Monday, December 17, 2012

The General Store

I completed most of my Christmas shopping online this year, which I found to be very convenient, and other than a slight shipping delay, (the Christmas cards I’d ordered last month just arrived last week) everything was delivered to my front door mere days after I’d placed my order. 

In a way, this is history 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. 

In my October release, Unclaimed Bride, the hero returns home from town with very ripe bananas. A fruit that was unheard of in Wyoming at the time, and the heroine has to figure out what to do with them. 

With this post I’d like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a joyous New Year.



Caroline Clemmons said...

Lauri, I'm so pleased to see you use the word "drummers" for traveling salesmen. Apparently, not a lot of people know that word, but I use it in some of my books. Thanks for the photos and the info on country stores. From the top photo, I wonder what OK Soap is, don't you?

Paty Jager said...

Lauri, fun post! The mercantile as you say was the hub of the community back in the frontier days. We had a small mercantile in the town where I grew up that still had the potbelly stove and the old men sitting around it. Of course the building was small and is still a mercantile today and owned by the children of the previous owner but now they have espresso, but the still carry a little bit of everything.

Congratulations on the next book! And Merry Christmas!

Jacquie Rogers said...

I love this article, Lauri! I'm fascinated with general stores and one sparked my imagination for the first book in my current series. The store was sorta the central nerve system for an area and nearly all communication passed through it,like today's internet, to bring my comment in full circle with the beginning of your post.

Ellen O'Connell said...

Great post, Lauri. I love the pics. My newest romance WIP had me investigating the beginnings of RFD the other day. From what I could discern, many of the areas we're writing about in our books wouldn't have seen rural delivery for a long time. It started as test routes in fairly populated areas. I'm using 1898-1900 Kansas, and I won't dare have it working there.

Ellen O'Connell said...

Hey, Jacquie. I really meant to comment on your holiday post. Liked it a lot and wondered about the saloon owners giving gifts. Can you share where you found info about that?