How Did Boomer Families Carry Home Groceries?

It’s estimated that more than 1 trillion plastic bags are thrown away each year worldwide, amounting to billions of pounds of plastic landfill in the U.S. alone. But it wasn’t always this way, and we boomers recall a time when there wasn’t a single plastic bag to be had in a grocery store that wasn’t on a pre-packaged product. In fact, there was only one way to carry home groceries, and pieces of produce as well: paper bags.

Machines that made paper bag production possible were invented during the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s. Before that time, cloth bags, wooden boxes and plant-based woven baskets were the carrying containers of their day.

“Plastics,” as a character prophetically stated in The Graduate (1967), was the future, and that future began arriving in the mid-’60s. Plastic produce bags on a roll were first seen in 1966. Nonetheless, it took another decade before it became the norm for supermarkets to substitute plastic for paper in the produce aisle.

It was eleven years later — in 1977 — when the now ubiquitous “t-shirt” plastic bag was introduced to the supermarket industry. Again, it took almost a decade for the complete transition to occur for consumers to switch from paper to plastic for carrying groceries, and ultimately, everything purchased at a store.

Mister Boomer recalls shopping with his parents at both local grocery stores and national supermarket chain stores. The produce aisles of each may have differed in size and selection, but along the expanse of counters in every grocery store were stacks of paper bags in different sizes. Picking up some tomatoes? There was a smaller size available. A dozen apples? Choose a medium size. Selecting from a bin of loose potatoes? A larger sack would be in order. Need two lemons? No bag would be necessary at all and the lemons could just be placed into the shopping cart.

When it came time to check out, heavy-duty paper bags — or paper bags doubled — could be packed with all your produce and groceries for the trek home. Some stores offered paper bags with handles, while others required a supporting arm beneath the sack for transport.

So what changed? For one thing, we have always been a people who wanted to embrace new technology. We like creating things that make us feel modern. But one of the biggest factors was probably cost: plastic bags could be bought by the stores cheaper than paper at that time.

During the transition period of the 1970s, many stores asked you which you preferred, paper or plastic. Our parents’ generation was used to scrimping, saving and repurposing, first through the Depression and then through a World War. So even when plastic was their choice, it meant that each bag would be reused for all sorts of purposes, from storage to garbage. In the years before plastic sandwich bags became the norm, Mister B remembers his grandmother saving plastic bread wrappers. At that time — the early 1960s — bread began being wrapped in plastic instead of waxed paper. She kept a stack of clean plastic bread wrappers in her pantry to use for sandwiches, leftovers, cheese wedges and more.

Our society has accepted much more of a throwaway mindset since our early boomer days, but there are indications that things may be changing. Some municipalities are looking at taxing plastic bag use, or eliminating them altogether in an effort to address the environmental impact. Other stores are offering incentives to use reusable sacks for carrying home groceries. The produce aisle may not be far behind as cloth and mesh produce bags are readily available online.

The Boomer Generation has always shown itself to be far from monolithic in thought, but Mister B wonders whether the generation that was the first to push forward an environmental awareness agenda couldn’t have a greater influence on the societal direction of things like the use of plastic produce and grocery bags. If it was the natural order of things when we were young, why would it be so much of an inconvenience today? Maybe it’s time we took a look at our shared history and remind ourselves that we are stardust, we are golden. And maybe it’s time to get ourselves back to the Garden.

Do you remember shopping in the pre-plastic bag era, boomers?

Holiday Shopping Hours Bring Nostalgia Back to Boomers

The Black Friday kick-off of the holiday shopping season has continued to expand since the days of our boomer youth, when Black Friday referred more to the traffic snarls generated by families out to see holiday decorations in the city than a juggernaut of holiday shoppers (see Boomers Made Black Friday). For the first time, many stores chose to begin their Black Friday promotions on Thanksgiving Thursday this year, prompting hails from some and jeers from others. Now, this past week, Toys R Us announced its flagship store in Times Square, New York City, would remain open 24 hours a day right through the month of December until Christmas Eve.

Holiday shopping hours are something that have continued to change with the decades. In the 1950s and ’60s, it would be next to impossible to find a store open on Thanksgiving (except for bakeries and gas stations). The same was true for restaurants. As far as Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving wasn’t as developed a marketing maelstrom as is it today, so many stores kept their regular Friday hours. Those regular hours were quite a bit different than the holiday shopping hours of today, too.

When Mister B was in his formative years, he recalls that Sears Roebuck and Co. — the largest and one of only a few national stores in his area — was not even open every night of the week. Sears was open only on Tuesday and Friday evenings, and therefore all the other stores that inhabited the outdoor mall (this was long before indoor malls), followed suit. Years later, when Mister B started his working life in minimum-wage retail, this evening time was known as the “after dinner rush,” when families would come out shopping between the hours of six and nine p.m. And the key word there is, indeed, families. Since families each had one car, shopping “trips” were an excursion that required that the entire family be present. Holiday shopping would almost always follow this convention, with the family splitting up inside a department store or mall, marking a spot and time to meet-up. Some of the children (usually the boys) would be assigned to shop with their father, while others (usually the girls) would shop with their mothers.

There was no exception for weekends, either. Stores frequently closed at five or six p.m. on Saturdays, and in the early days weren’t open at all on Sundays. Many areas had blue laws prohibiting commerce on Sundays, and that didn’t begin to change in Mister B’s area until the late 1960s. By the mid-’70s, evening shopping hours were the norm, as was Sunday shopping. However, Sundays were limited to half-day hours, which was usually noon to five p.m.

Our entire culture has changed dramatically since we were young boomers, and that is reflected in our shopping patterns. In our early days, holiday shopping was a process — one shared by a family and designed to absorb the sights, sounds and smells of the season. Today it appears holiday shopping is all about the quickness of a bargain, and “getting it done.” Houses were much smaller in our day (see Boomers in the House: Square Footage Changes With the Generations), and it goes without saying that the size of the closets we grew up with are a complete non-starter with today’s families. Simply put, we had less space, and fewer things. Holiday gift giving, therefore, in some ways required more thought. The shopping experience forced us to think of the recipient, not only in terms of his or her likes and dislikes, but in the utility and usefulness of the gift. There were very few “must-haves” when we were children (though Saturday morning cartoon sponsors may have had a little to say about that), prompting gifts that may have missed the mark at times, but were always thoughtful.

The question then arises, is one better than the other? Times have changed so dramatically that it seems inevitable that holiday shopping hours would have to accommodate the schedules of today’s two-income households. In our day, we simply went to the stores when they were open. Moms generally didn’t work outside the home, and kids came home after school. Now, work schedules have expanded and kids’ schedules are also a big factor on when the family might even be available, let alone all go shopping together.

Nonetheless, as we speed forward through this holiday season, Mister B suggests you try to inject some of this nostalgia back into your family’s shopping. The holiday shopping of our youth is still available in most areas, thanks to small business districts. The windows of these independent businesses are the first places we as boomers saw animatronic figures, electric trains and doll houses, all decked out in holiday style. They are the places we kept in our heads when we dreamed of Santa and what might be waiting for us on Christmas morning. If you pause to rediscover these shops in your area, you’ll see that the holiday shopping of our youth is alive and well; many will gift wrap for you, and always they will give you service with a smile and wish you the merriest of seasons.

How about it, boomers? Was holiday shopping an experience that shaped your holiday traditions or an annual ordeal?