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For much of the nineteenth century, people living in towns and cities bought fresh vegetables and fruits, meats, and dairy products from centrally located public markets, and staples and specialty items from general stores situated nearby. As the population in an urban area increased and people demanded more variety, shopkeepers could specialize in the grocery trade. When a city expanded outward, grocery stores sprang up in its neighborhoods or suburbs to accommodate residents located far from the public market.
At first, grocers, like general storekeepers before them, sold most items in bulk, weighing out generic goods, such as sugar, grains, and coffee beans, from sacks and barrels at each customer’s request.
Once manufacturers could employ new mass-production technologies in their factories and could use railroads to transport raw materials and finished products, they began to process food on a large scale and distribute it throughout the country. Processed food was often sold in small, prepackaged units, such as cans or boxes, which contained the company’s name and a trademarked image.
The grocery store now began to take on a new look. Rather than large, nondescript containers placed on the floor, neat rows of colorful boxes and cans lined the shelves behind the counter. When packages of the same brand were arranged together, they created attention-grabbing advertisements for their makers. Shopping increasingly became a matter of choosing between these national brands on the basis of their packaging. Now that much food could no longer be seen, touched, or smelled before purchase, customers had to trust manufacturers’ guarantees of the quality of their products.