A&P | Study Guide

John Updike

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Course Hero. "A&P Study Guide." February 9, 2017. Accessed June 26, 2022. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-P/.


Course Hero, "A&P Study Guide," February 9, 2017, accessed June 26, 2022, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-P/.

A&P | Context


Clothing as Backlash to 1950s Propriety

"A&P" takes place in the 1950s when standards for socially appropriate dress were generally conservative. Men were expected to wear ties for social events, and women to wear dresses (that fell well below the knee). For casual wear, women might wear slacks or capris, and men slacks and button-down shirts. But how people dressed was more than a matter of social expectation; it was often regulated by official and even governmental bodies. For instance, many felt shorts exposed too much leg. As a result, a regulation was passed by the US Golf Association in the early 1950s prohibiting players from wearing golfing shorts in amateur golf tournaments. In 1958 Los Angeles City College banned students from wearing Bermuda shorts—loose shorts that hang nearly to the knee. In 1959 the city of Plattsburgh, New York, actually made it illegal for anyone over 16 to wear shorts in public. Many colleges had dress codes which forbade jeans, shorts, T-shirts, and the like.

Of course, there was some notable resistance to these dress codes. Women who found Bermudas unattractive sometimes preferred short-shorts. Some men chose to go for the greaser look: T-shirts, tight jeans, motorcycle jackets, and boots popularized by movie stars James Dean and Marlon Brando. The bikini, which causes the conflict in Updike's "A&P," was fashionable by 1959, exposing still more flesh even than a regular two-piece bathing suit. This spirit of rebellion, sexuality, and individuality that would come to define the approaching decade of the 1960s was often expressed through clothing that challenged the conservative social standards of the 1950s.


The company that inspired the title of the story was originally founded in New York City in 1859 to sell imported tea. First called the Great American Tea Co., it began as a mail-order business, but it quickly expanded to form a chain of stores. It was soon rechristened the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, and by 1875, it was known simply as A&P.

A&P grew rapidly. Typically, an early 20th-century A&P had just one employee. By 1925 A&P's 14,000 "economy stores" made it the largest grocery store chain in the country. It expanded into Canada and then began replacing small grocery stores with supermarkets. A&P pioneered the concept of the store brand, buying bakeries, canneries, and dairy plants to sell their products. They produced and sold Jane Parker baked goods and Eight O'Clock Coffee, which became national brands. A&P was also the first chain to buy directly from manufacturers, so it could negotiate lower prices.

At the time Updike's story takes place, A&Ps were prevalent throughout the United States. They were not only the country's largest grocery chain but its largest retail chain. However, things were already starting to decline as the store resisted change. The family-run company's management conservatively wanted to stick with a winning formula. Thus the stores tended to remain in older town centers and did not make the move to the suburbs with their customers.

As late as 1969 A&P was still doing twice as much business as their main competitor, Safeway, but Safeway began to dominate the market in the next decade. This was the beginning of A&P's decline, which ended in the company's sale to a German parent company in 1979. Despite attempts to overhaul its image, A&P went bankrupt in 2015 and sold or closed their few remaining stores in November 2016. However, at the time John Updike wrote his story, the store was a mainstay of the American retail industry and of American consumerism.

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