On This Day in 1930: A Behemoth Was Born

On this day – August 4th, 1930 –  a giant marvel of a masterpiece was unveiled on Jamaica Avenue in Queens, New York. It involved a big building, a big parking lot and a plethora of products that extended far beyond what anyone could have imagined before. Aptly named King Kullen, it was King Kong-ish in size and scope and quickly took over an industry in a way only a behemoth of a good idea could.  It was the birth of the super market – the very first large space grocery store that contained not only food items but also hardware, paint, automotive, cosmetics, shoe shine, kitchenware, confectionery and drug departments all under one roof.

Michael J. Cullen (1884-1936)

The brainchild of grocery store employee, Michael Cullen (who spent half of his adult career working at The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company and then grocery retailer, Kroger) imagined a better, larger, less expensive shopping experience that would cut grocery prices in half for the customer and allow more space for the store to sell bulk items in mass quantity. Essentially it is the same concept that our modern American grocery stores still follow to this day.

Before Michael and his big-brained idea came along, people grocery shopped in small pocket stores like this one photographed in the 1920s…

These independent stores definitely filled a need and were vital businesses to the community but they were also very limiting and not very private. Space was an issue for the store owners which meant that many items had to be special ordered for customers on a need-by-need basis,  extending the shopping transaction by days or sometimes even weeks.  Service was also an issue as items were frequently stored up high or behind counters making it necessary for grocery employees to gather specifically what was needed.

This one-on-one buying model may have helped develop customer relationships but it also created lengthy wait times for other shoppers while each order was filled.  Speculation and gossip seeped into the buying process too as the whole store could see (and hear!) what everyone was buying. Combined with the fact that meat was purchased from the butcher, bread from the baker, fish from the fish monger and specialty cans and shelf stable items from the grocery, meant that the whole shopping experience could take hours out of the day.

Refrigerators of the late 1920’s provided enough storage to stock foods for up to a week.

Michael took note of all these clunky patterns, accessed the growing rise of refrigerators popping up in American homes and started jotting down ideas for something easier and faster involving less commotion and less expense. While he flushed out his thoughts he was still working at Kroger. He brought up his ideas to his boss who didn’t give Michael’s thoughts any merit. So Michael left Kroger and opened King Kullen Grocery Company independently months later. Michael knew he had a great idea – the right concept at the right time. He had worked in the grocery business for 28 years at that point, long enough to see where the consumer experience needed improvement and how profits could be made.

By building a bigger store in a bigger space, King Kullen initiated the self-serve shopping concept where all products were in easy reach of the customer with a large quantity of the same item available. So you could zip in and out of the store much more quickly. No more waiting, no more special ordering, no more gossip.

King Kullen also eliminated the idea of credit registry systems, another time sucker, by only dealing with cash transactions. And they axed the local delivery system which for small, independent grocers meant additional employees and additional expense. Combining all these elements – bigger store, easy to reach items, large selection of product and a faster payment system was much more efficient and empowering to shoppers.  Independent groceries were old-fashioned and pokey where King Kullen, in 1930,  was up to the minute modern.

And then there was the significant pricing system. Upon opening, King Kullen boasted that they could reduce your average grocery bill by 10-50% which during the Great Depression years was a major attraction for struggling wage-earners. By offering everything from house paint to ham (the “super” market concept)  under one roof, King Kullen became a one-stop shop. You can see the price difference between Kroger in the 1920’s and King Kullen in the 1930’s in these advertisements…

Late 1920’s Kroger grocery advertisement on the left, 1933 King Kullen Advertisement on the right

Some of the significant savings included:

  • Tea –   $0.29 per 1/2lb at Kroger vs. $0.39/per 1lb at King Kullen
  • Boiled Ham – $0.33/lb at Kroger vs. $0.21/lb at King Kullen
  • Catsup – $0.15/bottle at Kroger vs. $0.10/bottle at King Kullen
  • Whole Chicken – $0.33/lb vs. $0.19/lb at King Kullen
  • Beans – 4 cans for $0.23 at Kroger vs. 6 cans for $0.25 at King Kullen

Finally, by providing a large parking lot able to accommodate a vast amount of cars, King Cullen changed how people shopped. Families went together, some traveling up to 100 miles away from home so they could fill their car with foodstuffs and stock their shelves for a lengthier period of time. The super market also hosted all sorts of product events and giveaways making each shopping trip to King Kullen unexpected and engaging. It was a seamless, adventuresome outing, easy to navigate and fun to participate in.

King Kullen caught like wildfire in the hearts of the American public. Thousands flocked to the new Jamaica Avenue store on opening day, leading a trend that other grocery stores (like Michael’s previous employer, Kroger) noted and then soon replicated. Throughout the 1930’s store after store opened under the King Kullen brand. Unfortunately in 1936 tragedy struck when Michael died just six years after debuting his first Jamaica Avenue store from complications following an appendectomy.

With the help of his wife and his sons, Michael’s legacy and the King Kullen brand continued to thrive. Today there are 32 King Kullen grocery stores still in operation, proving that Michael was a true visionary. The motto of the brand from the beginning was “We are here to stay and to please the public.”  Eighty-seven years later and still going strong, they have definitely accomplished their mission and in doing so affected change across the entire grocery industry.

Just listed in the shop this week is a cookbook published in 1955 celebrating the 25th anniversary of the supermarket. Titled the Silver Jubilee, it contains over 500 pages of recipes utilizing ingredients easily found at King Kullen-sized stores.

It is hard to imagine this being a novelty cookbook now but if you think about having to stop at 5-7 different food stores to pick up ingredients for one recipe you can understand how enormous this concept really was between the 1930’s – 1950’s. We take so much for granted now in the form of food buying and what we expect from the process. The Silver Jubilee really helps us understand the marvel behind the modern just like Michael helped us experience the efficiency behind the industry.

Cheers to Michael and his revolutionary idea and a happy birthday to King Kullen!

Later this month we will be featuring a few recipes from the Silver Jubilee cookbook in our first ever cross country cook-a-thon. Stay tuned for that!  In the meantime, find the celebratory Super Market Cook Book in the shop here.

10 Vintage Kitchen Trends of 1956

Hotpoint Mobile Dishwasher, 1956

1956 was quite a year for iconic pop-culture. Elvis was singing about his blue suede shoes, Norma Jean officially changed her name to Marilyn, the Yankees won the World Series,  Bob Barker stepped out onto his first televised game show set and Grace Kelly married a real-life prince.

On the home front, the mid-1950’s kitchen was also going through some equally exciting and interesting design improvements in the convenience department. With more than 35% of women working outside the home by 1956 multi-tasking became “the” trend of new innovations promising both ease of use and the ability to conquer more than one job at a time. Some of these inventions were a bit quirky (like the oven insert that roasted meat like toast), some paved the way for modern mainstays that we use regularly today (the automatic Redi-Baker) and some (the mobile dishwasher) could totally make a comeback in our modern mini-home craze.

In today’s post we are heading back to the pastel wonderland of 1956 and all the mechanical marvels that hit the mid-century kitchen market with a flurry of magical appeal. Let’s look…

1. The Mobile Dishwasher

Hotpoint Mobile Dishwasher, 1956

Part cutting board, part dishwasher and all on rollers, this totally functional piece of kitchen equipment was meant to be wheeled around from prep counter to table and then back to the sink offering kitchen cleaner-uppers the ability to cut out some extra steps by loading dirty dishes right from the kitchen table. The new mid-1950’s concept of front loading baskets left room for a chopping board on top which was the ideal helper for any kitchen too tight on counter space. By throwing a cloth over the whole thing this handy appliance could even turn into a rolling hors d’oeuvres cart or impromptu bar area for entertaining, fulfilling three jobs in one – dishwasher, sous chef and butler. Completely functional, this seems like a piece of the vintage past that could definitely come gallivanting back into our world today, especially for city dwellers and tiny house lovers.

2. Separate Fridge and Freezer Units

Crosley Presents their Fresh and Frozen Food Centers with Shelveador Twins

About the width of a standard contemporary bookcase, the 1956 Shelvador (shelf-in-a-door!)  Fresh and Frozen Food Center Twins by Crosley had the ability to hold up to 450 lbs of food and contain fresh and frozen assorted perishables in two completely separate unattached units. One for cold products, one for frozen products. Pitched as the “most convenient food-keeping service ever designed,” owning Shelvador Twins meant less frequent trips to the supermarket thanks to their large storage capacity. It also meant more creative kitchen design.  Offering two units for room balance and a series of mix and match colors opened up  of bevy of options in the decorating department. Crosley’s were a matter of  convenience and creativity.

3. Ultra-Organized Food Bins

Crosley was the company that first pioneered the idea of installing functional storage compartments in the doors of refrigerators and freezers back in the 1930’s, but their idea was so practical that all the major food storage manufacturers immediately began incorporating the compartment concept into their own designs as well.

In order to set everyone apart, individuality came to the design teams of all these manufacturers in the form of  unique arrangements within the compartmentalized cold cabinet. When the 1956 version of the Fabulous Foodarama by Kelvinator was unveiled it was the ultimate organizer’s dream. Offering a bevy of bins, boxes, trays and baskets it was like the Taj-Mahal of efficient food-keeping systems focusing on the nitty gritty details of good design.

Bacon, eggs and juice went into the Breakfast Bar section on the upper right side of the door. Waxed papers went into a non-refrigerated dispenser located in the freezer, ice cream got its own gallon-sized compartment specially regulated to keep it at the ideal consistency and bananas flew off the counter and into a room temperature bin just below the freezer papers. Separate spaces for vegetables, cheese, canned fruit and ice cube trays were all designated as well making the Foodarama distinct in its ability to put that there and this here.

4. Toaster-Like Cooking Devices

Gibson, who manufactured air conditioners, refrigerators freezers and electric ranges had a wonderful marketing team (or perhaps it was the design team) that came up with all sorts of colorful names to call the unique details of their stove-tops and ovens. The Thermatic Kookall, the Tel-O-Matic Light Source and the Verti-Broiler are just three examples that dazzled potential range buyers but mostly they were glitzy names for ordinary features that other popular ranges came with too.  Until the exclusive Gibson Verti-Brolier was born.

Inspired by the close heating elements of the common, everyday toaster the Verti-Broiler turned the meat industry on its side (literally) buy taking the same directional cooking concept as a slice of bread but exchanging it with a slice of beef. With the pronounced ability “to seal in savory juices in seconds” this proposed method was supposed to cut cooking time in half making it a helpful necessity for busy working men and women. In a future post we are going to experiment with this cooking method (steak on the vertical)  to see what happens. Stay tuned for more on that this summer.

5. Linen-Like Paper Napkins

It may seem a bit difficult nowadays to get excited about a paper napkin – but in 1956 they were indeed a source of novelty among meal planners. By giving women a plausible, non-guilty excuse for setting aside their traditional cloth napkins, these paper cousins eliminated the need for excess laundering and large linen closets. Thanks to the 1956 invention of the Scotkin – Scott Paper Company’s introduction of the super strong and absorbent 2-ply paper napkin, these elegant yet disposable damask designed napkins boosted all the beauty of linen without all the upkeep.  No more washing, starching, and ironing needed with a Scotkin – just use and toss out. They were available in two sizes – dinner and family and were destined to become an ever-useful staple paving the way for similar products still on the market today.

6. Washable Wall Canvas

Wall-Tex Washable Wall Canvas

The Columbus Coated Fabrics Corporation began introducing washable wall canvases in the early 1950’s but by 1956 they were hitting their stride and gaining such popularity that dozens of new designs were being unveiled each year under the Wall-Tex brand. Prized for their easy ability to wipe off grease, dirt and drawings (as seen above!) this durable wallpaper-like covering sped up housecleaning and allowed for a somewhat more relaxed atmosphere when it came to looking after the messy effects of energetic kids, pets and cooks.  Hung with paste just like traditional wallpaper, Wall-Tex canvases were baked with a layer of plasti-chrome that produced smooth, easy-to-clean surfaces ideal for kitchens,  bathrooms and play areas. Columbus Coated Fabrics Corporation and the Wall-Tex brand went out of business in 2001 but recently peel and stick wallpaper has come back into fashion again so perhaps we will head down the highway of washable wall canvases yet again.

8. Under the Sink Storage

Kitchen cabinetry first debuted in the 1930’s, and was improving by functionality and appearance with each decade. If you wanted to keep pace with all the latest interior design trends in 1956 you would have most definitely upgraded your kitchen sink. Out went the old leggy farmhouse trough style…

…and in came the organized cabinets and drawers…

Popular Youngstown brand (the leader in mid-century cabinetry) hid the plumbing, added sleek steel drainboards, a garbage disposal and pull out drawers and shelving. Deluxe models even included two sinks, pull out cutting boards and a cutlery drawer transforming the ordinary sink into an extraordinary piece of furniture.

9. Mini Tabletop Ovens

A pre-cursor to our counter-top toaster ovens, the Knapp-Monarch Automatic Electric Redi-Baker was the mini oven you needed to bake small portions right at the kitchen table. As a cost-saving device you no longer needed to heat up the big main kitchen oven in order to enjoy single serving items like breakfast sausages or biscuits, and as a convenience measure you could tote it anywhere around the house as long as you had an available electric outlet. This essentially took baking out of the kitchen and into other rooms of your choosing or even to the patio. While a great idea at the time, the Redi-Baker was in competition with a lot of other emerging small appliances eventually becoming overshadowed by bigger, more well known brands.  It was out of the market altogether within the decade.

10. Built-in Big Pots

In the traditional place of four burners on a stove-top Frigidaire Electric Ranges introduced a new concept in cooking equipment with their 1956 unveiling of the Imperial Range… a built in Thermizer. Essentially it was like a big pot sunk into the stove that could be used to boil, roast, fry or slow-cook an assorted number of dishes from soups and sauces to pot roast, dumplings, desserts,  and even popcorn. With a removable 6 quart pot that fit inside the well of the Thermizer  you could even use it to sterilize canning jars, steam vegetables and bake small pies or individual sized desserts.  A true novelty in the productivity department, it helped cut down on the expense of heating large ovens for small projects while also giving home cooks the ability to prepare and pre-plan large meals effortlessly.

Italian designer Mossimo Vignelli (1931-2014) believed that good design was a language not a style. It is easy to forget that all the bells and whistles on what we consider to be normal kitchen equipment (fridge, freezer, stove, dishwasher, sink, cabinets, etc.) first started out as novelties and innovations. They were all experiments destined to stick or stink.

We’ve come a long way from the caveman days of cooking over open fires in the wild but in the 61 years that have passed between 1956 and today it is interesting to note that we are still requiring the the same sets of demands from our ideal kitchens – time saving shortcuts, multi-tasking equipment and maximum storage.  We are still a society juggling time. We are still a society talking about the most effective ways to produce a product and fulfill a specific need. And ultimately we are still trying to sort out our most efficient eating and cooking habits. Mossimo is right.  The good bones of functional kitchen design began to form fifty years ago but the conversation isn’t over yet and the language is still being translated.  Everyday ahead gets us one smidge closer to improving the landscape we learned about yesterday.

Would you like to see any of these vintage kitchen trends embrace our modern spaces today? If so, post a comment below!

In the meantime, cheers to past designers who  made their marks and to future innovators who sustain them!