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The fascinating history of the shopping trolley

The fascinating history of the shopping trolley
19/11/2021

The fascinating history of the shopping trolley

IF THERE’S one invention that demonstrates just how far technology has come in the past 80 years it might be the humble shopping trolley.

It seems so simple, and certainly something we all take for granted when it’s time to load up on groceries each week, but it hasn’t always been so easy.

Once upon a time shoppers had to struggle with the limitations of wicker or wire baskets. That is, until in 1937 the owner of the Humpty Dumpty supermarket chain in Oklahoma came up with what at the time was a revolutionary idea: put a much bigger basket on wheels to allow people to keep shopping.

It was an idea that would end up netting Sylvan Goldman his impressive fortune and was later hailed as a piece of innovation that drove the force of American capitalism.

But it didn’t catch on right away.

Men thought they were effeminate and women were reminded of pushing baby strollers — a task they had apparently had enough of.

Seeking to sway public opinion the 39-year-old inventor took out a number of newspaper ads to promote the new grocery store feature.

“Can you imagine winding your way through a spacious food market without having to carry a shopping basket on your arm?” read one.

However they proved ineffective. In a 1977 interview with CBS, Goldman recalled the difficulty he had in getting the American public to embrace his invention.

Goldman persisted and hired attractive men and women to walk around his stores pushing the shopping carts — a move that proved to be a stroke of genius.

Once they were eventually deemed fashionable enough, the carts took off. Not only did his business go through the roof, Goldman began selling his creation to other supermarket chains and by 1940 he had a seven-year waiting list.

The process leading to the shopping trolley was by no means a straightforward one.

In the end, inspiration for the design of the trolley came from a wooden folding chair in Goldman’s office.

Looking at the chair while sitting in his office one day, it came to him. What if he put wheels on the bottom of the chair and had a second base on which to hold another basket?

According to the folklore, he raced downstairs to find the store handyman Fred Young and the pair spent hours tinkering with a design.

After the first attempt with a wooden chair collapsed under the weight of the basket they designed another using a metal frame.

The design soon evolved into what Goldman called a “folding basket carrier” and he filed the invention with the patent office — a move that helped spawn a real estate and retail empire worth half a billion dollars by the time he died in 1984.

The larger, single basket successor to Goldman’s initial design is still in use today.

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