Shopping in the Old Days


Our Spring/Summer session of Tuesday Group began with a social evening. Everyone had a pleasant evening catching up on the latest news. A big thank you to everyone who helped by supporting the Bring & Buy and by laying on a very tasty spread. The funds raised will be used to support charities.

Our first speaker was Rosemary Scadden whose talk was entitled “Open All Hours”. Rosemary had contacted The Grocer magazine for information about shopping practices and was provided with contacts who she interviewed about life behind the counter.

Unlike today shopping was a very personal service and a slow process. Most items arrived at the store in bulk so everything had to be weighed and bagged before it could be sold. As there was no Cellotape available, folding paper into bags became quite an art. Someone recalled having to whistle while weighing out fruit as it is difficult to eat whilst whistling,.

Tea came direct from the plantations in large wooden chests. The dregs that were left in the bottom were sold as low grade tea.

In some shops the coffee was roasted in-house filling the store with a distinctive aroma As it was standard practice to leave food uncovered the coffee aroma often mingled with other interesting food smells. A standard feature in many stores was the scarlet bacon slicer.

The Weights and Measures Act was introduced in 1770 when it became illegal to sell short measures. It was said that a grocer never went to heaven as many cunning tricks were learned by grocers to make as much profit as they could from sales.

Funeral teas became a very good source of income for shops. Tradition fare included beef wrapped in dough and then roasted and slab cake.

The Coop only employed men – women were confined to being cashiers. However, this all changed when firms such as Maypole, Liptons and Home and Colonial started employing women to work behind the counter. It was also noted that women were more careful driving the delivery vans.

Delivery vans were an essential part of rural life as they were a lifeline for rural farms as some women were virtually trapped on farms looking after children.

The cooperative movement started in Rochdale in 1840 and sought to provide ethical and moral trading – this ethos continues today.

Shops were the heart of a community and the shopkeepers knew their customers and often chairs would be provided so that shopping became a sociable occasion where women met and exchanged local gossip. Market days were also very important. It was not unusual for a farmer’s wife to offer butter and eggs in exchange for provisions.

In hard times shopkeepers arranged credit for customers so that families could survive although the poorest had to manage with whatever they could get from the Poor Board.

Harrods had a nationwide delivery service which is said to have been used by Tredegar House.

The modern day supermarket that we all know was introduced in America in Memphis in 1916 and was called Piggly Wiggly. This revolutionised shopping and self-service was set to take over from all the myriad of small grocers on our High Street. A lot of shops were forced to close as they were too small to convert into self-service shops.

I am sure many members of the group remembered the shopping experience as it used to be but judging how many new supermarkets continue to open I think they are here to stay.