raises more questions for Grandma and Grandpa.
In past posts, we’ve already asked
- when they got their first vacuum cleaner, toaster, air conditioner, heater, washer…
- what they saw first at the movies, on television—and who was listening in on the phone…
But our current retail cravings make me wonder what grandparents lived with—or without—for stores in their younger years.
Try these facts to get the conversation going.
Where They Ate—The Birth of American Fast Food
It’s hard to imagine a world without McDonald’s off every exit.
But unless Grandma is younger than 75, it’s likely she never heard of one till she was in her teens. Almost twenties if she’s 80.
- Before 1948, the “McDonald’s Bar-B-Q” operated as a sit-down or car hop (pull up in your car and they come out to serve you).
- In Dec 1948, the owners reinvented the place as one of the first self-serve (order and pick it up yourself) “fast foods.”
- But between 1948 and 1955, only six McDonald’s franchises existed in the whole US, and mostly on the west coast.
- It wasn’t till 1956 that they started expanding, basically doubling or tripling each year.
So, if not McDonalds, where might your grandparents have eaten a meal out during the 1920s, 30s, or 40s?
- Throughout the roaring 20s, drive-ins became popular as cars became popular.
- A&W Restaurant, started in 1919 as a root beer stand, franchised as a restaurant in 1925 and had 450 locations by 1950.
- White Castle (home of the slider) opened in 1921. (Meaning it will be 100 years old this year in Sept.) By 1930, you could buy a sack of their burgers in twelve major cities in the Midwest, plus New York and New Jersey.
- KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) started up in the 30s but didn’t franchise until 1952.
- And Howard Johnsons was the largest US restaurant chain in the 30s, 40s and 50s.
- Plus there were the scrumptious railroad dining cars.
Post-WWI, tea rooms, luncheonettes, and cafeterias popped up everywhere with “homestyle” American fare.
But when the depression hit hard, “Penny Restaurants” became the rage.
Everything cost, you guessed it, a penny—offering struggling customers the chance to keep their dignity. Meaning they didn’t have to beg or stand in crazy-long soup lines.
Sometimes those restaurants had several levels. The higher floors served the upscale which helped pay for the middle floors serving middle class sit-down meals, which in turn supported the ground level serving the penny menu.
When times and money improved, and especially when women went to work during WWII, sandwich shops and later family diners became the place to eat. Sunday afternoon after church saw the restaurants packed.
All that said, before Grandma was a grandma, she probably wasn’t singing “McDonalds, McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Pizza Hut”—Because, more often than not until the 1960s and later, families still ate most their meals at home.
Where They Shopped—When the Big-Box Stores Were a Little Bit Smaller
1962 was a big year for “big box.” Kmart hung its first sign in March, Target in May, and Walmart in July.
But while Walmart was a newbie, Grandma probably knew about Target and Kmart for decades—she just called them different names.
- Kmart was originally the S. S. Kresge Store, which from its opening in 1899 to the 19-teens, priced all its products at five or ten cents. (World War I finally inflated everything to fifteen cents.)
- Target? It was created as the discounted version of Dayton Dry Goods Company which opened in 1902.
In fact, in the early 1900s dry goods stores were the “grocery” stores of the age, where families picked up canned goods, non-perishables, flour, sugar, oil, coffee, … They were the old general stores.
Produce came from “greengrocers.”
Meat? They bought from butchers.
Each of the stores were smaller, self-contained. But they tended to be close together in town to make shopping easy.
And for the longest time, milk came directly to your backdoor from the milkman—possibly right from the farm. (30% of homes still had it delivered into the 1960s.)
So when did supermarkets come into play?
Piggy Wiggly was the first, opening in 1916. It was also the first “self-service” store—meaning you pulled what you wanted off the shelves yourself.
Before that? You handed the clerk a list and had him fill it. (Sounds a lot like Instacart, huh?)
Of course, everyone had a Sears Roebuck catalogue, thick enough to use as a toddler booster seat at the kitchen table.
Sears opened in 1893, selling everything from dry goods to clothing to musical instruments, often to families who lived out in the country. The company shipped almost anywhere, often at significantly lower prices than what you’d pay in the local city stores.
(Yep, like Amazon.)
Sears even sold 75,000 prefab homes between 1908 and 1940—with a DIY construction manual. (If Grandma had one of those, you have to tell us about it in the comments. That had to be a fun project!)
And back to Kresge (Kmart) Stores starting as a “five and dime”? They weren’t the first. That honor would be Woolworth.
Basically the Dollar Store of its day, when Woolworth first opened in 1879 (yes, long before Grandma), everything cost five cents.
- A few years later, the company added ten-cent items.
- By 1929, (a good ten years after Kresge upped all its prices), Woolworth offered a line of products for fifteen cents.
- By 1934, struggling under the Depression, they had to abandon keeping an upper limit altogether.
But no matter what Woolworth charged for purchases over the years, chances are Grandma still called it “The Five and Dime.”
Then, in the 30s, another type of store became popular.
Ace Hardware opened just before the stock market crash. With so many out of work, no one had money to buy new.
So “renew” became the motto.
Families flocked to fix, repaint, and refresh –rather than replace. And Ace and other hardware/paint stores were there to help.
Grandma’s local thrift shop was probably an Army/Navy supply store, carrying all sorts of inexpensive novelties—especially after the big wars when the government needed to unload no-longer-needed military equipment.
Clothing, flashlights, radios, tents, even jeeps…
If Grandma liked to hunt or camp, the Army/Navy supply store was the place to find supplies.
But with Starbucks and shopping malls nowhere in sight, where did Grandma and her young friends hang out?
Probably at the local drug store.
There, they could sit by the soda fountain and order carbonated drinks, milkshakes, and ice cream sodas, courtesy of all the wonderful flavors druggists extracted to mask the awful taste of medicine.
What They Bought—All that Pre-Packaged Goodness
Those early milkshakes? They were a combination of carbonated water, sweetened flavored milk, and raw eggs.
But there was also sodas like Dr. Pepper, Orange Crush, and of course Coca Cola. Then, as now, people couldn’t get enough of them.
And the 20s, 30s, and 40s saw a lot more soon-to-be-favorites hit the market.
- Wheaties (1926. [You can catch their first jingle here]
- Rice Krispies (1927)
- Kraft Mac and Cheese, which first came as a packet of powdered cheese rubber banded to a box of noodles. It promised to “feed a family of four in nine minutes” for 19 cents. (A huge help in the Depression)
- Krispy Kreme Donuts
- Ritz Crackers
- Kool-Aid (Invented in the 20s, it went national in the 30s)
- And of course, SPAM (short for spiced ham). This cheap canned meat had a long shelf life, perfect for both Depression budgets and war rations. In fact, because it was easily transported, it became the heavy diet for soldiers. And you never had to tire of eating it because they put out a 20-page recipe book: 50 Ways to Use SPAM.
- Cheerios (1941). Grandma may have first eaten it as “Cheeri-Oats,” but it had to change its name. Someone else had the rights to that one.
- Minute Maid concentrated orange juice (1945)—another soldier favorite, encouraged for its source of vitamins.
- Instant mashed potatoes (1946)
- And Betty Crocker’s cake mix (1947)
What They Couldn’t Buy—War Rations and Beyond
First there was WWI. Then there was WWII.
To provide for the war efforts, each conflict brought tighter waistbands and rationing of basic staples. Sometimes sugar. Sometimes meat. Dairy, coffee, gasoline, even shoes.
But the craziest story was what was illegal to buy: Sliced bread!
Not the bread itself, but the pre-sliced-ness of it.
Yep, from January to March of 1943, the government decided it needed to protect American consumers.
- New baking regulations caused flour prices to escalate.
- Politicians didn’t want bread companies to pass that cost to buyers.
- Bread slicing machines were expensive, so if bakers didn’t use them, the bread “should be” cheaper.
Hence the ban on pre-cut bread from bakeries and homes. Selling it was even punishable by a large fine.
But notice the unpopular ban only lasted two months.
Housewives everywhere were up in arms.
- No one had bread knives anymore, causing a run on hardware stores to find them.
- No one had time to be slicing bread for their families. With WWII in full swing, women worked outside the home now.
- As one wife and mom wrote, it was a waste of time and energy and lowered morale.
Thankfully, the ban was soon lifted.
Clearly there’s a reason sliced bread is the standard for all greatness.
Food as a Bundle
With the mix of new technology, financial swings, and political skirmishes, Grandma probably has lots of stories about what she ate when she was young.
Meatloaf made it to many a table. Plus chicken casseroles. And pigs in a blanket were a hit at any dinner party.
So ask grandma where she shopped, what she bought, and if she ever ate out. Then tell us in the comments.
And while you’re at it, see if she remembers this who-would-have-guessed-it trivia.
- Filet-o-fish (1965) was a hit before the two-all-beef-patties-special-sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickles-onions-on-a-sesame-seed-bun Big Mac (1968).
- And in 1948, McD’s served potato chips and apple pie instead of fries and milkshakes.
Yeah, that only lasted a year.
“Do you want potato chips with that?” is just a mouthful.
Elizabeth Daghfal is a writer, teacher, speaker, and community volunteer. When she isn't teaching or writing-- Who are we kidding? Her husband and five kids say she's ALWAYS teaching and writing. She has a passion to help people who are struggling and is happy to say her shoulders are drip-dry. Born and raised in the South, she now lives in Wisconsin and loves it--except for the fifteen months of winter. Read more about her at elizabethdaghfal.com.