7.5 To Market, To Market: A History of Shopping

To Market, To Market

Whether you love or hate it, shopping is a necessary part of housework. But that wasn’t always true, and it wasn’t always the woman’s job to do it.

This episode is part of the series Comfort for a Discouraged Housewife.

Full Transcript

First, a disclaimer: This episode is not about the hunt for a designer handbag that you don’t need and can’t afford. This series is about housework, so I’m talking about the kind of shopping you do because somebody’s got to make sure the house doesn’t run out of toilet paper and milk. It’s about supplying the necessaries, not the thrill of the hunt.

Our earliest foremothers didn’t do shopping for the most part. I talked about this in episode 3.1. Most tribal societies were all about relationships, not transactions. So when I’ve got a surplus I share with you because that creates a bond between us, and I trust that when you’ve got a surplus, you’ll share with me. Then the so-called civilization hits, and we get money to replace trust and buying to replace sharing. And that’s called progress, at least in the traditional interpretation.

But even after said progress, if you live on an isolated farm, you still don’t go shopping because there is no shop to go to. You consume what you produce, and if you don’t produce it, you don’t consume it, end of story. Traditional interpretations have also tended to assume that most of the so-called primitive civilizations still worked exactly like that, and humanity progressed from the nasty, short, and brutish days of low consumption in one long ascent to our glorious age of massive consumer debt and even more massive self-storage units.

But history is more complicated than that. Wherever people gathered in large groups, the appeal of markets became obvious, at least for some items. Accounts of the past don’t always make that clear because the written record doesn’t tend to concern itself with your average housewife’s shopping list and the archaeological record is better at big stone temples than it is at popup wooden farmer’s market stalls or blankets of wares on the ground.

The Mayan civilization, for example, was long assumed not to be a market economy. The Mayan city now known as Caracol, Belize, was at its height from 550-900 CE.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

It had an average of 563 people per km2 or roughly the same as central suburban Florida. Those Floridians need their Walmarts and Publixes, and the Mayans were no different. The evidence is not written down, but it can be deduced. There are multiple plazas that could have been used as markets. Also, most households show evidence of specialization: some clearly produced obsidian tools based on the quantity of small slivers of obsidian. Others had fabric spindles, far more than you would need for one family’s worth of fabric. And a number of homes were too far from any field to be growing their own food. The implication is that these households must have been trading the surplus of one kind of item for all the other necessaries, even if we haven’t located a stack of receipts to document it (Chase).

The Mayan civilization collapsed, but markets in Meso-America didn’t because the Aztecs had them too. Spanish conquistadors mentioned that the markets of Tenochtitlan were the biggest and the best they had ever seen. Some of these soldiers had been to Italy, which was the commercial hub of Europe at the time. The Aztecs proved you don’t have to have coinage to go on a shopping spree. Aztecs did it with cacao beans and cloth bundles (Feinman).

The markets could be permanent or perhaps just weekly affairs. Ancient India had weekly markets called hattas. An inscription at a 13th century version indicates that you could buy perfume, cut wood, molasses, sugar, cloth, pots, fish, and crafted items made from gold and conch shell (Patra).

But all of this is pieced together from the available evidence, and it tells you little about how your average matriarch experienced doing the family’s shopping.

But in one ancient case, I can tell you that she likely didn’t experience it at all. As I’ve said before, ancient Athens was great on art, architecture, elections, and all that, but terrible on women’s rights.

Athens definitely had a standing market The Agora was lined with many merchants’ stalls, all well-organized by type of goods. You could buy wine, olive oil, fish, greens, pots, possibly even books (the reference is obscure on that).

Image: Site of the ancient agora in Athens from Wikimedia Commons

The writer Xenophon says that “when you order a servant to buy something from the Agora, he will at once know where he must go to get each class of goods; the reason is that they are kept in their appointed places.” (quoted in Thompson, 171)

Now that doesn’t sound like any outdoor market I’ve ever been to, where the unexpected is half the charm. But the real point is that you don’t go to the market yourself, you send a servant, and a male servant at that. Women are supposed to stay at home. Possibly that “he” is a translation issue. Other translations I looked at didn’t use a pronoun at all, so no indication of gender.

But the rest of this dialogue is quite explicit on that point, Socrates says “it is through the transactions of the husband, as a rule, that goods of all sorts find their way into the house.” The wife’s part is to use them well with “economy and thrift” (Xenophon).

And that fits right in with other accounts of Athens: a respectable wife didn’t go shopping because a respectable wife didn’t leave the house.

Just as a side note, I’ll add that the context of all this is that the husband in this story is telling his wife how to arrange and take care of the house. So it’s maybe a contender for earliest recorded instance of mansplaining. When she responds that nothing would give her greater pleasure than to follow all instructions, the author says “By Hera…. a brave and masculine intelligence the lady has!” (Xenophon) Some scholars have argued that the whole dialogue is supposed to be irony. I certainly hope they are right.

Anyway, for most of history we don’t really know who did the shopping, assuming that shopping was an option.

It wasn’t an option for colonial and frontier American households. Those women spun their own thread, baked their own bread, raised their own produce, made their own soap, and to an enormous extent simply did without because a woman’s only got twenty-four hours in a day. The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder are somewhat fictionalized, but largely based on real experiences. The first book covers the span of a year, and they get to a store in town twice. Once Pa goes by himself, once he takes the whole family. That’s it. They are listed as buying fabric, suspenders, tobacco, tea, and sugar. All things a Wisconsin farm would have trouble producing themselves.

You’ll notice Ma never went by herself. That was not unusual. Even for those living in towns, it was often men who did the shopping. In the Cincinnati of the 1820s, Frances Trollope wrote that men of the highest standing “leave their beds with the sun, six days in the week, and prepared with a mighty basket, to sally forth in search of meat, butter, eggs, and vegetables” (quoted in Strasser, 243). Meanwhile the wife was cooking breakfast for his return.

The household guides for women gave no advice on shopping for a long time. Catherine Beecher wrote many versions of her domestic Bible over decades and did not add a chapter on “Marketing” until 1873. Then she wrote “every young woman, at some point in her life, may need the instructions of this chapter. Thousands … are… obliged to go to market.” (Beecher, 18) The implication is that shopping is indelicate: you do it only if you have no one to send in your place.

But the times, they were a-changing. With men working long hours away from home in factories, they simply weren’t around to run errands. Manufactured goods were now cheaper and often better than homemade ones, so there was more shopping to be done.

Feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton were urging women to insist on financial power in the home. It has been reported that she ended her speeches with the chant “Go out and buy!” but I can’t actually find that in any of her speech transcripts. But the accompanying story about the congressman’s wife is in her autobiography and it goes like this:

Among other domestic trials, [the congressman’s wife] had a kitchen stove that smoked and leaked, which could neither bake nor broil,–a worthless thing,–and too small for any purpose. . .

In telling me, one day, of these kitchen misadventures, she actually shed tears, which so roused my sympathies that, with surprise, I exclaimed: “Why do you not buy a new stove?” To my unassisted common sense that seemed the practical thing to do. “Why,” she replied, “I have never purchased a darning needle, to put the case strongly, without consulting Mr. S., and he does not think a new stove necessary.” “What, pray,” said I, “does he know about stoves, sitting in his easy-chair in Washington? If he had a dull old knife with broken blades, he would soon get a new one with which to sharpen his pens and pencils, and, if he attempted to cook a meal–granting he knew how–on your old stove, he would set it out of doors the next hour. Now my advice to you is to buy a new one this very day!”

“Bless me!” she said, “that would make him furious; he would blow me sky-high.” “Well,” I replied, “suppose he did go into a regular tantrum and use all the most startling expletives in the vocabulary for fifteen minutes! What is that compared with a good stove 365 days in the year? Just put all he could say on one side, and all the advantages you would enjoy on the other, and you must readily see that his wrath would kick the beam.” As my logic was irresistible, she said, “Well, if you will go with me, and help select a stove, I think I will take the responsibility.” . . .

So the stoves and pipes were ordered, holes cut through the ceiling, and all were in working order next day. . . [M]adam was jubilant with her added comforts and that newborn feeling of independence one has in assuming responsibility. . . .

“Now,” said I, “when your husband explodes, as you think he will, neither say nor do anything; sit and gaze out of the window with that far-away, sad look women know so well how to affect. If you can summon tears at pleasure, a few would not be amiss; . . . A scene in which one person does all the talking must be limited in time. No ordinary man can keep at white heat fifteen minutes; if his victim says nothing, he will soon exhaust himself. Remember every time you speak in the way of defense, you give him a new text on which to branch out again. If silence is ever golden, it is when a husband is in a tantrum.”


Advertisers were beginning to notice who was doing the purchasing as well. Nathaniel C Fowler, Jr, publisher and advertiser, made waves when he insisted that women made the financial decisions and the ads should be directed toward them not the men. When a Mr. Maher refuted this saying all his orders were from men, Fowler said “Is Mr. Maher a married man? . . . One would almost suppose he knew nothing of the links of the chain of matrimony, that he never had experienced that delightful thrill which comes to every married man when his wife, kissing him on the doorstep, says ‘My dear, be sure and order so-and-so for me from Mr. Somebody'” (Strasser, 245).

The subsequent decades would prove Fowler indubitably correct. By 1915, 90% of spending in the US was controlled by women (Klaffke, 167). Women were doing the shopping, whether their names were on the order or not.

Still a significant number of Americans lived too far out in the sticks to buy as much as retailers would have liked. The man with a plan to fix that was Montgomery Ward. His mail-order catalog began business in 1872, and his goal was to bring shopping to rural America. Because 71.8% of the country’s entire population was a lot of potential customers (Klaffke, 62). And he offered satisfaction guaranteed, so just go and buy! You can always return it!

From the 1916 Montgomery Ward Catalog

It wasn’t the first mail-order catalog, but the earlier ones had been for certain specialty items. Ward offered everything shippable. Whether you needed a fashionable dress, a set of towels, a wig, a pocket spyglass, a pre-filled Christmas stocking, a lose-weight-quick treatment, a manure spreader, a piano, or a tombstone, the catalog was the place to get it, and it is clearly designed to appeal to women. It starts with women’s clothes. In the 1916 edition, men don’t get anything until page 236.

When Sears got into the business, you could buy all of the above, plus a house to put it in. Yes, there was a time when you could order a flat pack house to be self-assembled onsite like some nightmare IKEA situation.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Rural America was deeply impressed. Both catalogs did business to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

But if you lived in an area where you did your shopping in person rather than by mail, your experience was fairly different from the modern one.

For one thing, you certainly didn’t take things off the shelves yourself. No, no. You went in and asked the store clerk for what you wanted and he (maybe she, but probably he) got it for you. You went to different stores depending on whether you wanted meat or produce or hard-baked crackers or a frying pan.

The first store to allow you to help yourself was the Piggly Wiggly in Memphis, Tennessee, which opened on September 11, 1916.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Shoplifting went up, but costs went down. More importantly customers, started to care about brand and directly compare prices, all of which had to be marked, as they generally weren’t before (Strasser, 252-259).

The first true supermarket was the King Fullen store which opened in Long Island in 1930. It featured high volume, low prices, splashy ads, dry goods, soda fountains, hardware, and food of all kinds. The public loved it. There were eight stores within two years.

A big store wants you to buy big, and one of the problems was that for millennia you could not buy more than you could carry. The 1940s saw a patent dispute over the store-owned shopping cart, which allows you to buy so much more as you wander around your self-serve store (Klaffke, 19).

But wait, what about getting it home? Prior to the 1800s there was very little packaging of any kind. If you ordered a pork chop, you got a pork chop. Any little drippy bits were your problem. The Industrial Revolution brought cheap low-grade wrapping paper, so then you could expect your purchases to be brown paper packages, tied up with string. The first bag-like things were actually just twists of paper, like a cone. But in 1912 a grocer named Deubener may or may not have invented a true bag that could hold 75 lbs of merchandise. Whether he did or did not invent it, it certainly made him rich.

The woman who did not get rich was Margaret Knight. Her contribution was a machine that quickly and efficiently produced the square bottom, brown paper grocery bags that form half of the paper or plastic question at the checkout (Klaffke, 50).

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The bar code was invented in 1948 to make checking out faster and easier (Klaffke, 20). And then there’s paying. Customers have been paying by credit for thousands of years, but that generally meant either a moneylender who gave you cash to use. Or the store itself kept an ongoing tab of what you owed. This worked very well for some merchants, and not at all for others. My own grandfather attempted a country grocery store in 1953 and wrote “I soon learned that people will buy almost anything as long as they can charge, but those people don’t come around when it is time to pay the bill” (Rasmussen, 25). His business lasted less than a year.

But help for the beleaguered small businessman came in 1958 when Bank of America issued its first Bank Americard. In episode 3.4, I discussed how hard it was for single women to get one, but married women were now free to charge almost anything and whether or not they could pay was the bank’s problem, not the store’s, who were now happy to sell you all kinds of worthless junk. The more, the better.

Along the way, retailers had come up with plenty of other schemes to entice buyers. Clearance sales appeared in the 1830s. Woolworth’s was the first store to sell only discount stuff and it appeared in 1879 (Klaffke, 90). In the 1880s Coca-Cola invented a thing called a coupon (Klaffke, 96). The first outlet store opened in 1936 (Klaffke, 100). The charity shop was a British contribution, starting in either 1890s or 1948 depending on your definitions of charity shop (Klaffke, 115). The first department store is disputed, but certainly one of the earliest and most influential was the Bon Marché in Paris. It featured fixed prices (no haggling allowed), but also no entry fee, as had once been common. You could browse for free and leave making no purchase. That was new. They also had cash returns to make you ever so much more likely to buy (Klaffke, 42).

By mid-20th century the shopping possibilities were just exploding and innovations just kept happening. In 1946, Earl Silas Tupper introduced plasticware but the public couldn’t figure out why you would want such a thing.

Single mom and direct seller Brownie Wise decided to show them by way of an in-home party (Klaffke, 68).

Image: A tupperware party c. 1960 from Wikimedia Commons

Now you could do some of your shopping in homes with friends and snacks and even while singing the Tupperware theme song, which goes

I’ve got the Tupper feeling deep in my heart.

Deep in my heart to stay.

(Klaffke, 68)

I promise I am not making this up. You can watch it on YouTube.

The first wholesale membership club opened in the 1970s. The Home Shopping Network began airing in 1981 and infomercials were not far behind. And as early as 1993, 200 million dollars’ worth of goods were sold online (Klaffke, 71, 75, 80, 84).

All the glitzy ads for a wealth of shiny new products you didn’t previously know existed but now are in desperate need of had several impacts.

For one thing, it completely feminized shopping. It had been a male-dominated activity. Now real men were supposed to hate it. Feminist Germaine Greer said it this way: “Men don’t shop, even for their own underpants” (quoted in Klaffke, 167).

Women, on the other hand, were supposed to love it. The lines had blurred because what had been a purely functional part of running a house was now fun. At least according to the ads it was fun. Germaine Greer also said that women had been brainwashed into believing that “there is no greater female festival than a whole day’s shopping,” when really “shopping is exhausting work for which women are trained from infancy” (Klaffke, 169).

Fun or not, women were certainly spending more time at it. The new domestic Bibles included advice on consumerism beyond Catherine Beecher’s wildest imagination. Christine Frederick in the 1920s gave detailed instructions on creating a budget, double-entry bookkeeping, daily accounting, careful records of every family members’ clothing sizes, inventories of your pantry, and alphabetically filed receipts of each and every purchase (Strasser, 250-251).

Consumption was serious business, as you can see. And whether women followed Fredericks’ advice or not, shopping was a time sink, infinitely expandable. It never ended because you could always clip another coupon, read up on another brand, visit another store to see if their produce was just slightly cheaper.

American women in the 1920s often had electricity and plumbing and other devices, but sociologists showed that they spent just as much time on housework as previous generations. Why? Because shopping and management filled the gap. Also childcare, but I’ll talk more about that in the final episode of this series (Strasser, 251).

The new style of shopping was generally more isolating, Tupperware parties aside. When you went to the butcher in the past, he knew you, you knew him, and you might ask his advice on cuts, storage, and cooking. The modern woman got her advice from experts in the magazines, didn’t know the butcher, and didn’t expect him to know anything she didn’t already know better from her research. The fact that the so-called experts writing for the magazine were doubling as advertisers for large corporations may or may not have occurred to her.

And there was one further psychological change. In the days when a woman was more producer than consumer, she had a lower standard of living, but she also had the pride of craftsmanship. State and county fairs used to give prizes for the best butter, the best bread, the best quilt, the best rug. Laura Lyman of Connecticut won the butter prize one year in her local fair. Her entry took the form of four magnificent golden pineapples in a setting of green leaves. She wrote, “My butter was pronounced by the judges as at once more beautiful in appearance, and excellent in quality, than any other at the Fair, and it was beautiful” (quoted in Borish). It clearly gave her a sense of satisfaction that I have never felt while adding a tub of butter-substitute to my grocery cart.

None of this, by the way, induces me to try churning butter myself. Certainly not to mold it into four golden pineapples.

You may have noticed that I have yet again devolved into talking exclusively about American women. Women outside America were looking on with a mixture of envy, disgust, and in some cases, imitation (that sincerest form of flattery). Many, but not all, of the shopping innovations were American ideas, and that’s not because we were uniquely acquisitive, it’s just that never before in any country’s history did there exist so much that could be bought for a price that so many could afford. But many other places were moving in the same direction.

Latin America got department stores in the second half of the 19th century, supermarkets in the 1950s, and shopping malls in the 1960s (Monsalve-Zanetti). China got supermarkets in 1981. Growth was slow and definitions are not necessarily the same as in the US, but nevertheless it grew (German, 12-17). China has plenty of its own chains. It also has Walmart, Aldi, Tesco, and Costco, to name just a few of the international brands. We could go on. And I’ve barely even mentioned online shopping which is reaching us all to a degree Montgomery Ward could not have imagined.

Throughout this series I have been heavily reliant on historian Susan Strasser, and I’d say the main point of her book is to chronicle how American women transformed from producers of almost everything to consumers of almost everything. To varying degrees, the same has happened elsewhere. And perhaps the most historical quip on that is what someone spray painted on the Berlin Wall in 1989 when East Germans crossed freely for the first time. The graffiti declared victory with these words: “They came, they saw, they did a little shopping” (Tribune).

Selected Sources

Beecher, Catherine E. Miss Beecher’s Housekeeper and Healthkeeper. New York, Harper & Brothers, 1873, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/55734/55734-h/55734-h.htm. Accessed 10 Apr. 2022.

Borish, Linda J. “‘A Fair, Without the Fair, Is No Fair at All’: Women at the New England Agricultural Fair in the Mid-Nineteenth Century.” Journal of Sport History 24, no. 2 (1997): 155–76. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43609733.

Chase, Diane Z., and Arlen F. Chase. “ANCIENT MAYA MARKETS AND THE ECONOMIC INTEGRATION OF CARACOL, BELIZE.” Ancient Mesoamerica 25, no. 1 (2014): 239–50. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26300673.

Feinman, Gary M. “Crafts, Specialists, and Markets in Mycenaean Greece. Reenvisioning Ancient Economies: Beyond Typological Constructs.” American Journal of Archaeology 117, no. 3 (2013): 453–59. https://doi.org/10.3764/aja.117.3.0453.

German, Gene A, et al. Supermarket Development in China. Cornell Food Industry Management Program, Dec. 1996.

Klaffke, Pamela. Spree : A Cultural History of Shopping. Vancouver, B.C., Arsenal Pulp Press, 2003.

Monsalve Zanatti, Martin. “History of Retailing in Latin America: From the Corner Store to the Supermarket.” The Routledge Companion to the History of Retailing, by Jon Stobart Stobart and Vicki Howard, Routledge, 2018, pp. 429–443, http://www.researchgate.net/publication/330385824_History_of_retailing_in_Latin_America_From_the_corner_store_to_the_supermarket. Accessed 23 Apr. 2022.

Montgomery Ward Co., and MBJ Collection. Montgomery Ward Catalogue 1916. Internet Archive, Montgomery Ward Co., 1916, archive.org/details/MontgomeryWard1916/page/n1157/mode/2up. Accessed 23 Apr. 2022.

Patra, Benudhar. “Merchants, Guilds and Trade in Ancient India: An Orissan Perspective.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 89 (2008): 133–68. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41692117.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. “Eighty Years and More.” Upenn.edu, 2020, digital.library.upenn.edu/women/stanton/years/years.html. Accessed 23 Apr. 2022.

Strasser, Susan. Never Done: A History of American Housework. New York, Henry Holt, 1980.

Thompson, Homer A., and R. E. Wycherley. “The Agora of Athens: The History, Shape and Uses of an Ancient City Center.” The Athenian Agora 14 (1972): iii–257. https://doi.org/10.2307/3601981.

Tribune, International Herald. “1989: Checkpoint Charlie as a Gateway for Shoppers.” IHT Retrospective Blog, 8 Nov. 2014, iht-retrospective.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/11/08/1989-checkpoint-charlie-as-a-gateway-for-shoppers/#:~:text=Berlin%20%E2%80%94%20A%20statement%20painted%20on. Accessed 23 Apr. 2022.

“Tupperware Tupper Feeling English Version.” Www.youtube.com, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKPzi2_eZzw&ab_channel=Tupperwarehistory.org. Accessed 23 Apr. 2022.

Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House in the Big Woods. 1932. New York, Harper Collins, 1971.

Xenophon. The Works of Xenophon. Translated by HG Dakyns, London, Macmillan, 1897, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1173/1173-h/1173-h.htm. Accessed 23 Apr. 2022.


  1. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s story with the congressman’s wife is the best part of this episode. I was sure you were going to go into more detail about the General Store of the Old West, where you bought everything in one place, but, indeed, the clerk handed it to you, knew you by name, and nothing had prices on it.

    I have read a book where the family counseled on which house to order through the catalog, but I read a lot, so I can’t recall which it was. The family got to choose whether it had a porch, what the general layout was, and whether it had things like a bathroom and a parlor.

    This was also dependent upon men who had lots of handyman skills because while they assembled the mail-order house, they also built in whatever closets or cabinets or shelving the family wanted/needed. We still live in these houses, and the built-ins are much desired and appreciated.

    They also got to choose where on the parcel of land to build it and at what angle. Thus, many houses in my neighborhood have zero backyard and when you drive down the street, they aren’t all at the same angle facing the road.

    The kids ran to the store to buy another bag of nails because Dad ran out, then they’d follow him around and hand him the nails from the bag they held for Dad.


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