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Food shopping, mid 20th century

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Sainsbury's grocery shops in the past

old Sainsburys icon

Sainsbury's existed as a grocery chain store well before it became the supermarket chain that we know today. This page gives personal recollections of the old J. Sainsbury shops: the outside and inside appearance, which were the same across all stores; how the assistants weighed out and packaged groceries and how customers paid.

How Sainsbury's shops could be recognised - outside appearance

Sainsbury's shops, like all shops in the early-mid 20th Century were in blocks of other shops, but you could recognise them easily. They had exactly the same style which is shown in the following photo. 'J Sainsbury' was written in gold on black right across the shop front as shown in the following image. The font was traditional and identical for all Sainsbury's shops.

outside of old Sainsburys shop

Life-size reconstruction of outside an old Sainsbury's shop

The windows were either side of the main door and were exceptionally low for shop windows of the time, so able to display a large range of groceries. The photo shows emblazoned on one in white enamel the words 'PURVEYOR OF HIGH CLASS PROVISIONS' and in larger letters 'J SAINSBURY'. On the other were DAILY ARRIVALS OF PURE RICH BUTTERS' and again in larger letters 'J SAINSBURY'. I remember the white lettering from my childhood in the 1940s, but can't remember the precise words which may have changed, it being wartime. Certainly there was only one 'national butter' during wartime rationing, not 'rich butters'. Similarly I only remember British Cheddar cheese, not the range of cheeses that are shown in the windows of the image.

The general appearance was classical, with mock stone columns at either side of the shop front and wooden columns at either side of the door. The floor of the entrance was tiled.

I understood that the J in Sainsbury which stood for John James was dropped after the first supermarket was opened in 1971.

Inside Sainsbury's shops in the past

The following photo of Guildford Sainsbury's in 1906 gives a good idea of the layout and decor of the Sainsbury's in the 1940s and early 1950s that I remember, which was in Edgware.

Inside Sainsburys shops, early-mid 20th century

Guildford Sainsbury's in 1906, showing the identical layout of all early Sainsbury's.

 As shortages and rationing were severe in the 1940s and 50s, a significant difference between the photo and my recollections 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 Sainsbury's of pre-war suburbia, the lights were electric.

To me, as a child, walking into Sainsbury's was like walking into a wonderland. It was a large shop, much longer 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 overalls. 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 cubicle. Above this 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. These were typical of the time, with backs of bent wood.

What it was like to shop at Sainsbury's

Different counters served different foods, and each counter had its own queue. Queuing was a way of life that was accepted during WW2, although grumbled about.

Some items were ready-packaged, so that the shop assistant at any one counter just had to reach for them. During rationing, these were labelled National or Ministry of Food. Much of the fresh food was weighed out and packaged separately for each customer - which took a long time! Thanks to the clever design of the scales, the price of even irregular weights was immediately obvious to the assistant, who wrote it down on a chit which was given to the customer.

Customers took their chits for paidment to the cashier's cubicle at the far end of the shop, which meant that the assistants handling food never handled money - which was reasonable as so little was pre-wrapped. However, there always seemed to be a queue for the cashier, as there was only one for all of the counters. Possibly in later years when most goods were pre-packed, there was a flying fox system, but I don't remember one in our Sainsbury's.

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 specified 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

Our equivalent of Sainsbury's was David Greig whose company logo was a Scottish thistle, and each block of butter appeared to be beautifully carved with a Scottish thistle. In fact, the thistle was stamped onto the butter with a special wooden stamp.

Jan Clifford

I don't remember Sainsbury's having logos on their butter, but I did see the stamped logos elsewhere. There is a photo of the stamp below.

Butter stamp ready for use

Wooden butter stamp ready for use in its holder

Underside of stamp showing text in reverse

Underside of butter stamp showing SALTED in reverse which came out the right was round on the butter

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 unpackaged tea in bulk.

As tea was so widely drunk, there was no shortage tea chests and they tended to be regarded as throwaway items. Consequently they 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 on the counters as a large round lump and was cut for customers 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, the wire 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. Cheese was rationed in WW2, so on re-reading this, I can't imagine how the assistants managed to cut off precisely the correct amount, unless customers had to buy crumbled cheese.

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 in a paper bag labelled National Sugar, usually ready-weighed.

Serving and packaging bacon

Bacon slicers were on the counter to cut to order whatever thickness of bacon a customer wanted. They were large, heavy things.

Old style bacon slicer, as used and as on counter display in grocers shops in the middle years of the 20th century

Old bacon slicer, photographed in the Museum of Nottingham Life

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

The popularity of Sainsbury's

Sainsbury's was popular in my childhood. During WW2 people had to register with just one shop and my mother chose Sainsbury's. She said that this was because she felt that the food was fresh. This was quite an accolade for Sainsbury's because the Co-op gave dividend, and I remember her shopping there for various unrationed goods. By comparison the shop was dingy. It was probably just as clean, but it didn't look it.


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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