Past Times

Women of America took a stand against rising prices

Mrs. Curtis H. Mills and her children march for lower prices at a Charlotte A&P.
Mrs. Curtis H. Mills and her children march for lower prices at a Charlotte A&P. The Charlotte Observer File Photo

From Civil Rights to Vietnam, the 1960s was a time of speaking out against injustice. Fifty years ago this month, the nation’s housewives raised their picket signs against rising prices at the supermarket. In 1966, N&O writer Marion Gregory described the local situation.

“There’s something funny going on,” said the angry housewife as she paraded her lipstick-painted sign in front of a local supermarket. “You start to wonder who’s grabbing that profit.”

Many a housewife is looking at her mounting checker’s tape and muttering, “Who’s grabbing the profit?” And encouraged by news reports of picketing women across the U.S. and Canada, her muttering is getting louder.

When a beleaguered supermarket manager publicly goes through his store and starts marking down merchandise, she triumphantly tells her husband, “Aha, he’s been profiteering.”

If she is satisfied with that simple answer, who can blame her? The concerned housewife who tries to ferret out the real answer to rising food costs finds herself tangled in webs of conflicting statistics and mazes of interlocking economic factors that might well make her throw up her hands and run for the safety of home.

And all the while, everyone from the farmer to the supermarket manager, and all the processors and distributors in between, are saying “Don’t look at me. My profit margin is as low as I can stand and still stay in business.”

But most concerned agree on three points. American farmers, cheered on by taxpaying consumers, have stopped producing huge surpluses; and with surpluses disappearing, crops are becoming more valuable. …

Rising costs of labor must be absorbed all along the line, and the costs are being absorbed quickly in the retail price.

Food prices are not going to come down significantly, no matter how angry the housewife. Farm experts, marketing specialists and distributors generally agree that the price of food has caught up with the economy and has reached reasonable levels after unreasonable lows.

A companion story took a more pragmatic look at what might be going on.

Before you look at your most recent checker’s tape, paint up a protest sign and head for your nearest supermarket, make a list of what was in your market basket.

“The average housewife can’t tell you what she’s paying for all the various items,” said food broker Wilburn F. Cranfill. “All she knows is her total grocery bill.

“And how much of what she brings home can she eat? I watched a woman check out the other day. Her bill was $31 and she had bought only one piece of meat. She had bags full of knick-knacks. It’s gotten so every meal has to be a party.”

Many a grumbling housewife would do well to divide what she’s buying into food and non-food items, before she starts talking about her grocery bill.

Items commonly purchased by Mrs. Average Housewife in her supermarket are toothpaste, light bulbs, cigarettes, paper towels and tissues, soaps and detergents, household cleaners and waxes, hosiery, pet foods, hair sprays and shampoos, socks and shirts, brooms and other household cleaning tools, beer and wine, ironing board covers, magazines, and records, toys, pots and pans, glasses and silverware, lawn furniture, charcoal and charcoal lighters, and children’s encyclopedias.

Most families will find they are eating more processed and prepared foods in October 1966 than they were a year ago. With incomes rising, many are eating less chuck and more steak. They also are becoming more and more accustomed to eating fresh fruits out of season. And with frozen food cases crammed with desserts that need only be thawed or popped into the oven for 20 minutes, many families are making dessert a regular part of the evening meal. …

And if she still wants to picket? “Picketing is popular and people have seen it work,” said Cranfill. “But they’re starting at the bottom instead of the top. The supermarket manager can’t do anything. His prices come from a central office. Some supermarkets are cutting prices to pacify the customers. In many cases I think they’re taking an out-of-pocket loss to stay in business.” The N&O Oct. 30, 1966

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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