Beyond Piggly Wiggly

Shopping for Thanksgiving? This week's review provides an in-depth look at the impact and interior design of self-service grocery stores in the 1920s and 30s.

Beyond Piggly Wiggly: Inventing the American Self-Service Store

Tolbert, Lisa C. Georgia, 2023
364p bibl index, 9780820364421 $114.95, 9780820364414 $34.95, 9780820364438

Beyond Piggly Wiggly: Inventing the American Self-Service Store book cover.

Tolbert (Univ. of North Carolina, Greensboro) offers a carefully researched study of the spatial evolution of grocery stores over the 1920s to the 1930s. Focusing on the little-studied self-service grocery store, she finds that self-service was originally a specialized organization of space deemed appropriate for certain types of goods in particular locations. During the interwar era, experimentation with self-service gradually established this form of grocery retailing as the industry standard, evident in post–WW II supermarkets. Tolbert’s exemplary, detailed analysis of almost 100 self-service grocery store patents will especially interest historians of material culture and technology. Architectural historians have analyzed Main Street store fronts and the exterior design of particular chain stores, but Tolbert concentrates on interior space. Inventors described their organization of space and customer pathways as an “apparatus” or a “machine” intended to shape customer behavior. Tolbert’s revelation that self-service stores “in the West or South were far more likely to be owned by independent” grocers than chains and were most typically located in small towns calls into question assumptions about rural regions and their role within the modern versus anti-modern debate.

Summing Up: Highly recommended. Advanced undergraduates through faculty; professionals.
: A. E. Krulikowski, West Chester University
Interdisciplinary Subject: Food and Agriculture
Subject: Science & Technology – History of Science & Technology
Choice Issue: Jan 2024

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