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Tasteful groceries: an archaeological study of iconography, material culture and identity in Belgian food retailing c. 1870-1940

Friday, 9 September, 2011 - 15:00
Campus: Brussels Humanities, Sciences & Engineering campus
Faculty: Arts and Philosophy
Nelleke Teughels
phd defence

Around 1870, the distribution sector underwent a significant change, which marked
the beginning of the development of the modern distribution landscape. An important
element in this evolution was the introduction of the first chain stores. This also occurred in
Belgium with the founding of Delhaize Frères & Cie ‘Le Lion’ in 1867, a company specialized
in groceries, wines and liquors. From the third quarter of the nineteenth century onwards, a
large part of the population enjoyed a rising purchasing power. For the majority of people,
this led primarily to an increase in food expenditures, not to a higher spending on the
nouveautés which were sold by the department stores that had appeared almost
simultaneously with the chain stores, but, until now, have received far greater attention
from historians. This study examines the social and cultural implications for the consumer,
brought about by the modernization of grocery shopping and by the development of the
consumer society between c. 1870 and 1940. It approaches this subject from an innovative
angle, namely through an archaeological study of the material culture (the design and
interior) of the Delhaize branches and the iconography used by the firm. Employing
photographs, images and objects, complemented with written sources, the study investigates
the daily shopping experience: where were the branches established, what did the shop
interior and exterior design look like and what was the intended and unintended effect, what
did the company logo and the sign board look like, what kind of posters, advertising panels
and murals advertised which products, how were the goods presented in the store and the
shop windows, what kind of packaging design was used, did the stores’ staff consist mostly of
men or women, how were the employees dressed and how was shopping organized in the
Delhaize branches? Teughels distinguishes and compares three periods within which the
material culture and iconography show strongly similar characteristics and evolutions,
taking into account local and regional differences, the impact of societal evolutions, changes
in company policy and the developments within advertising theory.
The study demonstrates the significant role played by stores selling foodstuffs in the
lives of the consumers. Not only do they provide the daily necessities, they are also crucial in
socialization, in the link with traditions and play an important part in personal memories
and in the embedding in the local social network. These stores were and are locations were
not only purchases are negotiated, but also were consumption patterns, gender roles, social
relations and cultural identities were shaped through negotiation, transformed, and
With its low, fixed prices and guaranteed availability of a broad range of goods, the
Delhaize branches substantially eased the housewife’s task of providing their families with
safe food of high quality that still fit the families’ budget. Moreover, they would have
improved and diversified the menu of a substantial part of the population. Indeed, this
research demonstrated that Delhaize wanted to appeal to workers, famers as well as to the
middle classes.
Another finding was that a distinctly middle-class ethic underlay the design,
appearance and organization of the branches. The company endeavored to homogenize its
heterogeneous target group as much as possible by propagating and endorsing middle-class
values, including the housewife ideal. Moreover, Delhaize ‘Le Lion’ attempted to appeal to
housewives’ pride and their concern for the wellbeing of their families, but also tried to
address and reinforce shoppers’ patriotic sentiments.
This study demonstrated that, from the very beginning, when advertising was still in
its infancy, Delhaize had very high confidence in the positive impact this would have on the
consumer. Through modern sales and advertising techniques and standardized prices and
products, the chain wished to create streamlined, homogeneous consumers, which made
regular and substantial purchases for cash.

Reference: Teughels, N., 2011. Smaakvolle boodschappen: archeologisch onderzoek naar
iconografie, materiële cultuur en identiteit in de Belgische kleinhandel ca. 1870-1940.
Proefschrift. Brussel: Vrije Universiteit Brussel.