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Food shopping, mid 20th century

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Sainsburys grocery shops 1900-1950s

I knew several grocery chain stores when I was a child in the 1940s, which is notable because chain stores had not yet come in for other types of shops. Some small family grocers may have had more than one branch, but not enough to be called chain stores.

Life-size reconstruction of outside an old Sainsburys shop.
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Sainsburys was one of the few grocery chain stores that still exist. The above photo looks just like the front of the Sainsburys that I remember.

Why Sainsburys was so popular

My mother used Sainsburys more than any of the other grocers because she felt that the food was fresh, and she was registered there for our food rations.

Inside Sainsburys

Guildford Sainsburys in 1906, showing the identical layout of all early Sainsburys.
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The photo gives a good idea of the layout and decor of Sainsburys in the 1940s and 50s as I remember it. The photo was actually taken in another town in 1906, but all Sainsburys had the same style.

In the 1940s and 50s, though, shortages and rationing were severe. Consequently a significant difference between the photo and my recollections of the 1940s and 50s is the amount and quality of the food on display. Another difference is that the photo shows gas lights hanging from the ceiling. In the Sainsburys of pre-war suburbia, the lights were electric.

To me, as a child, walking into Sainsburys was like walking into a wonderland. It was a large shop, much deeper than it was wide, and every surface that could possibly be tiled, was tiled, except for the counter tops which were white marble. The tiles were coloured mosaics with different patterns and inscriptions for the floors and walls; and the assistants all wore white. The whole impression was of lightness and cleanliness.

There was a single till with a cashier at the far end of the shop inside a dark wooden carved kiosk.

Above the cashier's cubicle was the shop clock which was helpful for customers, very few of whom had watches. In fact, shops seemed to regard it as a duty to have a clock on show.

There were chairs beside the counters for the use of customers.

What it was like to shop at Sainsburys

Different counters served different foods and each counter had its own queue. Queuing was a way of life that was accepted, although grumbled about.

Although some goods were ready-packaged, so that the shop assistant at any one counter just had to reach for them, much of the fresh food was weighed out and packaged separately for each customer - which took a long time! During rationing, the pre-packaged goods were labelled National or Ministry of Food. Thanks to the clever design of the scales, the cost of even irregular weights was obvious to the assistant.

As customers paid the cashier at the kiosk at the far end of the shop, the assistants handling food never handled money - which was reasonable as so little was pre-wrapped. But there always seemed to be a queue at the kiosk. Possibly in later years when most goods were pre-packed, there was a flying fox system, but I don't remember one in Sainsburys. Of course everything changed with supermarkets and electronic payment, but that could never have been imagined early in the century.

Serving and packaging butter

Wooden butter pats as used grocers by British grocers in the mid 20th century to pat butter into the required size and shape for sale

Model of wooden butter pats or paddles, showing how grocers used them to pat butter into the required size and shape for sale.

Butter was freshly patted out for each customer from a large block according to the amount wanted. Then the freshly patted out block was placed on a sheet of greaseproof paper on a scale. If necessary, knobs of butter were added or taken off to achieve the required weight. Then the butter was re-patted into a block and wrapped up for the customer. In wartime, I never saw butter pre-packed in specific weights. I suppose that this was because fridges were rare in homes, and butter would go off unless bought in small quantities.

The wooden pats (also known as paddles) were dipped into a container water between uses to prevent sticking.

Publicity logos on the butter

Guest contribution

Our equivalent of Sainsbury's was David Greig whose company logo was a Scottish thistle. Each butter paddle was beautifully carved with a Scottish thistle in reverse so that the block of butter had the David Greig thistle logo embossed on it.

Jan Clifford

There was only one type of butter during rationing and it was labelled National Butter.

Serving and packaging tea

Tea arrived in shops loose in what were called tea chests, and was weighed out into paper bags for each customer. During rationing there was only one type, no choice.

Tea chests for moving house

Tea chests were large roughly-cut wooden boxes reinforced at the edges, usually with metal strips, and as their name implies, their purpose was for transporting and storing tea. In the 1940s and probably before, shops weighed out customers' tea directly from these tea chests and into paper bags.

As tea was so widely drunk, there was no shortage tea chests and they tended to be regarded as throwaway items. Consequently tea chests were popular as storage and packing crates in homes and for moving house. Even as late as the 1960s, when my family moved house, the removal company brought along empty tea chests for us to pack into. Apparently it wasn't worth their while to bother to collect the empties afterwards.

Tea chest, as used for storage and house removals, early to mid 20th century

Woman unpacking her own things from a tea chest. Detail from a screen shot from an old film.

Serving and packaging cheese

Cheese was in a large round lump and was cut with a cheese wire. As far as I am aware, only Cheddar was available.

A cheese wire is shown in the following photo. The handle was rectangular and hinged at at one end (on the right in the photo), and a taut wire was attached between the ends. The handle was lifted, a block of cheese placed underneath. When the handle was lowered, it cut through the cheese.

The assistants would hover the wire over the block of cheese and ask the customer how much they wanted. The clever design of the scales would show the price.

Old style cheese wire for cutting portions of hard cheese, as used and as on counter display in grocers shops in the middle years of the 20th century

Grocer's cheese wire for cutting cheese.

Serving and packaging sugar

Sugar was sold a paper bag labelled National Sugar, usually ready-weighed out.

Serving and packaging bacon

Bacon slicers were on the counter to cut to order whatever thickness of bacon a customer wanted.

Old bacon slicer, photographed in the Museum of Nottingham Life.

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The cut bacon was wrapped in greaseproof paper and put into a paper bag. Again, the clever design of the scales showed the cost.


If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

Text and images are copyright

Photos taken by the webmaster with acknowledgments to Beaulieu Motor Museum, The Museum of Nottingham Life and Fagans Museum of Welsh Life


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