More than 1 million shopping carts are manufactured every year. The trolley-on-wheels design is so ubiquitous and unassuming that it’s easy to forget it hasn’t been around forever. In the latest installment of its By Design series, ABC (the Australian Broadcasting Corporation) has delved into the history of these metal carts and how they helped change the way we shop.
The shopping cart–or trolley, as they adorably call it in Australia and the U.K.–was born in 1937, soon after supermarkets became popular in the ’20s. The way people purchased their food was changing–one-stop shops replaced individual, specialty stores, and customers needed more room to carry all their goods. As a response to this demand, supermarket owner Sylvan Goldman, who owned the Humpty Dumpty chain, came up with the ingenious idea to invent a way to buy more food than you could physically carry. The first cart was a frame with the unlikely inspiration of a folding chair, and two removable shopping baskets stacked on top of one another. To make these carts more appealing to the customers who felt they looked like effeminate little strollers, Goldman hired models to push them around his store–a classic “all the cool kids are doing it” marketing tactic, which ultimately worked.
The shopping cart as we know it today, with a hinged rear panel that allows the carts to be nested into one another for easy storage, was invented in 1946 by Orla Watson, a Kansas City-based engineer. Known as the Telescope Cart, it became the defining invention of his career. The design, made of welded wire mesh, hasn’t changed much in the six decades since its inception, except for a fold-down seat added in 1954 at the front of the cart for kids. A few are going digital, with self-scanning devices attached to their handles for easier checkout. And as supermarkets and merchandise got bigger, so too did the carts. Whereas smaller baskets and bags encourage shoppers to be reserved in their pickings, the cart invites you to pile up as much as you can fit.