Today, a late-night flash of genius alters American
life. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
My mother never drove a car.
Before I was old enough to be sent out on my bike,
she would call up Ramaley's grocery store. She'd
phone in her order, negotiating the freshness of
tomatoes and cuts of meat. Ramaley's delivered to
Not everyone drove in the 1930s. Calling in orders
was a major function of the new telephones. Now
that's all changed: At supermarkets we buy more
food, pharmaceuticals and dry goods than our arms
can hold. Cars and large electric refrigerators
have increased the size of shopping trips. But they
couldn't've done it alone without a third invention
-- without the shopping cart.
Terry Wilson writes about Sylvan Goldman, born in
1898. Goldman's father, a Jewish immigrant from
Latvia, was a Sooner. He made the famous run into
the new Oklahoma Territory. Goldman grew up there
and went into wholesale produce with his brother.
Oklahoma oil prices plunged in 1921. That wiped
them out, so they went to California to study new
methods for retailing groceries. They came back and
set up a chain of self-service stores equipped with
woven baskets customers could carry while they
It was a huge success. They finally sold out to the
Safeway chain. This time, the Depression wiped out
their Safeway stock. But
"the wonderful thing about food is that everyone uses it -- and uses it only once."
The Goldmans dove back in. By the mid-'30s
they owned half of the Standard/Piggly-Wiggly
One night, in 1936, Goldman sat in his office
wondering how customers might move more groceries.
He stared idly at a wooden folding chair. Put a
basket on the seat, wheels on the legs. . . Wait a
minute. Why not two baskets, one above the other?
Goldman and a mechanic, Fred Young, began
tinkering. Their first shopping cart was a metal
frame that held two wire baskets. Since you have to
be able to store shopping carts, the frames were
designed to be folded and the baskets nested.
Goldman formed the Folding Carrier Co. By 1940
shopping carts had found so firm a place in
American life as to grace the cover of the
Saturday Evening Post. Supermarkets
were redesigned to accommodate them. Checkout
counter design and the layout of aisles changed.
Baby seats were added. Finally, in 1947, the
folding cart gave way to the solid nesting carts we
By 1940 I was pushing a cart through the A & P
supermarket across the street from Ramaley's.
Ramaley's survived -- first as an upscale
fine-foods deli, now as a liquor store. And, when I
try to remember childhood, I have to erase shopping
carts from the image. By now that's hard to do.
Shopping carts are so carved into our thinking --
it's hard to remember a life without them.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Wilson, T., The Cart That Changed the World:
The Career of Sylvan N. Goldman, Norman, OK:
University of Oklahoma Press, 1978.
I grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. Ramaley's is
still there on Grand Avenue, a block or two east of
Victoria. Perhaps the crowning irony is that the A
& P supermarket, across the street, has long
since vanished -- replaced by grander supermarkets
elsewhere. Wilson attributes the quotation about
selling food to Ralph Cassady, Jr. (Wilson, op.
cit., p. 236). I am grateful to Peter Wood, then
Dean of the UH School of Architecture, for being
first among several listeners to suggest the topic,
and to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and Architecture
Library, for following up on the suggestion and
providing the Wilson source.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H.