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.

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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?

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B08RWZ3SZW/strong?tag=pettpist-20

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!