The Mighty Mercantile: Shopping in the Old West

General-store: Pixabay/David Mark

Hi, Linda Shenton Matchett here and I’m delighted to visit P&P. Thank you for having me. What do you think of when you hear the term “Old West?” Probably cowboys or ranches. Maybe saloons. But one mainstay of life in the towns that sprang up across the country during the 1800s is the general store, also known as a mercantile. Unlike the cities of the time that featured specialized boutiques, these small hamlets were remote, serving a population that had little time for shopping and often limited funds.

The goal of the general store was to provide whatever the locals needed. Patrons could find tobacco, cigars, hardware, jewelry, buggy whips, horse tack, lanterns, pails, foodstuffs, fabric and sewing notions, household items, tools, small farm implements, soap, crockery, dishes, guns and bullets, clothing, candy, coffee, toiletries, school supplies such as slates and chalk, and patent medicines (most of which were untested and alcohol based!).

Country-Store-1163566: Pixabay/RedStickM

Merchandise could be purchased with cash or barter items, such as milk, eggs, or surplus produce. Shopkeepers also extended credit as necessary. In 1853, customers could expect to pay eight to ten cents per pound for rice, eleven cents per pound for pork versus nine cents per pound of salt beef. Fresh beef could be had for five cents per pound, whereas lard would run them up to twelve cents per pound.

Old-1578895_640: Pixabay/Al Leino

Many general store owners began as roving peddlers. After accumulating enough capital and inventory, they would establish a permanent location in a growing settlement. Others specifically sought one of the boomtowns such as a mining camp or railroad town. Sometimes, the mercantile would be the first business in a new settlement.

Checkout-16544: Pixabay/Falkenpost

In addition to providing for the physical needs of the community, the general store was often the social center. A collection of chairs encircled the massive woodstove that was often located in the middle of the store. Some merchants offered inexpensive snacks such as soda crackers to allow folks to “sit a spell.” In his book, Pill, Petticoats, and Plows: The Southern Country Store, Thomas Clark indicated “Fox races, tobacco, cotton, horses, women, politics, religion—no subject is barred from the most serious and light-hearted conversation.”

As the communications center of the town, the general store was typically the location of the post office with the owner acting as postmaster, sometimes even town clerk, Justice of the Peace, and/or undertaker. In later days, the mercantile was the first or only place in the town with a telephone. Less formal communication included a wall filled with lost and found notices, event flyers, election information, auctions, and “wanted posters” for outlaws.

Keeping the shop clean would have been a challenge. With unpaved roads, customers tracked in dirt and other detritus, and the wood stove produced soot that settled on the goods. One report I found indicated it was not unusual to discover rodents foraging inside the store.

The late 1800s saw the advent of the mail order catalog business with Tiffany’s Blue Book considered the first in the U.S. In 1872, Aaron Montgomery Ward sent out his first “catalog,” a single sheet of paper showing merchandise for sale and including ordering instructions. Twenty years later, he was sending out a 540-page illustrated book selling 20,000 items, including prefabricated kit houses. Sears followed in 1888, and the decline of the general store began. The coming of the automobile in 1910 gave farmers and ranchers greater mobility, and as towns grew in size, the population was able to support specialized shops.

There are remnants of general stores scattered around the U.S., and you may be pleasantly surprised to find one near you.


Linda Shenton Matchett

Linda Shenton Matchett writes about ordinary people who did extraordinary things in days gone by. She is a volunteer docent and archivist for the Wright Museum of WWII. A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Linda was born a stone’s throw from Fort McHenry and has lived in historic places all her life. She is now located in central New Hampshire where her favorite activities include exploring historic sites and immersing herself in the imaginary worlds created by other authors. 

About Vanessa’s Replacement Valentine:

She’s running toward the future. He can’t let go of the past. Will these two hurting souls experience love in the present?

Engaged to be married as part of a plan to regain the wealth her family lost during the War Between the States, Vanessa Randolph finds her fiancé in the arms of another woman weeks before the wedding. Money holds no allure for her, so rather than allow her parents to set her up with another rich bachelor she decides to become a mail-order bride. Life in Green Bay, Wisconsin seems to hold all the pieces of a fresh start until she discovers her prospective groom was a Union spy and targeted her parents during one of his investigations. Is her heart safe with any man?

Eight years have elapsed since the Civil War ended, and Miles Andersen has almost managed to put the memories of those difficult years behind him. He’s finally ready to settle down, but the women in town are only interested in his money. A mail-order bride seems to be the answer until the woman who arrives brings the past crashing into the present.

Can two wounded hearts find healing in the face of doubt, disappointment, and distrust?

Would you have loved or hated to own a mercantile back then and why? Linda is giving away an Ebook edition of Replacement Valentine to one lucky commenter!

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40 thoughts on “The Mighty Mercantile: Shopping in the Old West”

  1. I would have liked it. It would be the hub of the community, providing a great need, it would be a different kind of work than farming or ranching, and I would have access to the goods I needed at wholesale prices.

  2. Good morning and welcome Linda. I think owning a mercantile would of been a great job. A steady source of income and a way to know everyone in the community and surrounding area. I best part would be the supplies a person sold have at their disposal at all times. The worst part would of been keeping it clean and avoiding being robbed at Gun point.
    I think I would also have included a children’s hour for reading since books were an added expense many could not afford and the children’s hour would of given moms a break while children were able to escape into a world between pages. Thanks fir stopping by and have a great weekend.

  3. Welcome to P&P! I don’t think I would have liked to own a mercantile. I live in a rural area where there are a lot of Amish and we have a mercantile in the town next to me. I’ve been there several times and love it. Although I’m positive it’s different then it was back in the day. Now it has different shops in it. But its called The Davis Mercantile located in Shipshewana Indiana.

    Your book sounds very intriguing and I look forward to reading it.

  4. Your book sounds beautiful! Also, I don’t think I would’ve liked owning a mercantile in those days to be honest. I feel like it would’ve been so much work, stuff running out and then wagons being sent to the city miles away to order new shipments, it must’ve been such a tough job. Not to mention the townspeople pestering the store owner for early shipments of stuff they were in urgent need of, to cater to everyone must’ve been such a struggle. I am wayy better with being a bakery owner in those times, making delicious cute pastries for the town would’ve been a dream. Also, I would’ve totally been one of the pestering customers, urging for an early shipment of flour if the mercantile ran out!

  5. Even though one of my dreams was always to own a clothing boutique, I don’t think I am social enough to be a store owner. So back then I would probably still be a bit shy and it wouldn’t be good for business.

    • Hi Janine! Being shy would definitely make it difficult to be a shop owner. What a wonderful dream about owning a clothing boutique. it would be fun to buy all the goodies to sell, but I’d have a tough time figuring out what to purchase.

  6. A mercantile was the town center of sorts, a place where people gather to shop, get mail, get gossip/updates, and so much more.

    An owner would have a lot of power with respect to information. Extending credit to some, handling orders, etc… One of the wealthier people in town, too. Have to learn how to balance all of it.

    It would have been an interesting job to have.

  7. No, I don’t think I would want to own a mercantile. But if I did, I would definitely have a couple of cats to take care of the rodent problem! Oh, my. lol! Welcome, Linda. Your Replacement Valentine sounds very good.

  8. Linda, I love this. The owner would have had to be a lot of things to a lot of people, and maybe even carry a few secrets. what fun! In the variety of items offered, it reminds me of the Five and Dime in the 40s and 50s. Thanks for sharing, and how nice to see you in a different venue!
    Kathy Bailey

  9. I think I would have liked it. A lot of the little country stores are still like this today. I was raised is a small community and it had a store that was like this.

    • Hello! You’re right about the little country stores. We often visit a small village in Vermont, and they have one of those country stores that’s filled to the brim with lots of stuff.

  10. I think I would have liked to have owned a mercantile. Just think of the diverse people that would come into the store!

  11. Good Morning! I would have loved being a mercantile owner. As a child I loved going to the general store on our little “blink-of-an-eye” town and to the larger mercantile the next town over from us. My mom would give me a nickel to buy a huge red Delicious apple.
    In my old west store I would most likely be overstocked as I tend to over estimate amounts needed and I would have all the little homey things, books, clothing & fabrics of course, every tool a man could possibly want, & every kind of candy I could supply (of course it includes chocolate candy too!).
    Oh, and I would have two cats in the store to keep the rodents away. One last thing, gotta have a pickle barrel!
    I’ll be reading your book for sure, Linda! Thanks for sharing with us.

  12. Welcome Linda. This is a wonderful post today. I would have loved owning a store. Getting to know everyone and their needs and wants. Seems like one of those stores would have been the center of town for everyone. Yes it would be hard keeping things clean and stocked, but hard life is also rewarding. quilting dash lady at comcast dot net

  13. Hi, Linda! How nice to see you at P&P! I would not like “working with the public” as in interacting with customers. My preferences would be taking care of inventory, stocking, ordering, and creating displays. I am a “behind the scenes” person.

  14. You would definitely need a head for finances, an eye for quality products and guts to extend credit knowing you’re putting your own livelihood at a risk. I would imagine you would always be busy being the hub of the community.
    I think owning a store would be a wonderful way to meet the community, keep up on the latest news and be a lot of hard work.
    Makes me wish I could talk with my Great Aunt and Uncle about their store.

    • Hi Debi! So glad you stopped by. I love knowing that your Great Aunt and Uncle had a store. Having guts to extend credit is definitely a must!

  15. I would have enjoyed owning a mercantile. It would have been interesting getting to know the people and what they wanted or needed. I know it would have been hard work and financially iffy at times. Being “town central” would have put me in a position to know or guess how people were doing and to help those who might need it.
    I like the twist on the mail order bride story you have used in VANESSA’S REPLACEMENT VALENTINE. It will be interesting to see how these two work things out.

    • Hi Patricia, thanks for stopping by. I love your comment about being a position to help those who might need it.

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