If you recall, back in April I wrote a post about survival in the case you had suddenly found yourself transported back in time 150 years or so (ZAP! You Are Now In 1877 - - - What now???), and what you might need to ensure your survival in those oh-so-primitive times (I'm being facetious here...wait! No I'm not!).
Well, I'm at it again! Yup - here it is, 1860, and you need to go to town to purchase some provisions, and I'm here to help. So, let's see what it will be like for you when you take the seven mile journey to the nearest town, either by way of horse and buckboard or farm wagon, or by leg power. Either way, a trip to town is a necessity every-so-often, if only to get your mail.
So, let's switch on the time machine and see what it's like...
The local general store was always a dim, gloomy place. There was seldom windows along the sides, because the walls from the front of the store to the back were covered with shelves loaded with stock. It was an advantage to the merchant in the days of hard and tricky bargains to have his store in cave-like darkness. People were often astonished at the quality and the color of their bargains when they got home.
There could be truth to the story of a deacon who is supposed to have called out to his clerk:
"John, have you dampened the tobacco?"
"Have you watered the rum?"
"Have you sanded the sugar?"
"Then come in to prayers."
The usual arrangement in the general store was to devote one side to dry goods. Here the women bought goods by the yard: ribbon, thread, silk, corsets, bustles (usually made of cloth stuffed with bran, hair, cotton, rags, or old newspapers), fans, gloves, handkerchiefs, shawl pins, and artificial flowers.
On the same side the men could buy paper collars, cuffs, bosoms (the part of a garment that covers the breast), ready-made neckties, suspenders, hats, shoes, and underwear.
Across from the dry goods section, near the front of the store, were the candy jars, a small selection of toys, the tobacco & cigars, the cough drops and such patent medicine as Perry Davis' Pain Killers, Radway's Ready Relief, Log Cabin Bitters, Hostetters' Bitters, and Beecham's Pills.
On the shelves were crockery, including table ware, wash bowls, and pitchers. Glasses, lamps, and earthware crocks and jugs also occupied shelves.
Next came the grocery section, with its spice-grinder and tins of spices and tea and coffee, the cheeses and cracker barrels, and the sugar barrels. The casks of rum, brandy, and gin, and the cider barrel were at the rear, where were also kept the farming implements - pitchforks, rakes, hoes, scythes, snares, whetstones, and a circular rack of horsewhips suspended from the ceiling.
In addition to fullfilling his role as a storekeep, the merchant was often also a politician, banker, accountant, post master, or held a number of other prominent positions. He had great knowledge of his customers, their likes and dislikes, problems, and even financial situations. This was important since he had to deal with credit and bartering. He also had to have a good handle on the needs and wants of his customers.
P. T. Barnum, perhaps the most famous showman of the 19th century, once worked at a general store.
"I stood behind the counter and was polite to the ladies, and wonderfully active in waiting upon customers," he said. "We kept a cash, credit, and barter store, and I drove some sharp bargains with women who brought butter, eggs, beeswax and feathers to exchange for dry goods, and with men who wanted to trade oats, corn, buckwheat, axe-helves, hats, and other commodities for tenpenny nails, molasses, or rum."
It was customary for storekeepers who had apprentices to board and lodge the young men in their own families, working them from early morning until late at night and paying them little or nothing while they were learning the tricks of the trade. Stores opened at seven in the morning and stayed open until at least nine o'clock at night. If there was any buying activity, they were kept open until ten or eleven o'clock. From a merchant who worked at such a store gave an account of his days as a young clerk back in 1854: "The hours were very long and the younger clerks had a variety of work, from sweeping out the store to delivering goods. Another clerk and myself slept in the store and built the fires and swept out. There was a large hogshead (a large cask holding approximately 63 gallons of water) in the yard behind the store to catch water from the roof and we used that to sprinkle the floor.
"A great many remnants of prints were sold at sixpence, 8 1/3 cents a yard, or at twelve yards for a dollar. We used to sell nine yards for a dress pattern and the usual price was 12 1/2 cents a yard. Customers would generally try to beat down the price. Then we would come down to a dollar for the nine yards and sometimes we would have to throw in the hooks and eyes and lining for the dress in order to make the sale.
"Farmers drove to town and hitched their horses on Main street, hitching posts being provided for that purpose. They also hitched their horses to the awning posts which were in front of every store.
"We used to try to have customers take their parcels whenever they could, but when they would not do it we used to have to carry their goods to their homes in wheelbarrows. When I first started that was part of my job. It was no easy task to wheel a load of goods in a barrow.
"We had three gas lights (to light the store) - one in front, one about the middle, and one further back. Then, for the very back part of the store, where the umbrellas were kept, we had to use candles or small oil lamps - not kerosene - to light the way. We did a great deal of umbrella repairing; in fact, the boss made umbrellas and parasols right in the store. Whale bone was often used for the ribs.
"The merchants used to get their goods on long time payments - six months, nine months, and even a year being taken to pay for them. Gold, silver, and paper money were all used. We (also) heard a good deal about shillings and sixpences, terms carrying over from colonial times."
Storekeepers, in many of the smaller towns (and even some larger ones), also served as a Justice of the Peace and postmaster.
So, there you are. I hope your visit to the general store went well. I look forward to your return visit.
(Most of the information for this post was lifted from a very old book I own (copyright 1938) called "American Village" by Edwin Valentine Mitchell)