During the mid-1930s, Oklahoma City grocer Sylvan N. Goldman realized that shopping wasn’t all that easy in his Humpty Dumpty stores.
Shoppers, most of whom were women, could fill their hand-carried wicker or wire baskets with only enough food for a few days. Often the baskets would become burdensome and heavy.
Grocery stores were getting larger, adding another complication to the problem. Goldman needed a solution, a comfortable and effortless way for customers to shop from one side of the store to the other and pick up everything they needed in one visit. In 1936 he hit upon an idea that changed the way people shopped for groceries. He invented the shopping cart.
His prototype, wheels on a folding chair with two baskets, was simple but innovative. He fine-tuned the cart, patented it and started the Folding Basket Carrier Co., eager to get the wheeled contraption into his stores.
The day finally arrived on June 4, 1937. He wanted to witness the event, so he went to his largest store — where he saw people shopping, but none using his cart. He was surprised and disappointed.
“Well, I thought it would be an immediate success,” Goldman told CBS television reporter Charles Kuralt in a 1977 interview. “I was so enthused about the cart,” he said, adding that he even bought advertising touting the big event.
Shoppers were reluctant to use the wheeled metal cart; women likened it to pushing a baby carriage and men thought it wasn’t manly. Quick-thinking Goldman hired men and women of various ages to push the carts and pretend to be shopping in his stores. The convenience was evident, and soon everyone wanted to use one.
A few years later he introduced a cart with a child seat, making it even easier for shoppers with young children to wheel through the stores. Carts became larger, too. More in the basket equals more store sales.
When Kuralt asked Goldman if shopping carts made him rich, the inventor quipped, “Well, they didn’t make me poor.”
Goldman, a son of immigrant parents, was born in Ardmore in 1898 and worked at the family dry goods store. After World War 1 he and older brother Alfred opened a fruit and produce store in Texas, then moved to California to work for grocery wholesalers. There they discovered the supermarket, a store with meat, vegetables, fruit, canned goods and more all under one roof.
Eager to cash in on this new concept, the brothers moved back to Oklahoma, established the Sun Grocery Co., and opened a store on April 3, 1920, in Tulsa. Success was immediate, and a year later they had 21 stores throughout the state. In 1929, the brothers sold the stores to Skaggs-Safeway Stores; in 1934 Sylvan purchased the teetering Humpty Dumpty grocery chain and made it prosperous. Alfred died in 1937.
Goldman, who married Margaret “Babe” Katz in 1931, was active in the grocery industry and the community for years. He served as president of the Super Market Institute and vice president of the National Association of Food Chains.
He may be best known for inventing the shopping cart, but he was a devoted philanthropist who was also generous with his time and donations to local organizations, groups and art museums. He was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1971.
After retiring from the grocery industry, he became involved in real estate development, banking, insurance and savings and loan institutions. He died in 1984. Next time you walk into a store and instinctively reach for a shopping cart, send him a thumbs-up.