Building a Housewife’s Paradise

Building a Housewife’s Paradise: Gender, Politics, and American Grocery Stores in the Twentieth Century by Tracey Deutsch

HF 5469.23 .U62 D48 2010

“Supermarkets are a mundane feature in the landscape, but as Tracey Deutsch reveals, they represent a major transformation in the ways that Americans feed themselves.  In her examination of the history of food distribution in the United States, Deutsch demonstrates the important roles that gender, business, class, and the state played in the evolution of American grocery stores.

Deutsch’s analysis reframes shopping as labor and embeds consumption in the structures of capitalism.  The supermarket, that icon of postwar American life, emerged not from straightforward consumer desire for low prices and convenience, Deutsch argues, but through government regulations, women customers’ demands, and retailers’ concerns with financial success and control of the “shop floor.”

Until the 1920s, food procurement was understood to be difficult and time consuming.  Women shoppers made countless demands on retailers as they balanced families’ needs and resources with marketplace offerings.  Over the next few decades, business analysts and politicians came to perceive food shopping as pleasurable and easy, requiring large stores with streamlined product distribution in which shoppers had little individual authority.  Although in practice food shopping remained hard work, by the 1960s and 1970s both critics and proponents of consumer society held up supermarkets as symbols of the apolitical, passive, unlimited reach of mass consumption.  Women shoppers’ demands for personal attention did not end, but they became less visible and often less successful.

From small neighborhood stores to huge corporate chains, Deutsch traces the charged story of the origins of contemporary food distribution, connecting topics as varied as everyday food purchases, the sales tax, and ideologies of domesticity.  Over the course of the twentieth century, women’s adherence to store policy emerged as central to the everyday workings of mass retail and to the emergence of a consumption-oriented political economy.  Demonstrating connections between women’s work and the history of capitalism, Deutsch locates the origins of supermarkets in the politics of twentieth-century consumption.” – publisher description

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