The next time you go to the grocery store, think of the ordinary shopping cart as something more than a rattling basket blocking your parking space.
In the 1930s, an American grocer named Sylvan Goldman invented the forerunner of the modern shopping cart with a snap frame attached to a set of wheels. He hoped people would buy more groceries if they didn’t have to carry heavy baskets while browsing.
And they did.
But over the decades, the shopping trolley has evolved from its everyday existence as the centerpiece of every grocery store.
Like the Campbell’s soup can, it has become an unusual icon in a subculture that celebrates the common object.
Shopping carts have been the focus of books and films, and their use has been studied in magazine columns and classrooms to explain how people behave in public. They found a dubious niche on the internet as the stars of a YouTube show, followed by half a million people. They even inspired musicians: the steady clacking of a cart rolling down a street was the inspiration for both the sound and the words in Neil Young’s 1994 song “Safeway Cart”.
They’re a nuisance too. Lawmakers and shopkeepers in the United States have struggled to prevent the carts from being stolen, left in disabled parking spaces, dumped on sidewalks, left at bus stops, or dumped into streams.
A permanent cultural artifact
In 2005, a wagon infiltrated the British Museum when artist Banksy paired one with a caveman on a piece of fake prehistoric rock carvings – and then installed the rock in a gallery unnoticed for days.
Another Banksy creation, the painting “Show me Monet”, integrates discarded carts into nature. It auctioned for approximately $ 10 million in December.
John H. Lienhard, Professor of Technology History at the University of Houston, described shopping trolleys as a “stroke of genius” that changed American life during an episode of his public radio show, “The Engines of Our Ingenuity.”
Decades after this 1995 broadcast, Dr. Lienhard still explaining how the utilitarian origins of the shopping cart expanded into a cultural appeal.
“They reflect us,” he said in an interview. “We want to run. We want to wear. And now we’re helping with walking and carrying. And then our walking and carrying is mentally linked to rolling. “
“That means everyday technology is terribly important,” he said.
Far from the supermarket
The 2009 film “Cart” illustrates what Dr. Lienhard called the “symbiotic relationship” between people and shopping carts.
In the film, a shopping cart takes on a mind of its own as it navigates the dangers of the city streets in search of a boy who has left his jacket in the basket. The car then saves the boy’s life by blocking an oncoming car.
Jesse Rosten, the director, said the idea came about when he and a friend discovered an overturned cart in a parking lot. A sad song was on the radio as they passed it, adding to the potential for cinematic melancholy.
“We laughed all the way home and imagined stories for this rundown cart that was fighting the world,” he said. “We have all seen abandoned shopping carts around the world, and the film shows shopping carts ending up where they go.”
Portraits of carts in the wild can also be seen in the 2006 book The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification.
The Buffalo artist behind the book, Julian Montague, spent seven years photographing carts in dumpsters, in alleys, on lawns, wherever they came up. “It’s a strange object,” he said.
“Someone can take it somewhere and chop off the wheels or take the laundry down to the basement,” he said. “In contrast to a plastic bag, it has several lives.”
Carts as a character test
Some people steal it. Others leave them where they want.
Private companies have gotten creative. In California, stray carts are reported on hotlines by companies that specialize in returning them to their storage locations.
At the supermarket chain ALDI, shoppers unlock shopping carts with a quarter that is returned when the shopping carts are. Some customers leave the neighborhood in the shopping cart for the next person to use.
“We are always amazed at the“ pay-it-forward ”spirit that prevails in our parking lots,” says Kate Kirkpatrick, communications director at ALDI. “As a result, we rarely have problems with shopping carts that have not been returned.”
Many days, Seth Sanders, 20, an employee at Safeway in Bellingham, Washington, can be seen dodging cars while he is rounding up carts that people have left in parking lots or pushed aside in the huge parking lot.
About a quarter of customers don’t bother returning their carts, he estimates, which means he spends a lot of time doing it for them, between packing groceries, cleaning, and finding items for customers.
Mr. Sanders has been wrestling with carts in the cold, rain, and smoke from forest fires. A customer hurriedly pushed a car in his direction with such force that his leg hurt.
“I want to say it’s almost kind of selfish,” he said. “It’s kind of a character test. It’s our job to pick up people, but if it’s the smallest thing you can do to help, I feel like helping a little is not much. “
Enter the vigilante groups …
Shopping cart slackers have their reasons, of course.
In a 2017 column in Scientific American, anthropologist Krystal D’Costa examined why people couldn’t return carts. It “hit a nerve,” she wrote in a follow-up.
In more than 2,000 comments on the magazine’s Facebook page, some said they feared leaving children unattended, struggling with a disability, or worrying about making someone’s job redundant. Over the past year, the so-called shopping cart theory has become an article of faith on Reddit and other social media sites. The theory is that the decision to return a car is the ultimate test of a person’s moral character and ability to manage oneself.
It’s a theory fully embraced by the video vigilantes known as The Cart Narcs, self-appointed enforcers who face buyers trying to get off the street without returning their carts. The series has around 500,000 followers on Facebook and YouTube.
The shopping cart theory has even reached universities – if middle school is considered higher education. Students at Lausanne Collegiate School in Tennessee were recently asked by Greg Graber, the school’s director of social and emotional learning, to analyze this in a critical thinking class.
One student said that anyone who notices an idiosyncratic car should just return it. Another warned against a hasty judgment. Mr. Graber agreed.
“It seems to be a widespread belief today that people who leave their shopping carts in places lack values and morals,” he said. But this belief “allows neither growth nor grace”.
… and here come the legislators
In April, the shopping cart theory was cited in coverage of a proposed state law that fines shoppers who fail to return their shopping carts.
Paul Aronsohn, a New Jersey disability officer, had approached State Senator Kristin Corrado with the idea. He said the state must discourage shoppers from abandoning carts in the wide areas designated for people with disabilities.
Senator Corrado introduced Senate Law No. 3705, which would impose a $ 250 fine on it.
“Apparently it’s a nuisance to a lot of people,” she said.
One person who would benefit is Kelly Boyd, 41, of Hamilton Township, NJ, who has been using a wheelchair since she was nine. When she drives her van to the store and goes down a ramp to get out of her motorized chair, she often finds a car blocking her way.
So Ms. Boyd said she had to move it out of the way with her van or drive to a secluded part of the parking lot where she had two places to get out of the car. This has led to angry notes on her car and confrontations with other drivers.
“Everything I do as a person with a disability takes longer and then it’s more frustrating,” said Ms. Boyd. “It’s surprising how some people don’t care.”
This isn’t the only state legislation to combat shopping cart nuisance. Some locations, such as Los Angeles and Clark County, Nevada, require wheels to lock up if a shopping cart is far from a store. Some Washington cities have fined shops for idiosyncratic carts, and other cities are taking note.
Last year the board of directors met in Fairfax County, Virginia to address the “visual clutter” of stray carts with a proposal to impose $ 500 fines on anyone who pushes them off the storefront.
“This is a real problem,” Jeffrey C. McKay told his colleagues during the session. However, others on the board argued that it would punish people who are economically in trouble who use the carts to bring food home or to carry their belongings.
One of the caregivers, Dalia A. Palchik, said it was her childhood experience.
As an immigrant from Argentina in 1989, Ms. Palchik said, she and her three siblings often accompanied their mother to the store and then pushed the cart to her rental home on the outskirts of Fairfax City. They didn’t have a car.
The memory came back during the discussion. “It was one of those things that I was ashamed of as a kid,” she said in an interview. “Why are we criminalizing people who try to get to the grocery store?”
The regulation is still being examined.