IIt all started in 2016 when Lucy Ireland Gray was standing outside her local Sainsbury’s home in Bishop Stortford, Hertfordshire. “I spotted a piece of paper on the sidewalk with a graphic on it,” she says. “Then I realized there were two sets of handwriting on it—someone reused an envelope to make their shopping list. I became fascinated. Soon I started finding shopping lists everywhere.”
Gray has been picking up neglected shopping lists in her hometown and beyond ever since. Soon friends and family started sending her lists located all over the UK. It has gathered nearly 300 people and is now curating an exhibition of these quirky daily glimpses into the lives of strangers.
“I’m curious by nature,” she laughs. “I enjoy imagining the little stories behind the menus, and bridging the gaps. I make judgments that might be horribly wrong but I’ll never know. I just found one yesterday that just said, ‘Yardley and hairspray.’ So I spontaneously photographed a glamorous old lady. It says a lot about me. Like a list maker does. It’s everyday poetry open to interpretation.”
Gray is an archeology graduate and notes that her quirky hobby is itself a form of archaeology: “It’s a similar process: finding an artifact that’s thrown away and building an image of it.” You find them mostly on the floor, often with footprints, but also in baskets, carts or on store shelves. I recently discovered one that had been carefully folded into a small square and pushed into a hole in some brickwork against Waitrose.
Lists provide insight into consumer habits but also reveal how people compile lists. Custom shopping notebooks with retail boxes are widespread. The posters, which may have been taken out of the premises, appear high. Others are scribbled on cardboard ripped from cereal packets or, in one case, an oval perforated lid for a tissue box. Much written in capitals around. A select few are so well organized that they are arranged by the shopper’s path around the aisles.
Bread and milk are the most common items, followed by eggs and butter. “Grocerying tends not to be terribly exotic,” Gray says. “People with specialized tastes will probably shop online instead. You can often tell what meals they’re planning. You can say, ‘They’re definitely going to have a quick fry tonight—or a barbecue this weekend.'” Avocados are surprisingly popular. But no one can spell it.”
Shoppers always write “blue milk” or “green milk” rather than whole or semi-skimmed milk. “The menus are full of these endearing nuances,” Gray says. “They use abbreviations and symbols. STs are widely used to refer to sanitary towels. I’ve noticed that people rarely use brand names. They might write Coke, Weetabix, Domestos, or Philadelphia but everything else is generic. One list has cute pictures of kids next to each entry – which Michelangelo did. He painted every item to help his illiterate servant.”
There is something voyeuristically amazing about these private documents. “You’d never step up a conveyor belt and walk someone’s distance, but they happily leave their list behind, and that’s basically the same thing. It’s intimate, especially one with a shopper’s personal notes: ‘Love! Too much of this” or “I love you in the millions, Mom.”
The serendipity at them can be surprisingly emotional. “There’s one with spidery graffiti that made me cry,” she admits. “Spelling says ‘salard’ and ‘cheese’. It seems to have been a concerted effort to make, which melts my heart. I suppose he is an older person but it may be a child learning to write.”
With the rise of online shopping and the ubiquity of smartphones, will your paper/cardboard shopping list end soon? “I don’t think so,” Gray says. “Who could be bothered writing a list when you can quickly scribble one in the kitchen? While walking around the supermarkets, I rarely see shoppers reviewing a list on their phones.”
Gray group stopped during shutdown, when hash cleanliness increased. Few of the things I found were warm: “You could tell people they were shopping for others—maybe an elderly neighbor or a solitary friend. There was a societal element to them.” Now back to business as usual.
“I like the rolls because they are unpretentious,” says Gray. “In a world where people portray their lives as so much more magical, a shopping list tells you what it really is. They’re refreshingly honest, even a little vulnerable. A glimpse of home life behind the mask. They’re great levelers, too.” the shopping Lists existed since ancient times in Mesopotamia. It is global. Everyone writes it.”
Gray thought of sticking wallpaper on her hall with her collection. still do it. For now, though, speculative display at London’s Museum of Brands has grown out of her hobby. “It’s little shots that create a story in your mind,” she says. “This story is not just about shopping. It is about someone’s life. That is the beauty of this.”