Recently, I came across a neat bit of local history. There was a Giant supermarket in Prince George’s County—Chillum or West Hyattsville, depending on which article you read—that Queen Elizabeth II toured all the way back in October of 1957. Earlier that day she’d watched a football game between UMD College Park and UNC Chapel Hill, and on that same visit, she’d attended a state dinner at the White House.
But of those three activities, the visit to the Giant supermarket might be the most interesting, and it was the one I wanted to look into. It’s a fairly well-known piece of local lore—the Baltimore Sun asked the name of the supermarket as a trivia question to its readers once—but it took a bit of searching to find out the exact details. The name of the shopping center had changed, the address was not given in any article I could find, but a little online sleuthing revealed the exact location to which Her Majesty had paid her visit.
I was able to identify the exact store by finding a reference to a different supermarket directly located behind it—which had also closed! So I searched its name, luckily found only one hit anywhere in the area on an old Yelp business page, pulled the address, and zoomed in on Google Maps. There it was, just in front, the same building that had once been the Giant.
Here’s a bonus: it’s on Queens Chapel Road, though that name has nothing to do with the Queen’s visit! 3104 Queens Chapel Road, Chillum, Maryland, to be exact, for anyone who might want to easily retrace my steps.
Today, that building is operating as a Price Rite, part of a small chain of discount-oriented, mid-sized supermarkets. The building looks almost exactly the same, but the shopping center has a recently updated sign, and there’s no plaque or marker to note the Queen’s visit. In fact, I realized that I’d driven by this supermarket several times, and never had any idea of its history.
The interior of the supermarket is plain, with no butcher, fish, or deli counters. Today, it is a discount chain, without the bells and whistles of a full-sized, full-service supermarket.
That is very interesting—and it tells a whole story about grocery retailing in the United States. Because in 1957, the Giant supermarket was one of the earliest “modern” supermarkets, with two notable features. The first was self-service, as opposed to the older method of counter-service, where the customer would ask for or point to items and have them packaged up.
The second was a selection of non-grocery items, like toys and pharmacy items. Both of these things—and, of course, the supermarket’s spacious parking lot and suburban setting— distinguished it from most grocery stores of the era. That may be why the Queen wanted to visit it; because in 1957, it was extraordinary.
A retrospective article in the Washington Post quoted the newspaper’s original report of the Queen’s visit:
Donald A. D’Avanzo, the assistant manager of the West Hyattsville Giant, said The Queen was “quite interested in the frozen chicken pot pies.” The Post reported that The Queen and Philip were also fascinated by the racks of nonfood items, including clothing, school supplies and Halloween gear. A member of the royal party announced that, in England, only food is sold in food stores.
The Post piece notes another emerging supermarket feature that at the time was quite innovative: “The young Queen, clad in a mink coat, appeared charmed by the shopping carts with small seats for youngsters. ‘How nice that you can bring your children along,’ Her Majesty told one woman who was wheeling a baby.”
Yet one article notes: “Now, the store looks worn at the edges. The aisle signs are in disrepair, and the facility is noticeably smaller than newer area grocery stores.” I couldn’t find the store’s square footage, but based on measurements in Google Maps, the entire space is approximately 25,000 square feet. That is larger than a small-format supermarket, like an Aldi, but it is no longer considered large for a regular supermarket.
News articles suggest that the Giant was closed because it was no longer competitive with today’s modern supermarkets, as they have gotten much larger, stock more non-grocery items, and frequently have more recently popularized amenities like hot bars and larger selections of prepared foods. What counted as modern, even groundbreaking in the late 1950s was becoming obsolete half a century later. And likewise, that Giant’s replacement, the Price Rite, reads as a no-frills discount store today, while it would have seemed quite modern in that time.
The Giant grocery store chain still exists, and is a major player in the DC area grocery market. In fact, Giant was one of the region’s first pioneers of modern grocery retailing! But very few of its older locations remain in operation (though some, like one near Seven Corners in Fairfax County, Virginia, are now international supermarkets), and the rapid evolution of supermarkets has left these once-marvelous stores outdated and undersized in the eyes of many customers.
Maryland’s DC suburbs are full of history—whether the revolutionary war, the story of America’s Black middle class, or a little piece of royal history in an ordinary place. The area today boasts larger stores that meet today’s expectations, but it’s unlikely any of them will help alter American shopping habits, driving habits, and land-use patterns, as the rise of the modern supermarket in the middle of the 20th century did. And it’s unlikely any of them will count a queen as a customer.