Abstract: Making Change at the Grocery Store: Government, Grocers, and the Problem of Women's Autonomy in the Creation of Chicago's Supermarkets, 1920-1950

Tracey Deutsch


What was it about supermarkets that took them out of the realm of the unimaginable and made modern American life unimaginable without them? Between 1920 and 1950, food retailing in the United States was utterly transformed. Small, neighborhood stores gradually gave way to large supermarkets. This project asks why that transformation happened and what it meant for women's authority and for American politics. To make its argument, the dissertation studies the convergence in retail strategies of three kinds of retail grocery firms—chain stores, independently owned smaller stores, and consumer cooperative societies. As these different types of firms confronted an unsettled economic and political landscape, they experimented with a variety of methods for winning support from shoppers and the state. Eventually, each kind of firm found that large-sized stores selling standardized goods in an orderly atmosphere proved best fit for the emerging political economy. These strategies came to epitomize modern supermarkets, and helped make them nodes in the gender relations and politics of twentieth-century American life. The dissertation argues that changes in laws, gender ideology, and women's authority made vital contributions to supermarkets' success. In so doing, it does not discount the importance of consumer demand but suggests the importance of the institutions in which demand is expressed. Ultimately, this project illuminates the central place of stores in consumer societies and their political economies.