FOOD: Transforming the American Table

Food on the Go

By the end of the 1900s, ready-to-eat “convenience” foods had become a significant part of the American diet. Most Americans came to depend on the ability to buy such food whenever and wherever they wanted. Growers, manufacturers, grocers and convenience store owners, and restaurants attempted to meet this demand—and create more of it—through a variety of new products, inventive technologies, and expanded menus.

Neighborhood Convenience

“Convenience” stores have been a popular quick stop for snacks, beverages, and other basic items since the late 1940s. They usually maintain extended hours, are conveniently located, and sell food and drink designed for consumption on the go, as well as some staples like milk and bread. Competition from convenience stores prompted other food stores to stay open longer hours too. In some areas without supermarkets, convenience stores remained residents’ primary source of food.

Early bird and night owl

Gift of Southland Corporation, through Wendy Barth


In 1946, Southland Ice Company in Dallas, Texas, extended the hours of its convenience stores from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and renamed them 7-Eleven. In 1962, they became the first convenience chain to stay open twenty-four hours.

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Ad, 1970

Ad, 1970

7-Eleven emphasized the ease of parking and shopping at its small stores. It suggested the “park-at-the-door” store was so convenient, mothers could keep tabs on their children while running a quick errand.

 

Slurpee cup, 1975

7-Eleven appealed to young customers by selling Slurpees—flavored frozen drinks—in collectible cups, such as these featuring Marvel Comics characters. These twelve-ounce cups predate the popularity of supersized drinks.

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This sixty-four-ounce cup from a chain of convenience stores around Texas reflects a major trend in soft drink consumption. A “supersized” drink lasts several hours and can be taken anywhere—from vehicle to office to sporting event and back home. Filled with soda, the cup might contain over 700 calories and 46 teaspoons of sugar. Although nutritionists and health advocates decry the supersizing of soda, the large containers remain popular.

Stripes cup, 2017

Gift of Jenarae Alaniz

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Peel, Pinch, Puncture, Slurp

Coffee cup lids are examples of how humble objects are sometimes the result of meticulous engineering. The first lids date to the 1950s, but to-go cup-lid innovation exploded in the 1980s. Patents describe peel-back tabs and the pucker-type shapes that make room for mouths and noses, and note the importance of “heat retention,” “mouth comfort,” “splash reduction,” “friction fit,” and “one-handed activation,” all enabling Americans to drink on the go.

Coffee lids, 1950s-2000

Coffee lids, 1950s-2000

Gift of Louise Harpman and Scott Specht

Patent drawing, “Closure Cap for Cups and Like Containers,” 1962

Patent drawing, “Closure Cap for Cups and Like Containers,” 1962

Patent drawing, “Disposable Cup Cover,” 1980

Patent drawing, “Disposable Cup Cover,” 1980

Patent drawing, “Lid for Drinking Cup,” 1986

Patent drawing, “Lid for Drinking Cup,” 1986

Meals Behind the Wheel

Eating in the car grew in popularity in the 1950s, with carhops, some on roller skates, delivering meals to people in parked cars. By the early 1960s, automobile glove-box doors opened flat to support drinks. By the 1980s, with the rise of fast-food drive-thrus and long commutes, automobile manufacturers began to offer as standard equipment built-in cupholders that kept bottles and cups upright in moving vehicles.

Photograph of dashboard snack tray, 1950

Photograph of dashboard snack tray, 1950

Popular Mechanics magazine showcased what is likely the earliest automobile cup holder.  Making it possible to enjoy “travel snacks . . . while the car is in motion,” this innovation reflected a growing desire on the part of many Americans to eat on the go.

Glove-box door, 1962

The Ford Falcon Futura was equipped with a glove-box door that opened to provide shallow wells to hold drinks while dining at drive-in theaters and restaurants.

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“Easy Rider” travel mugs, 1983

Gift of Carl Fleischhauer

These plastic coffee mugs included a holder that could be taped onto a dashboard. The design predated the popularity of built-in vehicle cupholders.

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Auto cupholder, 1992–1999

Installed in General Motors sedans including the Buick LeSabre, Oldsmobile Delta 88, and Pontiac Bonneville, this spring-loaded unit adjusted to different sizes of cups and bottles.

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Sales brochure, 1997

Sales brochure, 1997

The number and location of cupholders became an important selling point for American car buyers, who were consuming more beverages and meals on the go. The Chevy Venture Minivan included seventeen cupholders, more than one for every passenger.