The history of the shopping trolley
A trip to the supermarket wouldn’t be the same without the shopping trolley, a utilitarian piece of design that allows us to buy more than we can physically carry. Colin Bisset takes a look at the history of an invention that changed consumerism forever.
The shopping trolley is one of the most successful marketing inventions of the 20th century. It came into existence in 1937 as a by-product of a new kind of shopping experience popularised in the 1920s: the supermarket.
The trolley was the idea of American supermarket owner Sylvan Goldman, who dreamed it up as a way of encouraging shoppers to buy more items in his Humpty Dumpty chain of stores.
The frame was inspired by a folding chair and held two wire shopping baskets, one above the other, doubling the quantity of goods that could be carried. They were unpopular at first because they reminded women of prams and men considered them effeminate. To counteract this Goldman hired male and female models who spent their days pushing trolleys around his stores, leading to their gradual acceptance.
The next big innovation was made by Orla Watson in 1946. He came up with a design with a hinged rear panel which allowed trolleys to be easily pushed together for storage. The Telescope Cart was patented in 1949 and remains the model for most trolleys today. The 1950s saw massive growth of supermarket and mall-style shopping with huge parking areas, making a trolley an almost an obligatory shopping aid. The density of customer traffic made compact storage essential. In 1954, the further refinement of a fold-down seat for toddlers meant that parents were free to focus on the shelves.
Increasing store size has since created demand for larger shopping trolleys to cope with increased sales, and the arrival of self-scanning equipment attached to the trolley handle has simplified the checkout process in some places. In 2013, a jet-propelled shopping trolley reached 70 kilometres per hour in Britain, but the idea has thankfully not been taken up by supermarket chains.
The Edgemar shopping mall in Santa Monica, California, which was designed in the late 1980s by local architect Frank Gehry, has been home to a towering Christmas tree made entirely from shopping trolleys every year since 1995. Created by artist Anthony Schmidt, each tree is over 10 metres high. Although they would appear to be a most appropriate symbol for Christmas consumerism, Schmidt adds that they also remind us of those in the world whose possessions would fill only a single shopping trolley. The first tree’s silvery shimmer was, he says, inspired by a friend’s mother who had platinum hair.
While the wonky-wheeled trolley has long been a visual gag in film, the abandoned trolley is more often a symbol of urban waste, and many are dumped by roadsides or in waterways. More than one million trolleys are manufactured each year, adding to the millions already in circulation. Most supermarkets now make considerable efforts to retain their property, adding coin-deposit mechanisms to ensure their return in areas of high theft as well as wheels that lock when a trolley is pushed over a magnetic strip set at a mall entrance.
The scale of the shopping trolley has also grown and the supermarket model is now used for everything from furniture shops to pile-it-high discount stores. For some, Sunday wouldn’t be Sunday without pushing a trolley around a hardware store or a wine warehouse. Thanks to the increased kinetic energy implicit in the larger size and weight, there have been reports of people being crushed, sometimes fatally, by trolleys. However, many supermarkets today also offer scaled-down versions so that small children will learn shopping habits early. Sylvan Goldman would certainly have approved of that.
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