Thursday, 26 June 2008

Childhood Reminiscences No3 - More Shops and Shopping

Back in January I started what I hoped would be a mini-series "as I think back about my childhood in the 1950's and 1960's in urban Scotland - times of immense change."

Unfortunately, I managed only two posts: the first on Household Appliances and the second on Shops and Shopping around our house. I didn't think there would be a gap of 6 months until Part 3 but personal circumstances
took over. Anyway, on with the series. This third part deals with the rise of self-service, supermarkets and shopping in areas away from residential areas.

In my early years there were no supermarkets, there was no self-service and shopping was a task undertaken only when there was a need. Food shopping was done almost exclusively in local shops close to home although there were grocers in the town centre. Shopping for non-food items was done in the town centre and only occasionally did we venture to the big cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

When self-service first arrived it was the Co-op who introduced it to our town but this wasn't self-service as we understand it today. Customers didn't have the freedom to walk around as we have today but had to follow one behind another just as we do today in, for example, Ikea's cafeteria which has metal barriers to keep customers in line. In the diagram the customers moved in the direction of the arrows; food was available on one's left and the square in the middle which was bounded by metal barriers was unused.

This was a very
inefficient use of space and, soon after this, the town's first supermarket opened.

Lipton's was this supermarket, small by today's standards but utterly amazing then but not everyone embraced self-service. One town centre grocer ran an advert in which they stated that they would have nothing to do with self-service but would continue to give good service to their customers. Unfortunately, by not moving with the times, the business closed. The opening of supermarkets marked the end of the corner shop as a key component of our daily lives.

Another grocer - Cooper's - had a strange method for payment. The shop assistants didn't give change but they had a system with wires where the payment went to the cash office and change came back on the wire system. Unfortunately, I can't remember how this sytem worked. The Co-op which was the town's biggest shopping group having one small street to themselves had its own strange system. Again, the shop assistants didn't give change but payment was put into a small cylinder which was put into a system of pipes which, I believe, was under vacuum and the cylinder "shot" away to the cash office and change and receipt returned by putting the cylinder into the appropriate pipe and the cylinder "shot" back to the assistant.

Today we take the ready availability of music and DVD's for granted but, when I was young, records - 45 - were available in only two shops. One shop had only a small counter for records but another did have an upstairs floor. They even had a sound-proof booth - three in was tight squeeze - in which one could listen to music without disturbing anyone.

I remember going to the cobbler with shoes. He worked in a dingy old shop which I'm sure had changed little in 50 years. This cobbler's claim to fame was that he used no method to identify shoes: he relied on his memory. I don't know what he did if a different person collected the shoes.

One last memory which isn't as old as the others here concerns suits. There was no such thing as separate ranges of jacket and trousers where one has the opportunity to to find the best fitting jacket and best-fitting trousers.
Back then suits came as jacket and trouser combinations which made finding a good-fitting suit immensely difficult. A good-fitting jacket might come with trousers which were a few sizes too short.

Other than these few memories I recall little else about town centre shopping which I think indicates that this was not a large part of our lives. How different our shopping lives are today!


  1. When the first mini-supermarket opened in our village, my great-aunt went in and did her shopping and then walked out of the door with her shopping in the trolley and went across the road to the ice cream parlour for a cup of tea. The staff, who knew her, watched her go and finally went over and reminded her that she still had to pay!

  2. Nice to see you back :-)

    One of my local shops used to have that same method of wires for delivering cash to the separate cash office. I remember being fascinated by it as a child. and I know of a pub that uses the tube method to deliver the orders to the kitchen.

    I agree shopping seems to have taken over our lives and I couldn't do that one way round a shop thing I am far too disorganised for that!

  3. On a similar theme, I remarked on Easter Sunday how pleasant it was to be able to drive somewhere without being stuck in a traffic jam. Every other Sunday seems worse than the morning rush hour. We way we lead our lives today gives us precious time to sit back and relax. The time saved using labour saving devices is taken up rushing here, there and everywhere.

  4. ah memories ....

    the first house I lived in (until the age of five) was a one up, one down back to back with outside loo and no electricity (light was provided from a rather temperamental gas mantle).

    Very close by was a old style shop that sold everything (including say sugar and butter) loose ruled by a bitter old hag who I remember was known as Mother .... although I can't remember the surname.

    The most bizarre thing of those days was that I broke my leg at infant school (which the school nurse insisted was a sprain and strapped it up and made me walk on it all day) which resulted in a three week stay in hospital during which we were rehoused in a council 3 bed - it was weird to leave hospital to the changed world of housing with electric light.

    I'm probably the only Oxford graduate alive who can remember life without electricity. Indeed there's a fair chance I'm probably the 'umblest born Oxford graduate alive too.

  5. This was a blast from the past Calum. I remember only one store with the tube system in my childhood, a small department store. Doesn't it seem crazy now? We must have been very patient shoppers in those days!

  6. Tesco uses the vacuum system but only for checkout operators to send excess till money to the cash office.

  7. I have a website on cash carriers used in shops at and I would be grateful for details of any systems you remember - ideally town, address, approx. date, and type (cash ball, wire or pneumatic tube). Thanks.