I wandered through one of the big supermarkets recently and marveled at all the changes I’ve seen in grocery stores over the years and I got to thinking:

  • What if you could only go shopping for food twice a year?
  • What if you didn’t have any kind of refrigeration or freezer?
  • How would you feed your family?

Our great-grandmothers and grandmothers did and their children were fairly healthy. They relied on basic food items; they milked cows for the milk, cream and homemade cheeses. They had chickens, turkeys and ducks for meat and eggs for their tables and cooked what was available at the time.

The old-fashioned general store carried a few canned fruits and vegetables, some boxes of dried fruits–prunes, apricots, raisins and peaches were staples. I remember two or three kinds of boxed cereal–corn flakes and wheat flakes were a couple that could be found. Oatmeal, farina and corn meal came in bags to make cooked cereals.  I remember that cooked cornmeal was called ‘mush’ and served with a little milk and a sprinkle of sugar on top. Folks at a lot of dried beans, macaroni, etc. and there was usually some kind of stew in a pot on the back of the stove.

Folks went to the local butcher shop for their meat, and most of them just got it cut up and took it home to can in glass jars for winter.  Some of the shops made sausage and salami to order and may have had small meat case with lunchmeats of some kind.

In one-room schools, you could ‘almost tell which girls were sisters by the similar patterns of their dresses’. This is a photo of a group of Nebraska students in 1937. Photograph from the web site of Wessels Living History Farm, York, Nebraska. (www.livinghistory.org)



The old grocery stores did have eggs for sale to the folks who didn’t keep their own chickens, and most of the country women traded their eggs for other kinds of groceries, like flour and sugar.  Flour came in cloth bags that weighed 25 to 50 pounds each! When the companies came out with printed flour sacks it was a chore for the folks who worked in the store to sort through the bags to get all the sacks with the same print so the mother could make dresses, aprons, curtains, and other items from the fabrics. Before then, the bags were all white and it was a major chore to bleach out all the printing so the name of the flour company didn’t show up on the backside of your underwear! Some of the feed companies followed suit and you got to where you could tell if it was a flour sack dress or a feed sack dress, just by the prints.

Many of the farm folks who lived a ways out only got to town two or three times a year to go grocery shopping. All they had for transportation was a wagon pulled by horses, and sometimes it took two or three days to make the round trip!

There was no freezer full of all kinds of treats like ice cream bars, fudge bars and popsicles. If you wanted ice cream, you had to get the cream from someone who owned a cow, ice from someone who had an ice house and then you turned the crank on that old-fashioned freezer for a long time to get that special treat!

Folks who didn’t raise their own gardens bought fruits and vegetables from local folks who went door to door with a team and wagon load of straw piled with baskets of tomatoes, green beans, peas, ears of sweet corn, melons of all kinds as well as squash of every size and color as they came into season.

A few people had apple trees but most of the fruit other than wild plums, chokecherries, etc. was brought in by truck and mostly consisted of bananas, and once in a while, I can remember oranges and pomegranates were available.

There was a local dairy that delivered milk and cream door to door several times a week and when they stopped doing deliveries the local grocer put in a little cooler with half gallons and quarts of milk, which were carried home in paper bags by the children who walked (or biked, if you had a basket) to the store and back again.

There were no aisles full of potato chips, corn chips–or any kind of chips for that matter!  No such thing as bazillions of bags of ready-made popcorn, pretzels in different flavors, snack candies or mini-sweet candy bars under the guise of fruit snacks and no soda of any kind was sold at the grocery store. The only place one could buy soda was at the gas station on the corner. It was held in a cooler of water and you had to fish out the kind you wanted. It cost 10 cents for an 8-ounce bottle, and was a rare treat!  Wages for most jobs for working women and children was only 25 cents an hour then.  A sucker/lollipop was 2 cents and a candy bar was 5 cents. You didn’t spend your money foolishly as it was hard to come by and folks needed to pay for the necessary things in life: rent, heat and lights, food for the table and clothing.  In many homes, all money earned was pooled and spent for those family necessities. Even owning a car was a luxury then and people only used them when needed, such as a trip to the doctor or the dentist. Most people just walked where they needed to go.

The latest figures tell us that the average American family only spends 12 percent of its income on food, which includes the 5 percent spent ‘eating out’. 

That’s 12 percent on food–not diapers, toys, laundry and dish soap and all the other little ‘goodies’ folks put on their ‘grocery bills’!



Times have certainly changed over the years. Is the average American’s diet better now with all of the fast food and prepared items we have to choose from? Can we do a better job of feeding our families if we were to stick to the basics and do more cooking at home? I believe that we could–yes, most of us do work–and believe me, years ago those folks worked hard too without the advantages we enjoy today.

Most of us own slow cookers, or could readily buy one at a yard sale or a thrift store if money is really tight, and there are thousands of recipes available for us to use and adapt for our own families.

A friend of mine who is a teacher loads her slow cooker/crockpot container the evening before, sticks it into the refrigerator and puts it on the base and turns it on first thing In the morning. 10 hours later when she finally gets home with her children, all they need do is to set the table and eat their meal.

She says planning the meals is a family affair.  The children scour the cookbooks for things they want to try and help with the preparation as well. They are also learning how to figure the cost of each meal, as well as planning for the ‘remainder meals’ (left-overs/planned-overs for most of us).  The family has a monthly budget for food, either eaten at home or away. Any money saved goes towards things the family has on their ‘wish list’ of things for the home or family vacations.

Sounds like a plan to me!



by Paula Vogelgesang

Paula Vogelgesang is the author of the monthly column "Pennywise", and is a monthly contributor to the Farm And Livestock Directory.

Email her at [email protected]

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