the cultural background to the phrase ‘to shop till one drops’

Of American-English origin, the phrase to shop till, or until, one drops means to shop in an enthusiastic or determined way for an extended period of time; now, especially, to go on an unrestrained shopping spree.

The image is of shopping until one is physically exhausted and unable to continue.

This humorous image seems to have originated in the early 20th century with reference to the consumerist avidity prompted by department stores, particularly during the run-up to Christmas.

This is exemplified by three satirical poems published in The Chicago Daily Tribune (Chicago, Illinois):

1: In The Day Before Christmas. (Annual Parody.), published on Wednesday 24th December 1902, a customer in a department store says:

“Why, listen, I’ve shopped
Until from exhaustion I’ve pretty near dropped.”

2The Last Shopper was published on Saturday 24th December 1904:

'to shop till one drops' - The Last Shopper - Chicago Daily Tribune - 24 December 1904

’Tis the last Christmas shopper left glooming alone;
All her weary companions are finally gone—
Not one of her kindred, no sister, is nigh
To respond to her question: “O, what shall I buy?”

All the stores now are closing—the counters are bare,
And a wonderful silence is filling the air;
Save at times like the snap of a swiftly swished lash
Comes an echo belated—an echo of “C-a-a-ash!”

See her roam past the counters and speed down the aisles,
While the clerks and floorwalkers again spring their smiles;
See her pause for a moment, then move on, and say:
“I’ll not take it; you see, I’m just looking today!”

In her arms are heaped bundles of Christmassy shape,
Tied up with plain string and with pink and blue tape—
Clang! Clang! goes the bell, and the stores must be shut;
Still she whispers: “I guess I have got them all—But——”

All the day she has wandered through store and through shop,
Till from strain and exhaustion she’s ready to drop;
Yet she stands and she sighs like a person bereft
When the clerks gasp and say: “Not another one left.”

All alone on the car she must find her way home,
Mumbling: “Picture book, necktie, cigar case, and comb,
Pair of brushes, oil painting, silk suspenders—I’ve missed
Half the things that I went for. O, where is my list?”

’Tis the last Christmas shopper—it’s now Christmas morn;
She is worn out, and hungry, and tired, and forlorn,
And she says, as she looks for her little latchkey:
“Don’t let anyone say ‘Merry Christmas’ to me!”

3Story of the Unwise Man was published on Friday 15th December 1905:

'to shop till one drops' - Story of the Unwise Man - Chicago Daily Tribune - 15 December 1905

John Henry Brown, with scornful frown, made speech unto his wife:
“You’ve spent six days, to my amaze, within the shopping strife,
Yet from your list there is not missed one-fourth that we must buy.
You’ve worked enough. I’ll get the stuff ere you could wink your eye.”

John Henry laughed, John Henry chaffed, when his dear wife said: “See,
The time I’ve spent has bowed and bent and made a wreck of me.
I’ve shopped and shopped until I dropped from utter weariness.”
He vowed: “I’ll fill your Christmas bill in half an hour of less.”

John Henry Brown then went downtown and sauntered to the stores;
He strode with smiles along the aisles and rode to many floors,
But everywhere when he got there a crowd of folk would stand
And keep at work the busy clerk with pencil in her hand.

And through each door there crowded more until the store was full;
Brown turned about to hasten out, and had to push and pull.
They shoved him through a showcase, too, they ground him on the wall,
They punched and pounced and squeezed and bounced him like a rubber ball.

They tumbled him, they jumbled him, they threw him to and fro
Until at length he lost his strength and could no farther go,
And as he fell he knew full well his helpless form should feel
The beating bruise of women’s shoes—each with a pointed heel.

Next day he woke and faintly spoke unto the white clad nurse:
“Upon my life, take to my wife my Christmas list and purse.”
The nurse replied: “Your wife’s outside; for her you need not fear.
She was among the crowd that swung on you, and sent you here.”

The earliest instance that I have found of the phrase to shop till, or until, one drops is from The Sixty-Thousand-Dollar Face, a short story by the American journalist, author and diplomat Edwin Lefèvre (1871-1943), published in Harper’s Monthly Magazine (Harper & Brothers Publishers – New York and London) of September 1904—Mrs. Buxton, who is going on a trip to New York City, wants to impress Mrs. Frost, who is staying in Indianapolis:

“Good-by. I’ll be back next week some time—I may be delayed, you know. […] Anything you’d like me to get for you? No trouble at all—I’m going to shop until I drop.”

The second-earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from this advertisement for Conrad’s, published in The Indianapolis Star (Indianapolis, Indiana) of Sunday 17th April 1910:

Bargains in Suits, Skirts and Coats
Monday

Unlike the downtown stores, we can get along on a smaller profit, because we escape the high rents. Yet we have the largest store of its kind in town, the largest stocks and the greatest variety. Shop till you drop, but nowhere will you find values equal to these.

'to shop till one drops' - Indianapolis Star - 17 April 1910

 

The punning slogan You shop, we drop promotes the home-delivery service of Tesco, a British groceries and general merchandise retailer—photograph: Bruce Public Relations, Inverness:

'You shop, we drop' - Tesco slogan

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.