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Learn more about the humble shopping cart with Wiki Wormhole

Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Shopping cart

What it’s about: The cart is such an integral part of shopping that it’s difficult to imagine a time when people weren’t pushing shopping carts down grocery store aisles. They date to 1937, when Sylvan Goldman introduced them into his supermarket chain, Piggly Wiggly. The first prototype was a folding chair with wheels and a basket on the seat. Eventually, he designed a rolling frame that held two wire baskets, which he called a “folding basket carrier.” He eventually came up with a way to mass produce the carts, and a catchier name, and the rest is history.

We have no idea why Cuba Gooding Jr. is riding in a shopping cart in this still from the film Radio, and fear that learning the answer would involve watching Radio

Strangest fact: People didn’t like shopping carts at first. When Goldman introduced them into his stores, he advertised a “No Basket Carrying Plan,” but customers were not on board. As Wikipedia puts it, “men found them effeminate; women found them suggestive of a baby carriage.” Goldman had to hire greeters to explain how to use the carts, and even hired male and female models to push carts around and make them look attractive by proxy. Unsurprisingly, good looks won out where functionality failed, and the carts were soon a hit.

Biggest controversy: As with so many things, the English-speaking world cannot agree on what to call shopping carts (although, per their inventor, they should properly be called “folding basket carrier”). Cart is the predominant name in the U.S. and Canada, although “carriage” has some traction in New England. Wikipedia also claims “wagon” is used in New York and Hawaii, and while this went unremarked even on the always-contentious Talk page, any New Yorker can tell you no one has ever called it a “wagon.” While other countries did not invent the shopping cart and are therefore wrong, many of them use “trolley,” particularly throughout the British commonwealth, although New Zealand and Scotland deserve special recognition for coming up with the terms “trundler” and “coohudder,” respectively.

Thing we were happiest to learn: You mean besides the fact that Scots call shopping carts coohudders? That someone built a better mousetrap. Goldman’s original coohudder (sorry, can you blame me?) had to be unfolded, much like the chair he used in his prototype. A WWI veteran named Orla Watson improved on the design in 1946 by adding the now-familiar folding back panel, which allows carts to nest together in rows. (Goldman tried patenting a similar design called the Nest-Kart, but after a lawsuit, Watson’s design won out.) Watson’s design was so successful that it has scarcely been improved upon in the subsequent 70 years.


Thing we were unhappiest to learn: There’s a shopping cart of the future, but it runs Windows. Chaotic Moon Labs invented Project Sk8, a driverless shopping cart, in 2012. While it sounds like a very hip Sega Genesis game, Project Sk8 was a shopping cart fitted with an electric motor, a Kinect that would allow it to navigate a store, and was run by a Windows 8 tablet, which meant a typical trip to the supermarket only involved two upgrades and a 10-minute wait to optimize font menus.

Also noteworthy: In an effort to promote a healthier lifestyle for their customers, British supermarket giant Tesco introduced shopping carts that were harder to push. The carts’ resistance could be adjusted on a scale of 1 to 10, and would monitor the user’s pulse and count calories burned, much like a treadmill, except obviously far superior since you can’t fill up a treadmill with potato chips and beer (although many have tried).


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Sometimes pedestrian-seeming links go to unexpected places. In a section on carts customers can only release by first inserting a coin, it is mentioned that some coin-operated cart systems give a reward to whoever returns a shopping cart to its rack. But the seemingly innocent link “reward” redirects to “bounty,” and has links to not only a history of bounty hunters, but also prizes given out for everything from sporting success to scientific achievement.

Further down the wormhole: One of the former British possessions that follows the U.K.’s lead in pushing their groceries around in a trolley is Australia. While the land Down Under is rightly famous for stunning landmarks like the Sydney Opera House and the Great Barrier Reef, the expansive outback, and unique cultural artifacts like the boomerang and the didgeridoo, the country is perhaps best known for its varied, unique, and almost comically dangerous wildlife. We’ll risk taking a closer look at Australian fauna next time.


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