Stories from The Zone

Canal Zone Shopping

It’s already October, which means holiday season shopping is creeping up again. What do you remember about shopping in the Canal Zone? What types of things did you buy in the commissaries and what was only available outside of the Zone? Did you take trips to Panama to shop? Did you order items from the United States? Where did you go for the most affordable items? The highest quality?

Three photographs of the U.S. Army Officers’ Wives Club shopping tour


  • Robert Dryja

    The Canal Zone had three types of shopping in the 1950’s and 1960’s when I was growing up. The first type involved the goods/services provided by the Panama Canal Company. These could be called “functional” and in one location. The Balboa Commisary sold groceries on the first floor and women’s clothing, shoes and related on the second floor. As a little boy, I was fascinated by seeing frozen food. The men’s clothing store was in a building immediately adjacent to the commisary. A furniture store also was adjacent. The Balboa Club House had a cafeteria and areas selling small items. My favorite section had a shelf with comic books that chilldren could look at. My brother and I would go there after eating dinner in the cafeteria with our parents. The Canal Zone had no shopping areas when it came into being. The Panama Canal Company started these stores so that canal construction workers could be attracted and stay.

    Goods to be sold were brought rail train, unloading directly by the buildings. How many kids today can walk by a railroad box car while getting an icecream cone?

    A second type of shopping involved crossing the street that formed the border to Panama City. The street then was named 4th of July Avenue. The great challenge was walking across the street without be hit by car. It was lined with small stores that sold more exotic items. Linens from the far East, jewelry, and fine pottery were on display in windows facing the street. Metal grating was pulled down in front of the windows when closing for the night. Many of these stores were burnt and looted as part of the 1964 riots over the flying of the United States flag in the Canal Zone.

    A third type of store involved the military bases. They had their own small stores but a person neede a military card to shop in them. The Panama Canal stores also required a card. The great benefit of a military store was the low price of goods. I remember my Mom talking about gas going up to $0.19 a gallon. The cards were meant meant to restrict shopping to United States personnel. However my parents bought a birthday cake in the Club House as a gift for our Panamanian maid in appreciation of her help. She cooked a lizard wrapped in banana leaves in return.

  • Bob Zumbado

    I don’t recall any Panama City shopping tours being provided to Canal Zone wives and ladies in the 1940s and 50s when I lived there. That’s to distinguish between CZ ladies and officer’s wives aboard the various bases. Let me ramble a bit as I left the CZ last in 1956 and my memory is gradually leaving me now. My mom worked at the U.S. Embassy in Panama City, my great stepdad was a CZ Pilot. Dad’s work schedule was irregular so often they would leave me commisary books and a list so often after school, I did most of the shopping for groceries, sundries and my own clothing at the commissary (either Balboa or Diablo) and the clubhouse (either Balboa or Diablo). Mom would sometimes shop for her own particular needs in Panama City on the way home from work. For special needs such as gifts for friends and relatives back in the states we would go to Panama and shop in the Hindu Stores. Shopping at the Hindu Stores was interesting because the store owners had two prices per item, one exhorbitant price for tourists and gringos and one for the locals. We zonians knew that and combatively shopped as locals much to the dismay of some store owners. Also, some if not all Hindu Store operators had a custom or superstition that the first customer of each day had to buy something or that would portent a bad sales day. So if you could be the first customer in the store you could use that knowledge and haggling skills to buy a pricey item at a “deal”. Great fun. I remember once my mom and I went shopping for a large hand carved chest. We were first in and mom, a hard nosed Kentucky coal miner’s daughter, got her chest so cheaply that the store operator was happy to get rid of us after an hour plus of haggling while other customers cam,e and went. Fireworks were never sold in the CZ so we (kids) spent our allowance at stores in central avenue in Panama City which sold assorted fireworks. The favorite with the boys were Zebra brand fire crackers. U. S. products not available through the commissary stores could be mailed ordered via a Sears Roebuck Catalog store and that’s how I got my bright and shiny red J.C. Higgins bycicle Christmas 1948. I could go on but my fingers are cramping:).

  • Scott C Brown

    As a grade school kid in the early 70s, I remeber trips to RIo Mar and stopping by El Valle to shop for local crafts and such. We would pick up a novelty and spend the rest of the trip in the back of the station wagon waving at locals as we drove by.

  • Patt Earl

    Panama was Home from 1953 until I graduated from BHS in 1966.

    As a kid, I never thought much about “shopping” as an art-form. It was just an occasional necessity.
    Bob D is correct, shopping was:
    1) PanCanal-run Balboa Commie, (Never had any access or reason to visit the Atlantic-side stores)
    2) the military Commissaries,
    3) the local economy stores (but you had to be extra brave to venture across the Border:
    like the famous and exotic oriental Jhangimal’s on Fourth of July Avenue),
    and lastly,
    4) the salvation of all: Sears & Roebuck, JC Penney and Montgomery Ward . . . CATALOGs!

    With rather limited suppliers, as a girl, it was always an excruciating horror to go to school
    and be wearing the exact same dress as two other girls that day!

    Outside the military commissaries, there was a kiddie corral – I can’t remember what they were called officially,
    where moms parked the kids to prevent merchandise shrinkage.
    Usually there was a female “local-rater” employee to maintain discipline while mommy shopped.
    Seems as if the kiddie corrals were stocked with toys to keep the kids entertained.
    (Sixty-five plus years later, memory fails me.)
    A very distinct vision of the Balboa Commie was the many ceiling fans, gyrating, before air conditioning.

    As a student at Ancon School, it was an adventure to sneak across Fourth of July Avenue, to Morrison’s.
    Although beyond my ten-year old means, I lusted after Esterbrook Fountain Pens which were sold there.
    With saved nickels and dimes, many volumes of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys joined my book collection.

    And even though we had the wonderful Chinese Gardens for fresh produce,
    with mangoes, papayas, bananas, avocados the size of footballs, and ginups,
    I grew up knowing strawberries only grew in the freezer,
    and blueberries only came in tiny cans inside muffin mix.
    BTW, the Panamanian word for ginups is mamones. NEVER do a google search on that word –
    to my horror, page after page of links to porn websites appeared!
    I grew up hating most vegetables – in our home, they only came in cans from the Commie –
    canned peas, canned corn, canned green beans, canned yams. All mushy and flavorless.
    That was before frozen food started being widely sold.
    And bedsides, few people in Panama had freezers! It was too hot!
    It wasn’t until years later, as an Army dependent wife, living in West Germany,
    I learned to appreciate fresh produce.

    What an Adventure! we all enjoyed, living in the Panama Canal Zone !

  • Norma S. Barkman

    My husband and I were stationed at Ft. Kobbe from 6/63 to 6/69. I always enjoyed shopping in the exchanges as each one had different items and great prices on cameras, tape recorders, etc. I made many trips down J Street to shop along Central Ave. in the Indian shops. My favorite place was Helen’s Galeria where I bought many beautiful linens that I have enjoyed for over fifty years. She was a Jewish lady that did not bargain over prices and I liked that. I thoroughly enjoyed my years in the Zone.

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