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June 4, 2024 10 mins

On this day in 1937, Sylvan Goldman introduced the world’s first shopping cart at his Humpty Dumpty supermarket chain in Oklahoma City.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
This Day in History Class is a production of iHeartRadio.
Hello and welcome to This Day in History Class, a
show for those interested in the big and small moments
of history. I'm Gay Bluesier, and today we're looking at
the origin of the humble shopping cart, also known as

(00:21):
a shopping carriage, trolley, or buggy, whatever you call it,
though it's now an indispensable tool of the self serve
retail model and one of the earliest modes of travel
for generations of children worldwide. The day was June fourth,

(00:45):
nineteen thirty seven. Sylvan Goldman introduced the world's first shopping
cart at his Humpty Dumpty supermarket chain in Oklahoma City.
Goldman called the cart's folding basket carriers, and although customers
were hesitant to use them at first, the concept quickly
caught on and was later adopted by all kinds of

(01:06):
retail stores, not just supermarkets. Sylvan Nathan Goldman was born
on November fifteenth, eighteen ninety eight, in the Ardmore region
of the Chickasaw Nation, which is now a part of Oklahoma.
He got into the grocery business at an early age,
helping out after school at a dry goods store owned
by his father and uncle. He put that experience to

(01:30):
good use during World War I, when he served as
a food requisitionist for the U. S Army in France.
After the war, Goldman partnered with his older brother Alfred,
to open the Goldman Brothers Wholesale Fruits and Produce Store
in Breckinridge, Texas. A few years later, the brothers were
living in California when they first encountered a new kind

(01:52):
of grocery store, one that offered all types of products produce,
dry goods, meats, and dairy under one roof This concept,
known as the supermarket, also introduced self service to the
grocery industry. Instead of having sales clerks gather a customer's
items from behind a counter, the customers shopped for themselves,

(02:14):
collecting items in a basket provided by the store. The
Goldman Brothers were so taken with this convenient new approach
to shopping that they returned to Oklahoma to help introduce
it in their home state. In nineteen twenty, they opened
their first Sun Grocery Market in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and by
the following year they'd opened twenty more stores all over

(02:36):
the state. The company continued to grow throughout the nineteen twenties,
and at the end of the decade, Sylvan and Alfred
sold it off to the Safeway supermarket chain and made
a tidy profit in the process. Five years after that,
in nineteen thirty four, the brothers purchased another Oklahoma grocery
chain called Humpty Dumpty. The brand hadn't been doing well

(03:00):
when the Goldmans took it over, but they quickly whipped
it into shape, thanks in no small part to Sylvan's
forward thinking use of advertising. It was two years into
that new venture that Sylvan Goldman noticed a problem. Most
of his customers carried their groceries and handheld baskets while
they shopped, but once the basket was full or too

(03:22):
heavy to carry comfortably, they would call it a day
and head for the checkout counter. This got Goldman thinking,
if there was some way for customers to carry two
baskets and still have one free hand to shop with,
they would probably buy considerably more items. The way to
achieve this wasn't readily apparent, but one night, while working

(03:44):
late at the office, Goldman noticed a wooden folding chair
and had an epiphany. He enlisted the help of a
young mechanic and Humpty Dumpty employee named Fred Young, and
together they devised a prototype based on the folding chair.
The result was a folding metal frame with four wheels
attached to the bottom and two wire baskets positioned one

(04:06):
on top of the other in place of the chair seat.
It took a few more months of tinkering to perfect
the design, but by the end of nineteen thirty six,
Goldman was so pleased with his new invention that he
founded the Folding Basket Carrier Company to manufacture it. The
first finished carts were rolled out at Humpty Dumpty locations

(04:27):
in Oklahoma City on June fourth, nineteen thirty seven. That
same day, Goldman ran an ad in the local papers
to help spread the word. It showed a woman struggling
with an overladen basket alongside an image of the convenient
mobile cart. The accompanying text heralded the invention, saying quote,

(04:48):
it's new. It's sensational, no more baskets to carry. But
despite that clear advantage, the shopping cart rollout turned out
to be a flop. As is often the case, customers
were resistant to change and came up with a variety
of reasons to avoid using them. The most common complaint

(05:09):
came from female shoppers, who at the time were the
primary market for grocery stores. Women thought the carts were
too similar to baby carriages, and since many mothers already
spent much of the day pushing heavy strollers, they didn't
want to repeat the activity while shopping. Goldman's carts, or
folding basket carriers, as he called them, proved equally unpopular

(05:32):
with male shoppers. In a telling show of male fragility,
many men thought that pushing a cart made them look
feminine and suggested they were too weak to carry a basket.
A less assured entrepreneur would have backed down after such
a chilly reception, but Goldman knew the carts were a
good idea, so instead of throwing in the towel, he

(05:54):
doubled down and launched a savvy, stealth marketing campaign to
win over his reluctant customers. Goldman hired attractive male and
female models of all different ages and paid them to
push around the carts in his stores while pretending to shop.
He also added a greeter to the front of the
store to offer carts to customers as they arrived. These

(06:17):
tactics made shoppers feel less self conscious about using the carts,
and pretty soon the initial stigma surrounding them was completely gone. Unfortunately,
Goldman's success turned bittersweet just one month later when his
brother Alfred passed away unexpectedly while vacationing in New York.

(06:37):
Sylvan carried on the family business in his brother's honor,
and also began supplying his patented shopping carts to other
grocery stores besides his own. By nineteen forty, the carts
had grown so popular that companies wishing to buy them
had to join a seven year waiting list. Goldman's theory
had proven correct, with customers buying far more on average

(07:00):
than they had in the basket only days. In fact,
many supermarkets had to install larger checkout counters just to
accommodate all the extra food that people were buying. The
rest of the stores layouts were redesigned around the carts
as well. Aisles were widened so they'd be easier to navigate,
and extra storage space was added at the front to

(07:22):
ensure there were always plenty of carts to go around.
Goldman's shopping carts made him a multi millionaire, but his
game changing is. His initial idea was it still left
room for improvement. For one thing, the baskets and the
folding frame of the cart were separate pieces that had
to be stored separately in order to conserve space. This

(07:44):
meant that each cart had to be assembled and disassembled
before and after each use, and if a customer couldn't
or wouldn't handle that themselves, then an employee had to
do it for them. That began to change in nineteen
forty six when a Missouri the engineer named Orla Watson
added a swinging door feature to the rear of the

(08:04):
shopping cart. That way, when the front end of one
cart was pushed into the rear of another, the vertical
door on each of the two baskets would swing upward,
allowing one cart's baskets to nest inside the others. According
to Watson's marketing brochure, his telescoping shopping carts took up
one fifth the storage space of a regular cart, and

(08:27):
with no assembly or disassembly required. Watson built several prototypes
and shot them around to Kansas City grocers. He also
filed a patent application, but Sulvan Goldman quickly contested it
and submitted a similar patent of his own. The dispute
dragged on for several years, but in nineteen forty nine

(08:49):
Goldman and Watson finally reached an agreement. Goldman would relinquish
his claim and withdraw his application, and in return, Watson
would grant him the licensing runs for the telescoping carts
and allow them to manufacture and sell them, with Watson
receiving a royalty for every cart that Goldman sold. The

(09:10):
shopping cart continued to evolve in the years ahead. The
twin baskets grew bigger to encourage customers to buy more,
until finally, in the nineteen fifties, they were merged into
the single large basket that most of us are accustomed
to today. From that point on, grocery cart design has
remained largely static, with the exception of a few tweaks

(09:32):
and additions such as the all important baby seat, a
couple of drink holders, and wheel locks to help prevent theft. Today,
nearly ninety years after its invention, Goldman's shopping cart is
a standard feature at grocery stores and other retailers all
over the world. In fact, the cart is so closely

(09:52):
associated with the activity of shopping that its name and
image are even used by online retailers, a breakthrough business
tool to a universal symbol of commerce. Sylvan Goldman's bright
idea just keeps rolling along. I'm Gabe blues Yay, and

(10:12):
hopefully you now know a little more about history today
than you did yesterday. If you'd like to keep up
with the show, you can follow us on Twitter, Facebook,
and Instagram at TDI HC Show, and if you have
any comments or suggestions, feel free to send them my
way by writing to This Day at iHeartMedia dot com.

(10:34):
Thanks to Kasby Bias for producing the show, and thanks
to you for listening. I'll see you back here again
tomorrow for another day in History class.

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