The Queen Went Shopping

The death of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth on September 8 triggered a slew of reminiscences about her many visits to the United States. On seven trips, first as princess and then as queen, she traveled to cities from Sacramento to San Antonio, sailed past Milwaukee in the royal yacht, and watched an American football game. Just after the latter event, on October 19, 1957, came one of her more unusual stops, at the Giant Food supermarket in Chillum, Maryland.

Supermarkets weren’t a new invention in the 1950s. They’d been around since 1930, when the King Cullen Grocery Company opened the first supermarket-type store in New York City’s borough of Queens. But mom-and-pop outlets played a major role in food retailing until after World War Two: in 1948, the government counted 504,439 food stores in the United States. As I recount in The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America, the end of price controls related to the Korean War in 1953, followed by a change in tax law in 1954, triggered massive construction of large suburban supermarkets like the queen and Prince Phillip visited.

Perhaps checking out the latest in frozen foods had some educational value for the queen, but I suspect that wasn’t really the purpose. At the time, self-service food stores were relatively new in Great Britain. Wartime food rationing, imposed in January 1940, had ended only in July 1954. High-street food shops had an important social role; as one interviewee told a historian, “You could always have a sit-down in the grocer’s shop.” But many grocers, especially those outside the largest cities, offered only a limited selection of canned goods, sweets, and other products with long shelf lives. In 1957, British households spent nearly a third of their incomes on food, yet did not eat particularly well.

For her subjects, the queen’s visit to Giant Foods held out the promise of something better. And that promise came true. By 1961, Britain would have 572 supermarkets. By 1969, when the number reached 3,400, convenience foods were widely available and households spent, on average, only one-fourth of their incomes on food. While many local merchants had folded, Britons were eating better and, with more money to spend on things other than groceries, living better, too. Offering an optimistic vision of the future was one of the queen’s most important jobs, and that supermarket in Chillum helped her communicate that vision to her subjects.

A footnote: her stop in Chillum was not the queen’s only foray into supermarkets. She visited a Waitrose supermarket near her home at Windsor in 2008, and another Waitrose in Poundbury, England, in 2016. In 2019, at the age of 93, she strolled through a pop-up Sainsbury store, where a manager introduced her to the Sainsbury app. She apparently was more impressed by the self-checkout; as she acknowledged, “Everybody wants to hurry.”


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