The Old-time General Store
Symbolized American Enterprise
Literally forgotten, the old-fashioned general store could be found in every community in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Its stereotype proprietor sported a moustache and protected by a long white apron, carried almost every large and small item needed in the home or on the farm.
In this commissary would be found groceries, meats, hardware items, drugs and toilet articles, boots and shoes, clothing, bolts of cloth, pots and pans and dozens of other necessities. Old Forge Hardware is the closest facsimile to what this author would consider a true 21st-century general store.
In the old days most everything arrived in bulk. There were very few packages or cans. The storekeeper did not overstock on canned goods since it was the general practice for each household to preserve most fruits and vegetables during the summer.
Since money was scarce, some business was done in barter, although in general it was a strictly cash business. The exception to the rule was the rural housewife who traded eggs, butter and farm produce for staple groceries, and maybe a piece of gingham or other cloth for a dress. Credit was only extended to reliable customers. Here a youngster, for a few pennies, could procure licorice and peppermint stick candy at a cent apiece.
The farmer might drop in to purchase a hoe, axe or saw. The village man might enter the store with a tin can and a gallon jug asking for kerosene and molasses, respectively. In some instances there was a device resembling an old-fashioned water pump from which kerosene was pumped from a tank in the basement.
A carpenter might come in to purchase some tools and it behooved the proprietor to have just the right ones on hand. A true carpenter was very fussy about his tools and he would lift a hammer and "heft" it to be sure it was balanced to suit him, or he wouldn't buy it. A delivery and errand boy was usually employed to deliver orders to families in the village who made hefty purchases and were accustomed to having goods sent to their homes. Flour came to the store in paper bags of 24½ to 48½ pounds, as packed at the mill, which might be near by in those days. Smaller quantities were not bothered with since every household did a great deal of baking and always purchased in bulk. This usually consisted of general purpose flour suitable for pies, cakes and bread.
Granulated white sugar was delivered in 100 pound sacks and was dumped into a covered metal box to be dipped out as needed with a tin scoop. Sugar was packaged in paper bags, the tops of which were folded over and tied with a string. During canning season a single family might purchase as much as 100 pounds of sugar to use in canning preserves. Brown sugar also came in loose form, but in many cases was substituted with molasses which, like vinegar, came in barrels. Fine salt came in 100 pound bags. Someone might need this much to cure pork, other meats or to make sauerkraut.
The one-pound cloth bags were cherished by little boys who used them to store marbles or chestnuts. Coffee beans were packed in a large sack. When someone wanted a pound or two, the clerk weighed them out and then ground them with a big-wheeled red mill sitting on the counter.
The coarsely ground coffee was then packed into a paper bag. This coffee was boiled in a pot as the percolator had not yet been invented. It then had to be strained when pouring to catch the grounds.
Molasses and vinegar were stocked by the barrel, the customers furnishing a jug as a container. Kerosene, the universal light fluid of those times, came in drums. The purchaser brought a pouring can of one, two, or five-gallon size. If there was no cup on the pouring spout, a potato or cork stuck on sealed it from leaking.
Always at the counter would be seen the "wheel" of cheese. When a preferred customer made a purchase, the proprietor gave a sample by cutting a sliver of the yellow product and passing it to the patron on the point of his long butcher knife.
The old-time country store was a gathering place as well as a commissary. This is where terms beginning with "cracker barrel" originated. Here, men of leisure met quite often. In winter, they sat around the red-hot pot-bellied stove and gossiped about politics, and spread the news. The proprietor didn't mind—he often joined the idlers in conversation. Come night fall, he was in no hurry to close shop, but lighted the big kerosene hanging lamp and drew up a chair or bench along side the others. The loungers might also while away the time playing a game on the well-worn board using sliced corn cobs for checkers.
If he was so inclined, the shopkeeper might bring out a small table and a deck of cards. A pitcher of cider and glasses also came for this time of year assuring the gentlemen of a pleasant hour or two deside the fire.
At the general store the carpenter purchased nails and edging tools, the tailor his thread, buttons and shears, the shoemaker his thread, wax, awls, and occasionally leather. The store also sold what was then politely termed "spiritous liquors."
Since cash was very scarce, most business was done by trade, or barter. The farmer exchanged for the storekeeper's wares assorted grains and seeds; butter and eggs; eggs, meats, pelts, hides, tallow and lard. Often the housewife in the very early days turned in the product of her spindle and loom for the goods she needed.
Newspapers of the day carried advertisements of goods available that are totally unintelligible to the present generation. Among the dry goods that might be advertised for sale would be coatins, kereseymers, swansdowns, corduroys, thicksetts, biases, woolen checks, humhums, colored cambric muslins, calicos, peelings, lute-strings, and an a sorting of the most fashionable leghorn bonnets.
Grocery items might include, Hyson, Souchong and Bohea teas; allspice, and upper leather. Other strange names were tammies, half-thicks, persians and pelongs, blue sagatha and red bunts, tickelburghs and black everlastings; and an assortment of handkerchiefs with such names as bandanoe, lungee, romals, culgee, puttical and silk setetersoy.
Many improvements were made in country stores as the years past. Newspaper accounts reflect great prosperity and development between 1820 and 1850. By the end of that era, the storekeeper now had glass cases to display cutlery, musical instruments, jewelry and other items.
The storekeeper stood on a raised dias railed in and lighted from the sides, which stood in the center of the floor. This was the great seat of local commerce and merchandising. He was a master accountant and his leather-bound records were referred to as "doomsday books" as he kept accurate records of every debtor. Depending on the size of the business, there might be a bookkeeper and "money taker" also employed. These usually were shrewd men with a trained eye. Then there were the salesmen and peddlers who dared not cross the threshold of the storekeeper's pulpit. At the rear of the store was a long shed to house large items such as new farm tools and machinery painted all the colors of the rainbow. The store carried an arsenal of agricultural tools including hoes, axes, cross-cut saws, corn stabbers, scythes, grain cradles and an assortment of many other odds and ends for farming,
This author personally recalls at least three of what could be considered old-time genera l stores which existed well into the 1970s—one at Harford, Cortland County; Shea's General store in Fabius, and one other one at Venice Center in Cayuga County.
© 2001, Richard F. Palmer