Simanaitis Says

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THE EARLIEST drivers went to pharmacies, hardware stores and blacksmiths to buy gasoline—“gasolene” was another spelling for this higher distillate. By 1905, though, filling stations were appearing. And by 1914 some of these places featured car washes as well. Automotive infrastructure developed quickly, a lot of it in California then spreading around the country by the mid-1920s.

Curiously, shopping for groceries evolved along similar lines, but a decade later.

Thinking about all this was prompted by a local news item citing the 140th anniversary of Ralphs, one of southern California’s supermarket chains. This company played a role in the transition from shopping in the traditional manner to our ubiquitous trips to the supermarket.


The Drive-In, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914-1941, by Richard Longstreth, MIT Press, 1999. Both and list it.

I have a neat book on the subject, an academic work by Richard Longstreth. Also, there’s a current television mini-series, Mr. Selfridge, one of the PBS Masterpiece Classics, describing a similar thing that occurred in department stores. (See

Traditional grocery shopping took place in the classic farmers’ market model of seller by seller. Its evolution into individual shops, the butcher’s, the greengrocer’s and the like, didn’t change very much. By the late 1800s, though, the emporium model brought all these individual departments under one roof, typically a particularly ornate one.


George A. Ralphs, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles, California, ca 1902. This and other images from the Longstreth book.

Exemplary of this was the first Ralphs store opened in downtown Los Angeles in 1873. Counters separated customers from the goods. Clerks provided the items, which were supplied by—and paid for—department by department.


Inside a Ralphs Grocery Company store, 1913; a classic emporium.

Except for everything being under one roof, the experience wasn’t all that different from the shop-by-shop model. One novelty was citywide home delivery, instituted by Ralphs in 1896.

Soon, Ralphs and other grocery stores opened branches away from city commercial cores. These were still the emporium model, still clerk oriented, still with individually operated departments.


A branch store of the Ralphs chain, 1915; the emporium model is retained.

By the mid-1920s, though, stores were experimenting with self-service, an innovation that became standard with Ralphs by 1930. A store’s open shelves became important, not its interior splendor.

About the same time, home deliveries of groceries were discontinued—this, largely because of the automobile.

Notes researcher Longstreth, “Store managers discovered that when customers could select their own goods, they not only tended to buy more but were less inclined to have them delivered since they had driven to the premises.”


A Ralphs store interior, 1931.

Grocery stores started having their own parking lots around in 1929. And, during the Depression, prices displaced ornateness in shoppers’ minds. Stores assumed the ownership of each department, which eliminated the need for individual payments. This in turn led to baskets at one end of the store and a bank of checkouts at the other. Longstreth noted that, by the eve of World War II, the southern California example had spread throughout country.


But for the cars, this Ralphs photo from 1940 looks almost contemporary.

We take all these for granted: free-standing buildings with their own parking lots, clear-span interiors, open shelves, self-service, checkout lanes. That is, the modern supermarket. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2013

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This entry was posted on April 18, 2013 by in And Furthermore... and tagged , , .
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