Sunday, August 5, 2012

The General Store

Today's stores offer a great variety of merchandise for the convenience of their customers, but in the 1800's, merchants simply sold the items they could obtain and resell. These general stores, mercantiles, or emporiums, served rural populations of small towns and villages, and the farmers and ranchers in the surrounding areas. They offered a place where people could find food and necessities that would have otherwise been difficult to obtain.
In addition to merchandise, a general store offered a meeting place for isolated people to socialize and do business. Many stores also doubled as a post office.
During the first part of the century, these stores stocked necessities, but as the economy prospered after the Civil War, more and more luxury items found their way onto the shelves. The storekeepers purchased merchandise from "drummers" (salesmen) who represented large wholesale houses and manufacturers located in larger cities and seaside ports.
At first, only locally produced perishable goods were sold in the general store; but with the expansion of the railroads, the advent of mass production, and technological advances such as the refrigerated boxcar, the local shopkeeper could display goods from all over the country.

What was a general store like in the 19th Century? Certainly not anything approaching the modern grocery or department store. Most stores had at least one large display window, but inside they were still dark and gloomy -- and depending on their geographical location, probably damp and humid to boot. Most were crowded with shelving along every wall. The floors were also crammed with boxes, barrels, crates, and tables holding goods.
The front counter held display cases for smaller items, as well as needed machinery such as a coffee grinder, scales for weighing merchandise, and a cash register. Surplus merchandise was stored in the cellar or basement, or possibly on the second floor (if that was not the living quarters of the grocer's family).
Most of the items to be found in a general store would be familiar to us today. Food and consumables included coffee beans, spices, baking powder, oatmeal, flour, sugar, tropical fruit, hard candy, eggs, milk, butter, fruit and vegetables, honey and molasses, crackers, cheese, syrup and dried beans, cigars and tobacco.
The apothecary section of the store, as in a modern grocery or department store, was well represented with a large number of patent medicines, remedies, soaps and toiletries and elixirs. The major difference between many of these items and modern ones is that none of them were tested to see if they actually worked! Most patent remedies of the era were alcohol based, which explained their popularity in many cases.
The dry goods section of the store included bolts of cloth, pins and needles, thread, ribbon, silk, buttons, collars, undergarments, suspenders, dungarees, hats and shoes. Essential items such as rifles, pistols, ammunition, lanterns, lamps, rope, crockery, pots and pans, cooking utensils and dishes, farm and milking equipment and sometimes even coffins could be found inside a general mercantile!
The average store would have been considered none too clean from modern standards. The roads outside were unpaved and unwashed; the dirt tracked in by customers would have included animal waste (and possibly human if someone had emptied their chamber pot into one of the streets). The cast iron stove heating the store during cold weather produced soot which settled over much of the merchandise. And it was not unheard of to discover rodents foraging about inside the store.
When money was scarce, the shopkeeper might extend credit to a regular customer, or accept payment in kind (bartering).
Here are a couple of price lists I located online, detailing the actual cost of some of the staples a family might need.
San Antonio, Texas,1853

Pork, 11 cents/lb

Bacon, 12 1/2-15 cents/lb

Salt beef, 8 1/2-9 cents/lb

Fresh beef, 4 1/2-5 cents/lb

Flour, 4 /14 cents (superfine)-5 cents (extra fine)/lb

Hard bread, 9-10 cents/lb

Beans, 10 1/2cents/quart

Rice, 8-10 cents/lb

Coffee, 12 1/2 (Rio) to 18 (Java) cents/lb

Sugar, 7 1/2-8 cents for "Louisiana brown"/lb

Vinegar, 6 1/4 cents/quart"

Source: The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, October 1947
Madison, Wisconsin,1861

Grains "
During the last week bushels of little wheat has come in and prices have ranged a cent or two lower They are now quoted at 63@65 cents. In our next we expect to be able to quote higher prices, as the foreign demand is disclosing an urgentness that must have a stimulating effect on the American grain markets."
Wheat, 63-65 cents (per cwt, 100 pounds)

Rye, 40-45 cents

Oats, 16-20 cents

Barley, 40-45 cents
Indian corn, shelled, 30-35 cents

Indian corn in cobb, 20-25 cents

Flour and meal (per cwt, 100 pounds)

Wheat flour, 2.25-2.50

Rye flour, 2.25

Corn meal, 1.50-2.00

Bran & shorts, 60 cents

Family markets
Eggs, 16-18 cents/dozen

Butter, 16-18 cents/lb

Green apples, 2.00-3.25/barrel

Potatoes, 18-23 cents/bush(el)

Lard, 12 cents/lb

Common salt, 2.20/bbl (bushel barrel)
Hams, 12-14 cents/lb
Cheese, 12-14 cents/lb

Codfish, 5-6 cents/lb

Whitefish, 3.20/half barrel

Table salt, 20-25 cents/sack

Brown sugar, 7-9 cents/lb

White sugar, 10-14 cents/lb

Coffee, 15-20 cents/lb

Tea, 50-75 cents/lb
Molasses, 40-50 cents/gallon

Vinegar (cider), 25 cents/gallon
Dried apples, 9 cents/lb
Dried peaches, 20 cents/lb
Cranberries, 12 cents/quart

Hubbard squash, 1.00/cwt
Raisins, 12-20 cents/lb

Honey, 25 cents/lb

Lemons, 2-3 cents/each

Sweet potatoes, 2.00/bushel

Squashes, 2-3 cents/each

Lake Michigan trout, 8 cents/lb

Currants, 12 cents/lb

Meat (per cwt, 100 pounds)

Lambs, 2-2.35/cwt

Beef, 2.50-3.00/cwt (live weight)
Hobs, 5.50-6.00/cwt

Veal calves, six weeks old, 3.00/cwt

Source: Weekly Wisconsin Patriot, February 9, 1861


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