You never heard of Sylvan N. Goldman, right?
He never heard of you either, unless you are from Oklahoma. But the fact is, all of our lives here in America were shaped, or anyway contoured, by Sylvan N. Goldman.
He died in Oklahoma City Sunday at 86, one week after his wife Margaret died. They had been married 53 years. The fortune of their two sons, Alfred and Monte, is estimated by Forbes magazine at $400 million, easily.
"Liquid assets alone may top $200 million," says Forbes, which just this year admitted the brothers to its Four Hundred Richest.
And his sons will mourn him, and his associates at Goldman Enterprises, but the unknown thousands all over the country, and beyond, who benefited from his philanthropies will most likely never know he lived or died.
Sylvan N. Goldman invented the shopping cart.
In the lowest years of the Depression, Goldman bought the bankrupt Humpty Dumpty retail food chain. He noticed that women did their shopping with a basket. When the basket got too heavy, they stopped shopping.
So he took a folding chair, attached wheels and set a wire basket on top. A carpenter and a maintenance man helped him, but their names are lost to history.
He put the carts in the stores.
"People were used to having clerks wait on them," said Marvin Weiss, president of the division of Unarco Industries that makes carts today. "You told the clerk what you wanted, and he got it for you. With those long-handled hooks for the stuff on the top shelves."
So Goldman primed the pump. He hired people to push loaded carts around in the store all day, a job that sounds like an assignment in Purgatory but at the time must have been kind of exciting, when you think of it: pioneering a new American life style.
Anyway, it worked.
And the shopping cart made the supermarket work.
Goldman patented the idea, founded Folding Carrier Corp., started building supermarkets. In 1955 he merged his 33 Humpty Dumpties with a bigger firm, and from there he moved to an even newer idea: shopping centers.
It is hard to believe there was a time before shopping centers. A life before supermarkets.
Without them, would there be suburban parking lots?
Would there be suburbs?
"Sylvan N. Goldman changed the face of America," Weiss said.
He used to stop by the office, Weiss recalled, and pass around bright ideas, up to the week of his death. "I'd hate to have to play him in gin rummy. He was sharp."
Today the shopping cart is virtually a member of the family. People put their babies in them when shopping. Unruly teen-agers use them for scooters in the aisles. Pedestrian shoppers kidnap them and they have to be rescued from alleys and vacant lots all over the neighborhood. Some serious shoppers own their own. Supermarket clerks assemble long trains of nested carts in the parking lot and then have to be helped getting them through the automatic door.
The shopping cart is an international institution. In one French movie a pair of holdup guys make their getaway in a shopping cart.
Now there are carts specifically designed to dock at the checkout counter, carts designed so you can't take them through the barrier to the parking lot. A supermarket will buy 250 to 350 of them, at $85 or so apiece, and they are expected to last 10 years or more unless they are abused. The average store loses 12.3 carts per year to thieves. A cart holds as much as 1,000 pounds of stuff, gets its wheels changed three times in its career, and seems to spend its retirement years in a laundromat.
Shopping carts are a $100-million-a-year business.
They are sold in 36 countries.
The original cart stands in the Smithsonian.
And Sylvan N. Goldman, well, Sylvan N. Goldman ought to have a statue someplace.