Back in the 19th Century, a mercantile was an essential store in more ways than you might think. Not only did it carry supplies as vital as coffee and bacon, it was often the social hub for smaller western towns. Christmas, then, was an exceedingly exciting and bustling time. The mercantile transformed into the best place to see neighbors and get “store bought” gifts.
Walk with me for a moment down the boardwalk to Boot & Co General Store. Christmas is just around the corner and the proprietor, Mr. Boot, is busy getting ready for the season!
You probably haven’t given it much thought, but most general stores are dirty, dark, and cluttered affairs. Customers track in mud ceaselessly. Stores often only have a few windows because they take up valuable shelf space. Patrons shop in gloom by the light of weak overhead lanterns or small, narrow windows.
Christmas, then, is not only the excuse for purchasing more “frivolous” items, it allows the storekeepers to stock up on beautiful gifts that sparkle and shimmer, adding a festive air to the shelves.
Mr. Boot does keep a healthy supply of eggs, milk, butter, sugar, spices, and flour, the real essentials even for a remote mercantile like this one high in the Rockies. Christmas, though, means shimmer and shine, spit and polish. Decking the halls. Fa la la la la la la la.
Up ahead our dear proprietor is unloading a wagon of Christmas trees and leaning them up against his store front. The German tradition of dragging a tree into the parlor hit America around 1850 and now, 1877, is well-entrenched. Don’t you just love the smell of pine floating in the air?
What’s that sparkling in his display window? Let’s walk over.
Ah, Mr. Boot, ever the entrepreneur, has made sure to provide items with which to decorate the trees. He has traded out a used saddle and worn pair of jeans for a small Christmas tree bedecked with ornaments. Some hang from the window frame as well, from silk ribbons. Let’s step inside and take a closer look.
Ornaments on the tree are made of wax, cloth, ceramic, tin—why, Mr. Boot even ordered a few glass ones from Germany! Look at this one, a shimmering red ball, deeply fluted and reflecting warm oranges and yellows! And, oh, my!! A little wax angel with spun-glass wings. Around her, a dozen little ornaments cut from tin also adorn the tree. Shiny crosses, snowflakes, and puppies.
I step back and survey the display. Quite impressive. I know I’ll be leaving with a few new items for my tree.
Then you spy the bright pile of Oranges! We rush over and pick up the glowing, fragrant spheres. Mr. Boot doesn’t have many—only a dozen or so—and they will go quickly, but they smell heavenly. Oranges have become quite the popular Christmas gift during the Victorian era. Citrus fruits of any kind are expensive, and not widely available. I think I’ll buy one! Just one.
Next to them in a tin bread box, we see the Victorian sugar plums! Oh, I haven’t had any of these since I was a child back in Tennessee. Little confections made out of dried fruit balled-up and rolled in sugar—though they are more brown than purple.
I turn to the store and am amazed at the work Mr. Boot has done in here. He’s added extra lanterns and lit more candles. He’s swept the floor. Along the far wall hangs a new saddle, keenly oiled and glistening in the flickering light. Beside it, all the Remington rifles glimmer, too, polished to perfection.
In the corner, two miners lean against the canned goods, discussing the latest news in town. Ginny and Dan will be moving on. Did you hear a bakery will be opening up soon? They nod at us, and motion for us to join the conversation.
You go, but I want to look at those ornaments again. Clutching my orange, I head back to the window, eager to pick out a few trinkets for my own little tree.
And to you, Gentle Reader, I wish a Merry, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!