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Feeding our families today is as challenging as it was 100 years ago, U of M historian finds

July 26, 2010

For some of us, it’s a joy and form of relaxation, for others, it’s an annoying chore: shopping at the local grocery store. But how did grocery stores come about in the first place, and what do they say about us as a society? A University of Minnesota expert who can comment on the history of the American grocery store and the prominent role women played in its making is:

Tracey Deutsch, assistant professor of history, College of Liberal Arts, and author of the new book “Building a Housewife’s Paradise: Gender, Politics, and American Grocery Stores in the Twentieth Century” (UNC Press)

Deutsch says in the early years of the 20th century, food procurement shifted from the products of one’s own garden and farm to a retail/service model where primarily women shopped from peddlers, food markets and stores, and purchased frequently in small quantities.

The concerns of women shoppers 100 years ago were much the same as they are today: What will my family eat? What am I used to cooking? What will give my family energy? What will keep? What can I afford? With all the demands women juggled to feed their families, it may come as no surprise that grocers routinely referred to their female clientele as, well, demanding.

Deutsch found no shortage of grocers' trade journals describing women customers in this way. And although grocers worried about a variety of factors, Deutsch says, "[they] justified what they did in terms of women's desires. They had changing ideas about what those desires were over time, but they always referenced gender in their language."

Regardless of gender, grocery shopping has always been and continues to be considered laborious by most people. “People from all walks of life feel that food shopping is an effort, is work, is a challenge,” Deutsch says.    

Deutsch's research and teaching interests include women and consumer culture; women's history; 20th-century political economy; and politics of supermarkets and malls.

To interview Deutsch, contact Jeff Falk, University News Service, or (612) 626-1720; or Kelly O’Brien, College of Liberal Arts, or (612) 624-4109.

Expert Alert is a service provided by the University News Service. Delivered regularly, Expert Alert is designed to connect university experts to today's breaking news and current events. For an archive and other useful media services, visit Views expressed by experts do not represent the views of the University of Minnesota.

Tags: College of Liberal Arts

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