Supermarket Sweep: Changing Interiors of American Grocery Stores

The American general store experienced a series of sweeping changes at the advent of the twentieth century.  Due to increasing customer demand for a wider variety of goods and the pressures of maintaining larger inventories, retailers began to specialize in a particular type of product – groceries, dry goods, tobacco, or hardware – rather than selling everything in a single location. The Williamstown, Massachusetts, grocery store, pictured below, represents this new, more focused, retail design.


Grocery Store, Williamstown, Massachusetts, c. 1900.  Winterthur Library Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Ephemera, Collection 182.

Alterations in the interior appearance of grocer’s layouts were frequently caused by changes bigger than the store itself. Retail business in America was on the rise. Transportation became faster and more reliable. The transcontinental railroad allowed new products to travel long distances over shorter periods of time and in significantly larger quantities than before. Now tomatoes from New Jersey could sit on the shelf next to peas from Indiana. Refrigerated railroad cars meant that butter, cream, and cheese could be shipped greater distances and in safer conditions. Once they arrived at a grocer’s store they could be displayed in newly developed cold cases with glass doors, like the one in the center of the photo. This allowed customers to see the product they were purchasing and speaks to the increased concern over the quality of goods they were buying. Perhaps most importantly, new mechanical inventions provided a means of increasing the diversity of products on the market and lengthening their shelf life.

In 1904, the formation of the Sanitary Can Company lead to an industry wide adoption of the sanitary, double-seamed tin can made from an entirely mechanical process. Mass-production of canned fruits, vegetables, jellies, and meats skyrocketed thanks to the inexpensive, machine made can. The hands-off, hygienic approach carried over into paper packaging for crackers, grains, biscuits, and noodles. Increasing consumer desire to buy smaller quantities of higher quality, individually packaged goods changed the shop interior, as it became necessary for clerks to reconsider the ways they arranged their interior spaces and displayed their multitude of wares.

The traditional layout of the “old country store,” with its central warming stove and scattered bulk barrels began to be replaced with ordered displays of products, lined up on new shelves behind the counter, already measured and wrapped. Shop owners took great care to maintain their store’s inventory and neat appearance. The floor between the counters opened up as a place for commerce, with more room to move around and compare products. This new style of store was bright, inviting, and far more organized. The power of consumption was growing.

The strongest visual change in the interiors of “modern” general store was the increasing number of individually packaged and trademarked goods. The twentieth century American grocery market became saturated with competing products – quickly, there were over sixty kinds of meat available in cans. Not wanting their products to be unidentifiable, companies turned to decorative labels and artwork on their packages; advertising became essential. Customers began to be greeted by brightly colored labels, meant to catch their eye in a busy store and lure them into purchasing goods. W.E. Jewen’s Monster Brand Tomato label, below, is both striking and carefully detailed.


The artfully designed exteriors on cans and boxes had the added advantage of decorating the store. A creative display of products became a central responsibility of the shop clerk who could flaunt both his wares and design knowledge in a highly organized pattern of goods. The repeating pyramids of canned goods in the Williamstown store created a dramatic and eye-catching backdrop for the shopping experience.

Customers could pick a product based on a design they liked or a name brand they trusted. Packaged goods gave the impression that there was little variation in quality from one unit to another and so trademarks and branding became increasingly important. Certain names began to be associated with quality and manufacturers quickly realized that the package was not only a container but also a measure of standards and a selling aid. Labels needed to be descriptive but also beautifully rendered, attention grabbing but reassuring to customers that they were getting the best for their money. These bright, colorful can labels were a new advertising frontier for the American supermarket and would eventually develop into the recognizable forms we see today.


By Rachel Asbury, WPAMC Class of 2018


This post is part of a series written in the fall of 2016 for a Historic Interiors class at Winterthur.  Students explored photographs housed in the miscellaneous photograph collection (Collection 182) in the Winterthur Library’s Joseph Downs Collection. These scenes each reveal a treasure trove of objects that invite further examination, speculation, and connections to other Winterthur collections.


Further Reading:

Carson, Gerald. The Old Country Store. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954.

Clark, Hyla M. The Tin Can Book: The Can as Collectible Art, Advertising, and High Art. New York: New American Library, Inc., 1977.

Freeman, Larry. The Country Store. Watkins Glen, NY: Century House, 1955.

Johnson, Lawrence A. Over the Counter and On the Shelf: Country Storekeeping in America, 1620-1920. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1961.

Kee, Ed. Saving Our Harvest: the Story of the Mid-Atlantic Region’s Canning and Freezing Industry. Baltimore, MD: CTI Publications, 2006.

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