1136 Dollar 49 day, Woodward’s
Food Floor: My Woodward’s Days
by Margaret Cadwaladr
Langley: Madrona Books & Publishing, 2020
$15.95 / 9871999546519
Reviewed by Mary Gale Smith
Margaret Cadwaladr has created a little book of stories that will be of interest to anyone who worked at Woodward’s or in a grocery store, or who buys groceries. It is a meandering memoir of her experiences, first as a high school and then as a university student, working part time on Woodward’s Food Floor in Vancouver in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Woodward’s was one of the big three department stores in downtown Vancouver at the time, the others being the Hudson’s Bay and Eaton’s. Woodward’s started as a small store at Main and Georgia streets in 1892, later moving to 101 Hastings in 1903, where it took up a whole block and eventually rose to six stories. It was considered the flagship store as the company expanded to other cities. It operated at its Hastings Street location until it closed 1993.
What made Woodward’s unique was its legendary Food Floor. Imagine a full service grocery store as part of a department store. Woodward’s Food Floor, which opened after the First World War, was groundbreaking. Up to that time most grocery stores featured “counter service,” where the items for sale were visible behind a counter, or kept close by. Customers were waited on individually and their items handed to them. At Woodward’s, shoppers could browse items placed in aisles and select for themselves. According to Cawaladr, by 1952 the Food Floor was the largest grocery store in the world (p. 3). It was ahead of its time in grocery retailing, for example, and had their own brand name products. They also carried “a cornucopia of ethnic foods and gourmet items not available anywhere else” (p. 23). They educated the consumer with in-store displays, and in 1954 added a demonstration kitchen that offered recipes, contests, and culinary advice to customers. Woodward’s created a culture of service and loyalty.
There are 22 chapters in Food Floor: My Woodward’s Days, with titles such as Grocery Wrapper, Butter Dreams, Woodward’s Own Brands, Chunky Visits, The Beacon and China Tea cups. The chapters are short, some only a page long, but the images — black and white and colour, archival and contemporary photographs — draw the reader in. Chapters are not necessarily chronological, so reading Food Floor is much like wandering up and down the aisles of a grocery store, stopping to browse when something catches your attention or taking the opportunity to pause and reflect on how times have changed.
Having never shopped at the Woodward’s Food Floor I was fascinated with the process of checking, packing, marking, and placing grocery orders on a conveyor belt that ended at Woodward’s parking garage. As a former home economics teacher, I was interested in the food personalities, for example Bea Wright, who was a made-up persona, and Mona Brun, who was real. As a food history blogger, I found the book a study of food shopping and retailing as a social and cultural experience.
Food Floor: My Woodward Day is not an academic tome by any means, but it provides the fodder for further research. I found myself wanting more on topics such as the role of the modern grocery store in creating consumers, or what happened to the culture of service, or the effect of technology, or what led to the demise of Woodward’s.
Food Floor: My Woodward Days is a slight departure from Margaret Cadwaladr’s two previous publications, Veronica’s Garden: The Social History of the Milner Gardens and Woodland (2002), and A Secret Garden: the Story of Darts Hill Garden Park (2019), also published by Madrona Books & Publishing, a company she formed in 2002. But Food Floor also remains true to her belief in the importance of memoirs, autobiography, and life story. While food shopping and grocery store clerking are often dismissed as dreary occupations, this book demonstrates that even the most ordinary, mundane activities can be extraordinary.
I will warn you that if you are familiar with the Woodwards $1.49 day jingle, you won’t be able to get it out of your head! The famous day started out as 25-cent day in 1910, but became $1.49 in 1951. I wonder what it would be today?
Mary Gale Smith is a retired home economics teacher and British Columbia Food History Network researcher and blogger. As a sessional instructor at UBC she has taught courses in Food Studies, Home Economics Education and Research Methods.
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