Material culture of modern food retailing

Tasteful groceries. An archaeological study of iconography, material culture and identity in Belgian food retailing, c. 1870-1940.

Nelleke Teughels

Around 1870,food retailing underwent significant change. New forms of distribution like department stores, cooperative stores and chain stores transformed the retail sector. It is the latter form of distribution which constitutes the main focus of this study. Until very recently, the radical changes in distribution were primarily studied in economic terms. This research, however, wishes to examine nineteenth and early twentieth century chain stores with specific attention to the social and cultural aspects of shopping, to social and cultural distinction. In other words, it wants to analyze how food distribution played a role in the construction of a certain image and identity and what significance shopping for food had in the articulation of social relations and aspirations.
Given their organization, chain stores held the promise of bringing a larger array of products within reach of an increasing number of people from broader layers of society. However, most retailers wish to address a distinctive target group. This social divergence will be visible in the in the appearance and organization of the stores, the choice of goods on sale and the advertising strategies and style, which each retailer used to create the desired image and to play into the expectations of the consumer. This study wants to examine which image this new form of distribution wished to create for itself and how this expresses itself in the visual and material culture of the stores.
In this PhD research, iconography and design are considered important markers of convergence and divergence. As a consequence, the study of the material and visual culture of the chain stores is based primarily on visual sources. A second important goal, therefore, is developing a critical methodology for analyzing images, supported by a strong theoretical grounding. In order to reach the abovementioned aims, this research makes use of a case study: the iconography, architecture and design used by Delhaize Frères et Cie ‘Le Lion, the company which introduced the chain store system in Belgian food retailing, between 1867 and 1940.