The first wheeled cart that could be called a “shopping cart” was invented by Sylvan Nathan Goldman (1898-1984), in 1936. However, whether he actually invented the telescoping design that we know today, is open to debate. The real inventor may have been Orla E. Watson.
Goldman was a grocery store owner with a chain of self-service grocery stores. In those days, customers had to carry around baskets in which to place their items, so they could only buy as much as they could carry in a small basket. This meant that they couldn’t buy more than 10 to 15 items per visit, even if they wanted to buy more. The grocery store made less money, and the customer had to shop more often.
Early Life of Sylvan N. Goldman, Shopping Cart Inventor
Goldman was born in Oklahoma in 1898, where his parents owned a general store. The family moved to Tulsa when he was 15, where Goldman soon began working at his uncle’s wholesale grocery and product business, located in Sapulpa.
A few years later, in 1917, Goldman enlisted in the army and fought in World War I. After the war, in 1919, he went into business with his brother and uncle and opened a wholesale grocery service in Cisco, Texas. This business failed, and Goldman moved to California and found work as a clerk.
He later returned to Tulsa, Oklahoma and in 1926 opened a chain of grocery stores with his brother, which they called Sun Stores. The stores were a great success and the brothers sold the chain to Skaggs-Safeway three years later. Unfortunately, much of the money they made from the sale was lost in the stock market crash of 1929. The brothers didn’t give up, and they still loved the grocery business.
They could do business in Tulsa because the contract with Safeway constrained them from operating in the same community where Sun was in business. So, they moved to Oklahoma City.
They bought a grocery store in Oklahoma City, and 4 others in the suburbs, in 1930. The one in the city was called Standard, which they used for their name. Four years later they bought the near-bankrupt chain of grocery stores, Humpty Dumpty. They operated the stores separately for nine years, but in 1943 they merged them into one entity, called Standard-Humpty Dumpty.
Why Was the Shopping Cart Invented?
Of course, there is a lot more to the story of Goldman’s grocery business, but it’s time to get to grocery carts. The stores operated like today’s stores, where customers walk through the store and collect their own items, carrying them back to a cashier station to purchase. Since the customers only had hand-baskets to carry the items in, they could not really buy very much in one visit. As mentioned above, perhaps they could buy 10 to 15 items, as much as they could comfortably carry in a basket. Not only was this bad for business, it was an inconvenience for the customers, who couldn’t really buy everything they might want, and were forced to make multiple shopping trips each week.
Noticing this, Goldman determined that his customers needed a convenient way to carry more items around the store. He also realized that not only would this enable his customers to buy more of what they needed, they might also buy more of what they did not need.
How Was the Shopping Cart Invented?
He became inspired by the design of a folding chair, and basically modified one to roll around on wheels, either with an ordinary market basket set on a rack at the bottom or built on to the cart up top, Goldman’s preferred version. He worked with mechanic and employee Fred Young to realize these designs and filed for a patent on a design called a combination basket and carriage, in 1937, which was granted in 1939. In 1940, another patent was granted for folding basket carrier for self-service stores, a foldable carrier that would support two baskets, one at the bottom and one at the top. The same year he patented another design, a store service truck, for help in handing and shelving store stock.
In the video presentation below, you can see photos of some of Goldman’s early shopping carts.
It is doubtful that these early iterations of the rolling shopping cart were as easily storable and as convenient to customers as Goldman intended. It wasn’t until 1949 that Goldman filed patent for what we would consider a “shopping cart.” These carts had their large baskets built into them and the baskets could be stored so that the “nested” together, with a back wall that swung upwards. This design granted a patent in 1954, is not much different than the shopping carts of today.
However, these did take up a lot of room when nested together in large numbers. Large supermarkets of today may have the extra space, and carts are often kept outside, as well. But, the smaller markets of Goldman’s era could not afford large amounts of space for storing carts. Therefore, he also patented another design for a swinging type basket, with larger carrying capacity, which was granted a patent that same year. A type he considered to require less of a storage footprint.
Goldman also invented a baby seat for shopping carts, for which he filed patent also in 1949, and was granted a patent in 1950. As you can see, pretty much everything we expect from a shopping cart was patented by Goldman, and today’s carts are not much different in function.
Folding Basket Carrier Company
His original “folding basket carriers,” were not an immediate success in his own stores. His customers were skeptical of their use at first, but they soon became a big success in his Humpty Dumpty stores. This enabled Goldman to form the Folding Basket Carrier Company in 1937, to manufacture and sell the folding carts to other stores.
Other store owners didn’t take to the idea of rolling foldable shopping baskets right away. To convince them, it is said that Goldman filmed actors pushing the carts around his store and filling them with items, posing as customers. His shopping cart salesmen would show these films to potential customers. Goldman made millions selling the carts. It is also claimed he used this actor ploy to convince his own customers to use the new carts in the first place since they were at first reluctant.
S.N. Goldman’s wheeled shopping carts came at just the right time, since, because of the war, more and more women were entering the workforce, and instead of spending their day doing errands or housework, they were working. Going to the grocery store several evenings a week, after a hard day at work, was an inconvenience, to say the least. A simple enough idea, the shopping cart changed the way Americans shopped, and we never looked back.
Goldman also invented the first baggage (or luggage) carts.
Still, even though he had all the patents, it was hard to defend them and soon there were others imitated his designs and selling their own carts. This was no problem for Goldman, who had bought up farms around Oklahoma City and converted them into shopping centers with a Humpty Dumpty store at their center. In 1955, he merged the Humpty Dumpty chain with other chains and formed the ACF-Wrigley corporation. He sold out of ACF-Wrigley in 1959 and formed Goldman Enterprises.
Was This Really the First Wheeled Cart? Introducing Orla E. Watson
Goldman was certainly not the first and only person to notice that a solution was needed to customer’s carrying around heavy baskets, and being limited by the capacity of these baskets, not to mention moms having one hand on a screaming child! There were other ideas. One store, Henke & Pillot of Texas, had a track inserted into for customers to wheel their baskets on.
As above, Goldman did not patent his telescoping design until 1949. This was three years after Orla E. Watson patented his “STORE BASKET AND CARRIAGE” in 1946 (patent number 2479530). Legal battles did ensue, but Goldman had both the manufacturing might, and the money to easily ward off Watson. The case was eventually settled out of court and Watson got his credit for inventing the telescoped design shopping cart, along with a whopping $1 for Goldman having infringed on his patent.