Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 995:
SHOPPING CARTS

by John H. Lienhard

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 the door.

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 shopped.

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 chain.

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 use today.

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 work.

(Theme music)


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. Lienhard.