Family History: What was life like in an 1850 country store?


Country-Store-copyWelcome to an 1850’s Country Store

“Smokers and Chewers will please spit on each other and not on the stove.”
Sign in a Country Store

At the turn of the 19th Century, American pioneer families pushed West as quickly as explorers mapped new territory. Forests were cleared and farms sprung up. As rough trails developed into dusty crossroads, frontier merchants sat up shop, supplying goods to the agrarian population. No matter how remote the locale, the little country stores thrived.

The farm economy was a simple one. Farmers were self-sufficient to a large degree, producing fruit, vegetables, hay, grain, milk, cream, butter and cheese. Pigs and cows were butchered for meat, and seasonally, wild berries and grapes were gathered. What the farm couldn’t produce was purchased at the country store.

Pioneer familles brought excess grain, salt port or other crops to the store and traded for cooking staples, salt, molasses and tea. Barter was the rule, and little hard cash changed hands. Merchants weren’t required to offer much in return, as the farmer had no where else to take his goods

The usual markup was 100%., with a nickel spool of thread selling for a dime. Often, goods had three prices—

  1. the low cash price
  2. the higher barter price
  3. the even higher price for items bought on credit.

Usually merchants were honest, but occasional stories are told about the unscrupulous ones who painted regular beans black and sold them as coffee, or who added sawdust to oatmeal.

Store goods were valued by weight and the distance they had traveled. If a barrel of flour and a barrel of sugar weighed the same and traveled the same distance, they were sold for the same price. In some locations, the cost of a barrel of flour was so high that merchants opened their own gristmills.

Watch Your Step!

The country store of the early 1800’s bore little resemblance to the department stores of today. Often constructed of logs, they looked more like frontier trading posts, with the porch piled high with pelts or other goods taken in trade. Inside, counters ran down both sides of the building, heaped high with dry goods, staples and the ever-present cat who groomed himself over an open pickle barrel.

Overhead, the blackened ceiling beams were hung with rolls of string, and leather harnesses. Under foot, the floor was covered with sawdust to absorb mud, molasses and tobacco juice. On the rare occasions with the floor was swept, dirt and cat hair flew into boxes of uncovered edibles. More than one cheese round was peppered with cigar ashes and dust from the road.

The shelves and counters of a country store were divided according to the type of merchandise. Dry goods were the lightweight articles that were not weighed or poured, and would include calico, yarn, clothing, flannel, and shoes. Notions were the pins, needles and thread that women often bought in trade for milk or eggs.

Men shopped for iron tools, nails and crockery in the hardware “department”, while food that was shipped a long distance was called produce. Sugar and molasses were known as West Indies goods. Wine and rum were often referred to as “groceries”, after the earlier word “groggery”. Barrels of spirits were stored in the rear of the store, next to the small area the merchant called his office. Eventually, as the village grew, a post office or barber shop might be added.

Packaging and Pricing

Many items were purchased in bulk, so scales or other weighing devices were greatly in evidence. Most farmers purchased supplies in large quantities—a barrel of flour, a hogshead of molasses, a keg of nails—and when purchasing smaller quantities they brought in their own containers like baskets, boxes or pails.

Any item that had to be cut off or scooped up was wrapped in a paper. Old country store account books note sales like “a paper of allspice, a paper of flour – one dollar”. When selling “papers”, the merchant ripped a piece of brown paper to form a cornucopia and tied it with string from holders hanging from the ceiling. These pointed containers were called pokes. Machine made paper bags wouldn’t exist until after the Civil War.

In the mid-1800’s, merchants began putting some goods like soda and starch in small one-pound packages. When National Biscuit Company packaged their Uneeda Biscuit, the buying public embraced packaging primarily because it meant they didn’t have to eat crackers which had been touched by every dirty hand dipping into the cracker barrel.

During this period of time, typical prices in a Northeastern country store was 37 cents for a knife, $2.54 for a pair of boots, 75 cents for a shirt and 38 cents for a pipe.

In the spring, shopkeepers traveled by raft to a large river, where they would transfer goods to a ship bound for Cincinnati or St. Louis. The crops were sold, and the profit invested in more merchandise. The new store stock was then shipped by freight back home. The unloading of boxes of tea from China, dress goods from France and dishes from England was a community event, and often the only contact settlers had with the outside world. Emma Willard’s early 19th Century school taught geography using a picture showing the places of origin of country store merchandise.

Gather ‘ Round

For farm families, the store was more than a place to barter corn or hay—it was the bustling commercial and social center of the community. It was here that gossip was exchanged and politics debated. If a farmer was injured, a death occurred, a birth or marriage announced, the storekeeper heard it first.

If the store became a stop on the stage line, business was certain to increase even more. When stage drivers threw mail pouches on the country store porch, the community came to life and gathered at the store to hear the latest news. The merchant used these opportunities to entice customers inside the store to hear his latest bargains.

By the 1850’s, the country store carried many luxuries like Brussels lace, Paris ribbon, and food delicacies. One small store advertised: “Fresh Goods from the East, GewGaws for Girls, Tomfolleries for Boys, Fancies for Women, Substantials for Men.”
The shelves of these stores were brimming with spices, beans, flour, cornmeal, coffee, soap, and candles. In front of the counter, jars held penny candy, gumdrops, rock candy, stick candy, lozenges, and horehound.

Horse collars, saddles, harnesses, snowshoes, traps, and hunting supplies dangled from the ceiling. Bins or barrels of nails and screw sat among axes, brooms and mops. The counters sagged under books, tobacco, lamps, medicines, pots, pans, churns, leather shoes, new harness fittings, bird seed, buttons, and whalebone stays! The simple country store of a few decades earlier had grown into a full-blown emporium.

With the growth of the store came the proliferation of loungers—those community members who spent their days loafing about the pot-bellied stove in winter, or filling the front porch benches in summer. Also known as cracker barrel philosophers, loungers sat around the store all day, spitting on the stove or the floor, and helping themselves to crackers, pickles and any other food stored in open containers. When merchants added glass covers to cheese rounds, and rattling lids to candy jars, loungers found it much harder sneak a free bite of food when the merchant’s back was turned.

In some stores, loungers took up so much space that merchants installed brass rails in front of the counter so paying customers would have a space to conduct business. In some country stores, women and young girls avoided coming inside because of the long line of loungers they had to pass.

One merchant went so far as to insert a notice in the local newspaper. “”I am excessively annoyed by a set of troublesome animals, called Loungers, who are in the daily habit of calling at my store, and there sitting hour after hour, poking their noses into my business, looking into my books, making impertinent inquiries about my business which does not concern them, and anon giving me a polite hint that a little grog would be acceptable.”

A 19th Century poet wrote that if the men were as constant in going to church as to the country store, pastors would be spared looking for lost sheep.

Storekeepers Do It All

As scattered farms grew into bustling villages, stores prospered and the shopkeeper himself became an indispensable part of the community. He read and wrote letters for illiterate customers, loaned money, interpreted the news, and acted as an intermediary for courting couples. Farmers trusted him to hold their hard-earned cash, and farm wives left precious packages, certain that the merchant would see to their safe delivery.

The storekeeper had the power to place the value on crops and establish lines of credit. He was postmaster and barber, confidante and community leader. His opinion was held in high esteem and his negative comments about a prospective son-in-law could spell doom for young suitors. When an area grew enough to engage in politics, the storekeeper was often its first elected official.

By 1850, the United States population had grown to over 23 million. Railroads began to replace canals and rivers as the main mode of transportation. Farmers who had once grown a little of everything, now specialized in a single crop. Cheaper modes of transportation meant crops could be sold outside of the community, thus freeing farmers from the merchant-controlled economy. Barter became less prevalent and cash business standard. However, the country store remained the heart of the community.

Although few country stores still exist, checker boards on the cracker barrel, spittoons around the stove, and yarn-swapping storytellers have become of part of America’s cultural heritage.

In 1898, Alvin Snow wrote

“In a portion of country I now know quite well,
Not extremely remote from a flourishing town,
Whose location and name scarce ‘twere worth while to tell,
Is a small country store, weather-beaten and brown,
Near by, two roads cross, and a guide board is placed,
The way-faring traveler’s route to make plain . . .

In short space of time I the fact understood,
That that little store was the centre of all
Attraction and int’rest in that neighborhood—
At least for the male portion—young, old, short, tall.
One after another, when day’s toil was o’er,
The farmers would come—some would ride, some would walk—
For groc’ries or mail,–for post-office and store
In one were combined—they they’d linger and talk.”


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