Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The General Store

The items I ordered for Easter via online shopping have arrived, and in a way, history is repeating itself...

Catalog ordering wasn’t unusual for pioneers. The local mercantile, general store, emporium, or country store often provided catalogs for customers to review and place orders from—if they didn’t have what the customer was looking for in stock. The merchandise would be delivered to the store and the customer would come pick it up. 

Country stores did try to hold a variety of merchandise on hand for their customers. They were the “Wal-Marts” of the day, selling most everything the community may need under one roof. The standard stock of supplies usually included foods such as flour, sugar, oatmeal, coffee beans, spices, baking powder, hard candy, crackers, dried beans, tobacco and cigars. They would also have perishables such as eggs, milk, butter, cheese, fresh fruits and vegetables (when in season, otherwise canned) and honey. These items they usually procured from local residents. 

The stores also sold dry goods, including bolts of cloth, thread, needles and pins, undergarments, shoes and boots, hats, belts and socks. Of course they also sold essentials such as guns and ammunition, lanterns, lamps, ropes, pots and pans, dishes and cooking utensils, farming equipment, and even coffins. 

There would also be a selection of soaps, medicines, elixirs and other toiletries.
The owners often resided in their store, on the upper level or side/back rooms. The store area itself was usually very crowded, with walls lined with shelves, and floors covered with crates and barrels. Storage rooms were also a must. Most of the merchandise was ordered through drummers, salesmen from establishments in larger cities that maintained regular routes to assure their products were available throughout the nation. The increase of the railroad benefitted many, including store proprietors. Merchandise became easier to obtain. 

These establishments were often the hub of the community. Meetings would be held there, and they were often the number one place of socializing. The country store was also where people picked up their mail. 

In the late 1890’s the postal service created RFD. Rural Free Delivery. This eliminated the need to visit the country store to pick up mail, and it also created a way for people to order merchandise and have it delivered directly to their doorstep. In order to implement the RFD, the government had to build roads to assure mail could be delivered to every home. Companies took great advantage of this, and started sending catalogs to all homes. People now had many more choices of merchandise and the catalogs often times had very appealing prices. 

By the early 1900’s country stores began transforming into more singular focused stores, such as grocery stores, clothing stores, hardware stores, drug stores, etc. etc. Mail order didn’t completely go away, but slowed considerably until the introduction of the World Wide Web. And where, as authors, would we be with that?

I hope you all have a fabulous Easter!
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  1. I think I have a "country store", or mercantile, as I call them, in almost every historic story I've written. It seems someone always has a need to shop in the mercantile. This is so true, and I love the photo. Now, that is a very small store.
    You taught me one thing, too, that I will now add to my WIP--1901, N. Texas, and that is the information about the advent of RFD, thus new roads. This will help my characters make a decision.
    Now, you didn't know you would accomplish that, did you? Thanks bunches!

  2. I remember general stores still in existence on some of the smaller towns in Pennsylvania when I was a kid. They are warm memories for me.
    Ah yes, the internet. It has changed our lives forever. As a kid, I loved going through the toy section of the Sears and Roebuck catalogue. My sister and I sometimes cut out the models in the clothes section, pasted them on cardboard and used them as paper dolls. It's amazing the entertainment you create without TV.
    I have written general stores into some of my stories. They lend such authenticity to a story.
    Great blog.

  3. Glad to help, Celia!

    I remember those catalogs well, too, Sarah, and that they were well worn-out before ever being discarded.


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