River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Shopping in the 1930's

April 2004

Ron looks back at shopping in the 1930's

Shopping, like most everyday activities, has changed beyond recognition over the last 60years. In those days we did not have refrigerators or freezers and very few had cars. As a consequence, with the exception for those living outside of town or village, shops were usually within walking distance and shopping was performed on an almost daily basis. Most villages had two or three shops capable of providing the daily needs. In London, where I spent my youth, every area had its own local shops. There were no supermarkets, of course, and food shopping was mainly concentrated in four types of shop; the grocer's, the greengrocer's, the butcher's and the baker's. Most areas would also have a chemist's shop, a fishmonger and an ironmonger's although occasionally there would be a general store combining some of the range of the iron monger with that of the grocer. Needless to say there were no 'give away' plastic bags so you had to take your own shopping baskets or shopping bags and you didn't buy more than you could carry home. Children were often made use of for shopping and 'running errands' was a regular task. My brother and I used a barrow if there was much to carry.

In the towns there were the shops of the big grocery chains; Liptons, Home and Colonial, International, David Greig and others. I remember a Tesco shop in Brixton, it was a rather small shop and regarded, by my mother at least, as rather cheap and nasty. In the bigger grocery stores there were often counters on two sides. One side sold dry things such as jams and other preserves in jars, tinned fruit, dried fruit, tins of corned beef, tea, coffee, etc (coffee was not a popular beverage, you could buy the roasted beans loose and they could be ground for you, there was no instant coffee as we know it today but there were the liquids such as 'Camp' coffee, with which you could make an instant cup.). Biscuits were sold loose, the various types like custard creams, bourbons, shortbreads, were the same as they are today. They were often displayed in large tins about one foot (30cm) square and fifteen inches (38cms) deep with a glass lid, these were sometimes arranged along the outside of the counter and angled so as to make the contents clearly visible. Everything that was sold loose was sold in paper bags, a good many biscuits would get broken so you could usually buy broken biscuits. There were no calculating cash tills, it was the shop assistant's job to total up your purchases and your job to check that they had got it right.

On the other counter they would sell items such as cheese, butter, lard, sliced corned beef, bacon and ham etc. The store had large cheeses from which it would cut your requirements using a length of wire attached to a cheese board. The rind of the cheese often came with your piece. Bacon was sliced before your eyes on a hand operated slicer, adjusted to give the thickness of rasher that you required, placed on a piece of greaseproof paper and placed on the scales, mechanical scales of course, usually with a long vertical pointer behind glass moving across a circular arc scale which incorporated a 'ready reckoner' that would give the price depending on the cost per pound. Ham was cut from the bone. Butter was available in prepacked form but it was also sold loose, scooped from a large tub with butter 'pats', placed on the ubiquitous greaseproof paper and patted into a block and weighed. Lard was also sold loose but was less easily formed into a block. Prepacked margarine was available, it was a good deal cheaper than butter but it was not nearly as palatable as a butter substitute as those sold today. Eggs were sold loose and handed over in a paper bag, like everything else.

You could not look around the shop to decide what you wanted to buy, as you can in a supermarket, because most of the stock was not on view, it was therefore necessary to know in advance what you wanted and ask the assistant. You would normally pay for the goods from one counter before moving across to the other. The need to total up the cost at each counter combined with the need to have cheese, bacon and butter cut and weighed meant that the whole process could take quite a time and queues would form at busy times even before the war. When rationing was introduced with the associated problem of marking ration books and/or taking coupons, combined with some conversation or perhaps arguments about weights, quality and non-availability, the situation became much worse and queuing became a way of life.

Butcher's shops were not so very much different from what they are today but they did not have refrigerated display windows or plastic trays and covers, which meant that flies and wasps were difficult to control in summer. They did have cold store rooms, some of which had refrigerating plant, but most were kept cold by ice that was delivered regularly in blocks approximately one foot (30cm) square by about 18inches (45cm) long, each weighing about one hundred pounds (50kg). These were delivered by open lorry or horse and cart, the ice partly covered with hessian sacks. The delivery man handled the blocks with giant sharp pointed tongs and special gloves, he wore a sack half turned inside out that protected his head and back as he carried the blocks into the shop on his back. He was often in a hurry in the height of summer trying to keep up with demand and trying to get his load delivered before it melted. Fishmongers used to keep and display their fish in crushed ice.

Much of the cutting up of the meat was done before the customer's eyes on a small bench with specially shaped very heavy wooden top. It did not seem to be very hygienic as they would switch from cutting up lambs liver to pork chops from one customer to the next, there was usually a liberal sprinkling of sawdust on the floor to mop up any spilt blood. At the end of the day the bench would be cleaned by the removal of the top surface with a tool not dissimilar to a surform tool, and the sawdust on the floor swept up. It may be that the preparation of meat for the supermarkets is performed in a similar way today, we just don't see it now. Once again the butcher did not have the advantage of electronic calculating scales, but most did have scales, like the grocer's, which incorporated a 'ready reckoner', if he did not have the luxury of such scales, and many did not, then, having priced the meat at so much a pound, he had to work out the cost of an individual piece when he weighed it. It should be remembered that his scales were weighing in pounds and ounces and, with sixteen ounces to a pound, twenty shillings to the pound and twelve pence to the shilling, the mental arithmetic was not simple. He would usually work it out roughly in his head and then round it down to avoid any protests.

Greengrocers and bakers were not very different from the few independent shops of today, wrapped sliced bread was available in some general stores but it was not the norm. Greengrocers scales were usually of the old fashioned balance type with individual weights that were used to balance the weight of the goods. Once again the vendor had to be quick at mental arithmetic with the inconvenient units and the customer would be wise to keep check. People often talk about prices from those days but the only one that sticks in my mind is King Edward potatoes at 7lb for 6d (2.5p). There were many more street traders, people that used to come round the streets with a barrow or a cart, especially with greengrocery, they provided some of the heavier items of shopping that would otherwise have to be carried home from the shops. Markets were much more popular for food shopping than they are today, they used to stay open and busy much later in the day than they do now, the stalls in winter were lit by oil lamps of one sort or another. The vendors would shout out their wares all day long without ever appearing to get hoarse. The markets always seemed to be cheerful places to me, the atmosphere was friendly and welcoming, something helped at times by a street entertainer of one sort or another, or a barrel organ.

Ironmongers were veritable Aladdin caves where you could buy practically anything in that line and, unlike the modern day sheds, the shopkeeper was ready with advice as to what you needed for a particular job and how to go about it, although diy did not extend to the range of work that people can tackle today because the tools and materials that were available required a greater level of skill. They sold fuels of all sorts, fire wood (done up in bundles) paraffin, methylated spirits, bags of coke etc, all sold loose, usually their floors were plain wooden floor boards and those near their storage tank became soaked in paraffin. The whole place was a fire bomb just waiting for a match. Much of their trade was associated with cleaning materials like pumice stone and pumice powder, they sold soap flakes loose and soap, cut from a big bar, probably Sunlight soap, as well as the more luxury toilet soaps such as Pears, Lifebuoy and Wright's Coal Tar, along with such items as dolly blue (for clothes whitening), Robin starch, Bluebell metal polish etc. They often sold 'food' items loose also, including cereals, dried peas and dried fruit sold from sacks, and things like pickled onions, mustard pickles etc, where you had to take along your own jar or basin.

Some of my other memories of these times include coal merchants with their flat bed horse and carts and their neatly folded empty sacks stacked at one end, rag and bone men just like Steptoe, and cigarette brands such as Weights, Tenners, Woodbines, Craven A and Passing Cloud.

My experience was limited to local shopping in a big town, no doubt it was very much different in a country village, perhaps someone could tell us what that was like.

Ron Watts

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