Although shops were smaller and the array of goods was often limited, many shopkeepers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century offered the housewife the added convenience of home delivery. Some products, like milk and bread, were delivered daily. Until about the 1950s milk was transported in metal cans and delivered into a household billy, (a kind of small metal bucket) left on the doorstep of the home. Although the level of pasteurization increased, the quality of milk was still an issue in the 1950s. Many small home dairies persisted in urban areas, although milk was also delivered to Melbourne twice daily from dairy farms in the Dandenong Ranges. Bottled milk increased in volume from the 1930s, sold initially in pint bottles. Small bottles of about one third of a pint were also supplied to schools from the 1950s and were distributed to all children. Memories of consuming school milk vary. Some loved it: others, like me, used all kinds of ruses to avoid drinking the tepid contents of the unrefrigerated bottles. Eventually I got a note from my mother to say that I need not drink it. Milk deliveries continued in Melbourne until the early 1970s but declined in popularity quickly after that.
Bread was also delivered daily, directly into special ‘bread boxes’ and was almost invariably a white, square loaf or half-loaf. Sliced bread appeared from the late 1950s, along with the new ‘supermarkets’, but it took some time to catch on. Many a child cherished being sent to the corner shop or the baker to buy a loaf of fragrant white bread, usually with strict instructions not to pick out the enticing, soft middle of the loaf on the way home!
Grocers, green-grocers and butchers also offered home delivery, usually from a horse and cart. Historian Stephanie de Boer remembers the weekly delivery of the order from the grocer: ‘with it came a large brown paper bag of broken biscuits’. Sometimes women delivered their orders to these shopkeepers in person: later orders were more often delivered over the telephone. But many also sent their children to the shops either with messages, or to collect small quantities. There were no restrictions in place to prevent children from buying either alcohol or cigarettes until quite late in the twentieth century. Many a nineteenth-century child was sent to the local pub to buy a ‘jug of beer for father’, or later a packet of cigarettes. I could still buy cigarettes for my grandfather from the corner shop in the 1960s.
The advent of the supermarket
In the late 1950s shopping underwent a major change as the first self-service grocery shops began to corner an increasing share of the market. However it was the advent of the supermarket in the 1960s that was to transform the experience of shopping for the housewife. From the first store opened by Coles in 1960, the supermarket expanded swiftly, decimating the small local grocers and then the corner shops. The supermarkets offered a greater range of goods and sometimes lower prices, but they also meant that the housewife had to do all the work herself. And often she had to drive to get there, partly because there were fewer supermarkets, and partly to transport the weekly shop home. I’m sure my mother was not the only woman to view the supermarket as a mixed blessing.