50 Events That Made Retail History Before the Pandemic

Events That Made Retail History


Cheapism is editorially independent. We may earn a commission if you buy through links on our site.
Events That Made Retail History

Redefining Retail

The global coronavirus pandemic will have what is sure to be a lasting impact on retail, for better or for worse, but it won't be the first. The rapid-fire technological innovations of the 20th century gave rise to a new kind of culture around the products we consume. Companies are constantly trying to patent and market the next big thing, resulting in a never-ending cycle of much-hyped product launches — some that leave an imprint on the retail world for years to come.

Related: What Americans Are Really Shopping for During the Pandemic

Messrs Harding Howell & Co., 89 Pall Mall
Messrs Harding Howell & Co., 89 Pall Mall by The British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA)

1796: The World’s First Department Store Opens

The title for the world's first department store likely belongs to Harding, Howell & Co's Grand Fashionable Magazine shop in London, which appealed to fashionable women with the novel idea of offering four separate departments within the same store. This ability to offer more diverse merchandise was the result of the cheap labor and increased productivity sparked by the Industrial Revolution.

Related: 18 Iconic Department Stores We Miss

Inauguration of the Great Industrial Exhibition of 1851 in London's Crystal Palace
Everett Historical/shutterstock

1851: The Crystal Palace Opens

An early iteration of the modern mall came with the opening of London's Crystal Palace, which was created to showcase consumer goods from around the globe. The structure was designed to showcase the scope of the British Empire but instead served as a blueprint for the massive indoor malls that gained in popularity over the following centuries.

Tally's Electric Theatre
Tally's Electric Theatre by elmorovivo (None)

1902: Nickelodeons Keep Movies Alive

Thomas L. Tally opened the Electric Theater in Los Angeles just when it seemed American interest in the crude new art of motion pictures was fading. Tally's early movie house offered an entertainment experience showcasing the latest in moving picture technology at the admission price of a nickel, inspiring a wave of imitators around the nation known as nickelodeons and ensuring that the movie industry was here to stay.

Advertisement for Kellogg's Toasted Corn Flakes from the July 21, 1910 issue of Life magazine
Advertisement for Kellogg's Toasted Corn Flakes from the July 21, 1910 issue of Life magazine by Unknown Author (None)

1906: Kellogg Adds Sugar to Corn Flakes

Sanitarium superintendent Dr. John Kellogg was only hoping to create a food to deter, um, let's say self-stimulation when he invented corn flakes in 1898. His brother William Keith Kellogg kickstarted the company's sales in 1906 by purchasing the company and adding sugar to the corn flakes recipe. With the addition of Rice Krispies and Bran Flakes, the Kellogg Company became the world's largest cereal maker by 1930. The company spawned its own competition in the form of Post Brands, founded by a former sanitarium patient.

First Edition of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle in 1906
First Edition of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle in 1906 by Unknown author (None)

1906: “The Jungle” Changes Food Practices

Upton Sinclair painted a disturbing portrait of harsh conditions and unsanitary practices in America's meatpacking industry with his muckraking novel "The Jungle." His progressive critique led to the passage of both the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act the same year, adding a new measure of accountability to the industry and foreshadowing the formation of the Food and Drug Administration.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911 by Unknown author (None)

1911: A Factory Fire Changes Safety Standards

Garment workers at New York's Triangle Shirtwaist company were demonstrating in favor of improved conditions when management responded by locking them inside the building. The fire that broke out soon after killed 146 mostly female workers, making it one of the deadliest industrial disasters in U.S. history. Their deaths helped unify labor reformers, especially women, and led to the development of new safety standards for labor.

Ford Assembly Line, 1913
Ford Assembly Line, 1913 by Unknown author (None)

1913: Ford Introduces the Assembly Line

Henry Ford cut the price of his Model T automobile by more than half thanks to the idea of using conveyor belts to move parts between factory workers serving more specialized functions. Ford raised wages to retain workers within his new assembly line setup, which revolutionized industrial production while making cars far more affordable for average consumers.

Related: 16 Surprising Things You Didn't Know About America's Best-Selling Vehicle

Willis Carrier 1915
Willis Carrier 1915 by Carrier Corporation (None)

1915: Carrier Engineering Begins an Air-Conditioned Era

Willis Carrier cofounded Carrier Engineering to promote a new invention allowing users to cool off. His centrifugal chiller, introduced in 1922, made it possible to cool large indoor spaces like movie theaters and department stores. The ability to control temperatures helped enable the rise of indoor shopping malls and increase settlement in the South and Southwest.

1910 yearbook photo of Birdseye
1910 yearbook photo of Birdseye by Unknown author (None)

1930: Frozen Food Hits the Market

While fishing in subzero temperatures, Clarence Birdseye realized that food could be preserved indefinitely if it was frozen quickly. After patenting a method of flash-freezing foods, Birdseye, and the Postum Company to which he sold, began selling flash-frozen meals to the public in 1930. Americans at home and overseas were encouraged to purchase the ready-made foods during World War II before TV dinners became a family staple in the '50s.

First King Kullen
First King Kullen by Eastwest123 (None)

1930: The First Supermarket Opens

King Kullen in Queens, New York lays claim to the title of the nation's first supermarket, opened by former Kroger employee Michael J. Cullen. Cullen pitched his idea for "monstrous stores...with plenty of parking space" in a letter to Kroger's vice president that went unanswered, leaving him to build it himself.

Tampax Tampons Hit Shelves in 1936
Abel Tumik/shutterstock

1936: Tampons Hit Shelves

Tampon inventor Earle Cleveland Haas enabled the rise of modern menstrual pads by designing his with a commercial applicator that didn't require the taboo act of touching female genitalia. His invention didn't take off, however, until Tampax founder Gertrude Tenderich bought the patent and began advertising the new product in 1936.

Bulova Watch Ad 1942
Bulova Watch Ad 1942 by Bulova Watch/J.A. Westcott - The Seaforth News (None)

1941: TV Advertising Begins

Television was still an experimental medium when the first paid advertisement aired on July 1, 1941 in the New York metropolitan area. The ad for Bulova watches wouldn't reach many households but provided an early test for the commercial potential of television advertising, which would expand to include more than 900 marketers by 1955.

A Technician Preparing Penicillin in 1943
A Technician Preparing Penicillin in 1943 by Richard Stone (None)

1941: Penicillin Is Mass Produced

The penicillium mold that would become the world's first "wonder drug" was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928, but it wasn't until 1940 that scientists found a strain of the mold growing within a cantaloupe that could be mass produced. The drug drastically reduced deaths from infection during World War II.

Levittown, PA
Levittown, PA by Unknown author (None)

1947: Levittown Becomes the Suburban Flagship

William Levitt's mass-produced Long Island township became an archetype for affluent cookie-cutter suburbs across the nation, as families purchased 300 homes in just the first weekend and 17,000 over the next four years. Unfortunately, Levitt also set another precedent with exclusionary contracts that prohibited non-whites.

De Beers Says a Diamond is Forever in 1948
Perfect Lazybones/shutterstock

1948: De Beers Says a Diamond Is Forever

With one of the most successful ad campaigns in history, De Beers positioned diamonds — a not-so-uncommon gem on which they maintained a monopoly — as the star of American engagements. Copywriter Frances Gerety coined this immortal slogan in 1948, allowing De Beers to paint diamonds as a metaphor for eternal love while artificially controlling the supply to increase prices.

Marlboro Man

1954: The Marlboro Man Debuts

America's most prominent cigarette company originally sold its filtered smokes as feminine products with the slogan "Mild as May," but then demonstrated the power of advertising with its ultra-masculine Marlboro Man campaign. By focusing on image over health concerns and offering an aesthetically-pleasing package redesign, the campaign was an enduring success that elevated Marlboro to the top of its market.

Walt Disney shows Disneyland plans
Walt Disney shows Disneyland plans by Orange County Archives (CC BY)

1955: Disneyland Opens

Ronald Reagan hosted a live ABC special to inaugurate the so-called happiest place on earth on July 17, exhibiting the immaculate theme park as a national destination instead of just a roadside attraction. The only Disney park whose construction was overseen by Walt Disney himself, Disneyland marked the start of a theme park empire that collectively earned more than $16 billion in 2016 alone.

Related: 25 Ways Disney Revolutionized Entertainment

 I-15 and US 20 junction at exit 118 in Idaho Falls, Idaho before completion in 1964
I-15 and US 20 junction at exit 118 in Idaho Falls, Idaho before completion in 1964 by ARLittleRock (CC BY-SA)

1956: Interstates Unite America

Inspired by the German autobahns he saw in World War II, President Eisenhower oversaw the development of a $130 billion interstate highway network that connected Americans more than ever before. Thousands were employed to build and maintain the new roads, which facilitated the development of new suburbs while increasing commerce and travel between states.

1962 Toyopet Crown
1962 Toyopet Crown by TTTNIS (None)

1957: The First Japanese Car Sells in the US

The fledgling Toyota Motor Corporation took advantage of a late-50s lull in the American economy to introduce the Toyopet Crown, a smaller alternative to the gas-guzzling American muscle cars popular at the time. American companies hoped consumers would continue buying their brands out of patriotism, but soon changed many standards to meet those of their Asian competitors.

A 1958 Edsel Pacer 2-Door hardtop
A 1958 Edsel Pacer 2-Door hardtop by Lars-Göran Lindgren (CC BY-SA)

1957: Edsel Flops

The Ford Edsel, an overhyped mid-sized car made to appeal to everyone just when compact cars were on the rise, was a colossal misstep. Ford lost as much as $250 million and the Edsel became synonymous with commercial failure, even though some of the car's features, like a vertical grill and self-adjusting brakes, have become standards for many modern sports cars.

BankAmericard Welcome Here
BankAmericard Welcome Here by Infrogmation of New Orleans (CC BY-SA)

1958: Bank of America Introduces the Credit Card

Companies had been granting credit long before the BankAmericard was launched in Fresno, California, but this was the first time a card would be accepted by a large number of third-party sellers. The postwar reliance on credit had begun, causing both periods of economic boom and massive consumer debt.

Unimate robot
Unimate robot by (CC BY-SA)

1959: The First Industrial Robot Gets to Work

Conscious of the public fear robots might inspire, inventor George Devol and robotics enthusiast Joseph Engelberger developed their Unimate #001 prototype specifically to handle tasks too dangerous for humans. Their first robotic arm was installed on a General Motors assembly line at a die casting plant in Trenton and was so successful that soon 450 such arms were put to work.

The Birth Control Pill is Approved in 1960

1960: The Birth Control Pill Is Approved

The FDA approved the modern birth control pill in 1960, unintentionally kickstarting a sexual revolution. The new form of contraception gave women newfound control over their own reproductive systems and fundamentally changed the business of family planning.

The First McDonald's
The First McDonald's by Tyler Hewitt (CC BY-NC)

1961: McDonald’s Becomes a Franchise

Milkshake-mixer salesman Ray Kroc discovered the family-oriented burger joint McDonald's in 1954 and bought it in 1961, soon beginning an expansion that made McDonald's a global phenomenon. Kroc made a fortune through franchising and kicked off an era of American fast food restaurants.

Original Walmart
Original Walmart by Bobak (CC BY-SA)

1962: The First Walmart Opens

Sam Walton opened the first Walmart to compete with a flood of discount stores. Within five years, Walmart expanded to an additional 17 stores by selling diversified merchandise for low prices, undercutting traditional main street shops. Today, Walmart owns nearly 12,000 stores in more than a dozen nations.

Valium Packaging
Valium Packaging by Fr0sty $ummer (CC BY-SA)

1963: Valium Is Introduced

The Swiss company Roche Labs became a pharmaceutical giant with the sweeping success of a calming drug Diazepam, which was marketed as Valium. From 1969 to 1982, more prescriptions were written for Valium than any other drug. It became the world's first billion-dollar medicine.

The Surgeon General Warnings on Tobacco in 1964
The Surgeon General Warnings on Tobacco in 1964 by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (None)

1964: The Surgeon General Tells the Truth About Tobacco

In 1958, only 44 percent of Americans believed smoking tobacco to cause cancer. That didn't change much until six years later, when Surgeon General Luther Terry released a report on the negative effects of smoking. Within three months cigarette consumption dropped 20 percent, and within a year Congress passed a law requiring all cigarette packages to carry a health warning.

Fans and media swarm the Beatles at Schiphol Airport in 1964
Fans and media swarm the Beatles at Schiphol Airport in 1964 by Harry Pot (None)

1964: Beatlemania Goes Global

The Beatles waited until they had a number one hit before making their first in-person appearance in North America at John F. Kennedy International Airport, the same year as their first global tour. Their unprecedented superstardom opened the door for other non-American artists in music and revolutionized the sound and style of popular music.

Hospital Corporation of America (HCA)'s First Office in Nashville, 1968
Hospital Corporation of America (HCA)'s First Office in Nashville, 1968 by HCA - Rodengen, Jeffrey. (CC BY-SA)

1968: Hospital Corporation of America Begins a New Era in Healthcare

Hospital Corporation of America (HCA) was founded in Nashville and paved the way for hundreds of for-profit healthcare businesses to follow. They traded on the New York Stock Exchange and acquired hundreds of hospitals in the following decades, spawning a law under Nixon that used grants to encourage the establishment of HMOs.

Microprocessor D4004
Microprocessor D4004 by LucaDetomi (CC BY-SA)

1971: Intel Invents the Microprocessor

The 4004 marked Intel's first success at containing all components of a central processing unit on a single chip. Though primitive by modern standards, computing speeds continued to advance each year until Intel's 80286 chip — a direct descendant of the 4004 — made personal computers fast and effective enough to interest a general audience.

1972: Video Game Console
1972: Video Game Console by Evan-Amos (CC BY-SA)

1972: Video Games Take Off

Pong became one of the first video games to achieve mainstream popularity in the same year that Magnavox released the Odyssey, the world's first commercial home console. The success spawned many imitators and encouraged Atari to pursue more innovative games before eventually bringing Pong to home gaming systems in 1975.

FedEx Begins Operations in 1973
Antonio Gravante/shutterstock

1973: FedEx Begins Operations

Mail delivery was solely a service of the federal government before Federal Express began its overnight delivery service in the '70s, speeding up the process by using one service to oversee the package and circumvent bureaucracy. It's since become much easier to ship freight quickly, and to track it using real-time updates also pioneered by FedEx.

Ali Vs. Frazier 1975
Ali Vs. Frazier 1975 by Unknown author (None)

1975: HBO Broadcasts Must-See

The largest paid-TV channel in the nation began the splintering of television media in 1975 when it aired the final Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier fight (also known as the Thrilla in Manilla) as the first scheduled program sent to separate cable systems via satellite. Founded in 1972, HBO laid the groundwork for cable's expansion throughout the decade, when its subscriber base expanded from 50,000 in 1974 to 1.5 million in 1978.

YES it's Shark Week
YES it's Shark Week by Richard Elzey (CC BY-NC-ND)

1975: 'Jaws' Changes Movies

The idea of the summer blockbuster began with Steven Spielberg's shark thriller based on the bestselling novel by Peter Benchley. The film was unique in its time for building hype through extensive marketing and widely-advertised wide release, setting a precedent that continues in modern releases — right down to the disappointing sequels.

The Ford Pinto Blows Up in 1978
Steve Lagreca/shutterstock

1978: The Ford Pinto Blows Up

Debuting in 1971, Ford's subcompact Pinto model already had a flawed safety record when it was discovered in 1978 that the fuel tank design made the vehicle susceptible to fire and explosion even after minor collisions. Ford endured a slew of lawsuits after recalling 1.5 million cars in 1978. The Pinto was discarded from the company's lineup in 1981.

IBM 5150 in 1981
IBM 5150 in 1981 by Ruben de Rijcke (CC BY-SA)

1981: IBM Hires Microsoft

IBM ruled the burgeoning personal computer market in 1981, when it recruited a young Bill Gates to use his new operating system on its IBM 5150. Fortunately for Microsoft, IBM ceded control of the operating system for use on any non-IBM personal computers. The IBM PC became the first PC to gain wide acceptance within an industry while giving a boost up to one of its biggest competitors.

Tylenol by Ragesoss (CC BY-SA)

1982: Tylenol Gets Recalled

It seemed Johnson & Johnson's popular Tylenol brand was doomed after seven people died from taking cyanide-laced capsules in the span of several days as the result of drug tampering in the Chicago area. But Tylenol recovered its market share by becoming one of the first companies to issue a major recall. The brand relaunched two months later with tamper-proof packaging and a large marketing campaign.

The Rubik's Cube Craze Catches on in 1980

1980: The Rubik’s Cube Craze Catches On

Originally invented to teach three-dimensional geometry, the Rubik's Cube was released as a toy in 1980 and has gone on to sell more than 350 million units, making it the bestselling single toy of all-time. Though the cube is still around today, it was a veritable craze in the '80s, when it was featured on the cover of Scientific American and spawned bestselling books on how to solve it.

Cabbage Patch Kids
Cabbage Patch Kids by William McKeehan (CC BY-SA)

1983: Cabbage Patch Mania Takes Hold

Cabbage Patch Kids began as hand-stitched fabric sculptures before becoming a mass-produced doll from Coleco in 1982. By the next Christmas, it had become the toy to get and sparked widely-reported violence between consumers trying to obtain one of the dolls. Cabbage Patch set a precedent both for unique dolls and the turmoil of modern day holiday-shopping.

Michael Jackson's "Thriller" is Released in 1984

1984: 'Thriller' Is Released

Michael Jackson reinvented music videos and broke down barriers for black artists on the fledgling MTV network with his 14-minute "Thriller" video. The album of same name quickly became the best-selling album of all-time, with more than 70 million units sold since its release. This early hit ensured the longevity of MTV and music videos as a music industry marketing tool.

Coca-Cola 1985
Coca-Cola 1985 by Jetijonez (None)

1985: New Coke Launches

Word leaked early in 1985 that Coca-Cola was working on a new formula to help battle competitor Pepsi. Released on April 23 and hyped as a smoother-tasting formula, the new Coke met a hostile reaction from consumers who condemned the change and even began hoarding original cases. New Coke was pulled from shelves in July and quickly replaced with the rebranded Coke Classic.

Tim Berners-Lee
Peter Macdiarmid/Staff/Getty Images News/Getty Images Europe

1989: Tim Berners-Lee Invents the Web

British scientist Tim Berners-Lee gets most of the credit for inventing the internet as we know it today. While working in Switzerland, Berners-Lee conceived of a way to share information between separate computers and began working on technologies like HTML and HTTP that form the foundation of today's web. He advocated that his code by freely available to anyone, a decision announced in 1993 that put the internet in the public domain.

Amazon Launches in 1995

1995: Amazon Launches

Founder Jeff Bezos launched Amazon originally only to sell books, but with the long-term goal of developing his website into the online "everything store" it is today. The company has continued to expand along with the ever-increasing scope of ecommerce in everyday life.

Craigslist Launches in 1999

1999: Craigslist Launches

Online classifieds site Craigslist began in 1995 as an email service about San Francisco happenings. Founder Craig Newmark made Craigslist his full-time job and a full-fledged company in 1999, refusing offers to monetize his site and thus allowing it to grow into its current incarnation, facilitating online exchanges in more than 70 nations.

TiVo Series2 5xx-Generation Unit
TiVo Series2 5xx-Generation Unit by Jared C. Benedict (CC BY-SA)

1999: The First TiVo Ships

TiVo didn't dominate the DVR market it helped to create. Instead, by giving viewers the power to watch what they wanted when they wanted it, the service changed viewing habits and eroded the value of primetime advertising space, permanently altering the business of television.

The Dotcom Bubble Bursts in 2000

2000: The Dotcom Bubble Bursts

Investment in internet-based companies soared through the second half of the 1990s, but the bubble popped when the NASDAQ index peaked in 2000. Investors had realized online companies were still beholden to the basic business principles. The stock market lost 10 percent of its value over the next few weeks, and online companies once traded for millions became worthless.

2001: iPod

2001: Apple Introduces the iPod

There were other digital music players around before Apple developed its own in 2001, but none that did as much to move the music industry online as the fourth-generation iPod released in 2004. The success of the touchpad-sporting device led to millions of songs being sold through Apple's iTunes store — and not through bricks-and-mortar record stores.

Facebook in 2006
Facebook in 2006 by Source (None)

2006: Facebook Expands Its Reach

Mark Zuckerberg launched thefacebook exclusively to Harvard students in 2004, but it wasn't until 2006 that the social networking site allowed anyone to sign up. As a result, social media is no longer just for young people, but a tool used by everyone, including business and media companies.

2007: iPhone

2007: Apple Launches the iPhone

After the disappointment of the Motorola ROKR E1, the first attempt at an iTunes-supported mobile phone, the company redefined an entire market with its first generation iPhone by recreating the cell phone as an all-in-one device for music, photos, games, and mobile web surfing.

Streaming Video Service
Kaspars Grinvalds/shutterstock

2007: Netflix Begins Streaming

Netflix had been operating as a DVD rental-by-mail service for a decade before incorporating online streaming. Netflix's business model drove once-dominant video rental stores like Blockbuster towards bankruptcy. By spending $5 billion last year to produce original, ad-free content, the company continues to be a significant player in the entertainment space.