December 1954 | Volume 6, Issue 1
Millions of Americans, reared on a farm or in a country village, still treasure the recollection of December shopping expeditions to the old-time general store as one of life’s most permanent and agreeable memories. The crossroads store, around the turn of the century, was still in its full glory. A bazaar for all lines of merchandise required by its trade—which meant, in the words of the firm of Merrill & Hinckley, at Blue Hill, Maine, “Almost Everything”—the old store also provided many other services as community message center, parcel room, informal bank, political forum, male club and reading room. It was also a United States Post Office, fourth class.
A door, wall or pillar served as bulletin board. There were notices about horse thieves, church socials, elections, farm auctions. Here handbills announced in wood-block type that a turkey shoot would be held, or that a Hambletonian stallion “will make the season … at the home of Frank Varble … at the modest sum of $10.” The general store was indeed the communication center of the area it served. The storekeeper, or “merchant” as he was called in the weekly newspaper, presided over the busy scene from the postoffice window, or a strategic location behind his old roll-top desk. The office of the town clerk was, like as not, tucked into a pent-roofed room off the rear warehouse. The storekeeper himself was clerk of the town, custodian of the land records. Or perhaps he was justice of the peace, with the power to sit in judgment or perform the marriage ceremony. A man of many talents, he could also doctor a horse, explain the law of replevin, or draw a viable contract.
The arrival of fresh merchandise was an event, noticed with keen interest at any time by the whole countryside, but especially so around November and December when the big dray unloaded large wooden packing cases, barrels, bales, boxes of figs, jute bags of coconuts and English walnuts, crates of oranges—never seen at any other season of the year—and wooden pails which almost certainly contained stick candy with barber-pole stripes winding up each stick. The weekly newspaper over at the county seat look notice of the occasion, commenting editorially on the “large consignment of seasonal goods reasonably priced and well adapted to the local trade, representing one of the finest assortments ever stocked in this part of the state. See large display advertisement on page four.”
About this time every country family decided upon a major expedition to the crossroads to inspect the holiday goods and possibly do a little trading. The trip would be made on a Saturday. The whole family went along, the youngsters sitting on a bed of wheat or oat straw in the light spring wagon. Or, more likely, Father would decide to take the heavier Studebaker or Columbus & Weber farm wagon. He would throw in a few live chickens, legs tied together, stash away a can of cream, or load in whatever butter they had on hand. The boys would take along their pelts—not many so early in the season—and Mother would be in charge of the eggs. This last item was of particular importance to her, since it was a firmly established folkway of farm life that “the Missus” kept the egg money for her own personal use.
Fortunately, the hens were usually busy by December, after their moulting season. Egg prices would be on the way up, good for around seventeen cents a dozen in trade, maybe a little less in cash. A basket lunch of fried chicken for the family and oats for the horses, stowed away at the last minute before the team started up, assured that they would make a day of it.
The store was a two-story building of frame construction, painted white, with gable end facing the road, the store itself on the first floor, the G.A.R. Hall upstairs. Warehousing for reserve stock, poultry feed and other heavy bulk items was provided for in an extension at the rear. There was commonly a porch or raised platform at the front of the store for convenient loading and unloading of farm wagons, with either a hitching rack or shed shelter nearby for the wagons and bobsleds—an early version of “free parking for customers.” A bench ran along the store front for accommodation of the local philosophers and those who were either temporarily or permanently disengaged from any gainful occupation.
Here in pleasant weather they sat “from can to can’t” —from the time they could see to the time they couldn’t. They whittled, assessed the political situation, recollected the great comet of 1881, discussed in detail the more comely women customers, and told tall tales of farming, fishing, fighting and hunting. They would not be visible, however, to a farm family bent on Christmas shopping. Come hog-killing time, the regulars moved inside to the comfort of the “captain’s chairs” provided for them around the cherry-red chunk stove, squatting in its bed of sand, with the raised, cast-iron letters on the side “Made by W. P. Ford & Co., Concord, N.H.”
“There are more ducks killed around the stoves on the dry goods boxes at the customary haunts of local nimrods every evening between seven and nine-thirty o’clock,” wrote an Illinois country correspondent in a sheaf of news notes to the Carrollton Patriot , “than are slain in twenty-four hours along the Illinois River from source to mouth. Unless the legislature puts some restriction on this method of wholesale slaughter, the time will soon come when there won’t be any duck-shooting stories to tell—that anybody will put any confidence in.”
The double doors opened inward. The remainder of the front elevation was thickly covered by tin signs, each a memorial to the industry and aggressiveness of a tobacco drummer with a tack hammer and a line of good five-cent cigars. In the windows were a jumble of spectacles, notions, gilt jewelry, fine and coarse combs. They were just stored there, rather than displayed; but this was not too serious a lapse from alert merchandising, since there was no pedestrian traffic to speak of, no strangers to attract, and usually no other store to visit. Inside, while one adjusted to the change in light, there was a sense of the world’s good things in limitless profusion, long counters down either side, with rounded glass show cases spaced along on top of the counters, the whole length of the side walls lined with drawers, bins and shelves. Heavy hardware stood at the rear: rakes, hayforks, adzes, scythes. Buggy whips hung from the ceiling by a thread. The buyer made a careful selection, jerked his whip free, and it was his.
The ceiling was largely used for display, or at least storage. Corn poppers, lanterns, pails and kitchen ware dangled from hooks and wires. Lamp chimneys were racked up on wooden pegs. Festoons of dried apples, harness and horse collars all crowded in between the big oil lamps which went up and down on their chains and balances when it was necessary to light up the store or put out the lamps. The whole effect was rather on the dark side. There were no side windows, which increased the uncertainty of the customer and his sense of confusion. In general, the right side of the store might be called the ladies’ department. Here, toward the front, were ribbons, buttons, braids and fringes. On the shelves, piece goods by the bolt. Brass tacks were driven into the time-smoothed counter to mark an exact yard. (“Don’t hold it tip and guess. Get down to brass tacks.”) Here too were hooks and eyes, thread, and long black or white women’s hose, the two fashionable colors, year in and year out.
Farther back came the men’s wear: jeans, shirts, shoes, celluloid collars, suspenders and red flannel underwear. At the front, to the left side of the double doors, were the drugs and patent medicines, pipes, tobacco, and the knife for cutting off “eating” tobacco. (“Want a five-cent slice, or a ten-cent slice”) Groceries followed in the middle section, with the great wheel of Herkimer County cheese under its wire screen cage, the store fly trap, the kerosene peanut roaster and the coffee grinder. Then came china, crockery, the spice cabinets —with soaps, cartridges and shells, shoe blacking and horse medicine tucked into odd corners and wooden drawers. Often the customers could go more directly to a wanted item than the merchant himself, a first faint suggestion of the future opportunities for the self-service store! The tiny facade of the little post office squeezed in as best it could at front or rear, a source of modest revenue but great personal prestige to the storekeeper. It was also a convenient means for checking up on wayward customers who might be tempted by the catalogue “wish books” (“I wish I had a Daisy Air Rifle”) to send a money order off to one of the Chicago mail-order houses.
The first and, over the year, the most lasting impression upon the rural family as it entered the store came through the olfactory nerve. There was a fragrance which still stands out in memory above all else. Perhaps it was not exactly a fragrance, but more of an aroma, mellow and substantial. Considering some of its constituent parts, perhaps it was not much an aroma as a smell, the general store smell. All diarists and oldtimers agree that it was a well-dug-in odor, with lots of authority, a blend made up of the store’s inventory, the customers and the cat. Identifiable still, down memory’s lane, are the contributions of ripe cheese and sauerkraut, sweet pickles, the smell of bright paint on new toys, kerosene, lard and molasses, old onions and potatoes, poultry feed, gun oil, rubber boots, calico, dried fish, coffee, and “kept” eggs. Kept eggs meant—well, it was sort of a technical term. It meant eggs that should have been shipped off to the city some time ago but weren’t.
Tobacco smoke floated through the store in lazy layers. A suspicion of corn whiskey rose from among the gentry sitting stove-side. Or maybe it was just Hood’s Sarsaparilla. Taken daily in generous amounts, either before or alter meals, sarsaparilla enjoyed a great reputation as a tonic and body-builder. Since it contained sixteen and one-half per cent alcohol, the properties of the medicine were certain to make themselves felt if the patient followed the directions with enough enthusiasm. Only the “general line” store of years ago could have produced so cosmopolitan an odor, permanent the year ‘round, yet accented at Christmas time with spicy winter apples, the smell of oranges and toy paint.
All “boughten” things were fascinating to a rural people who saw but little cash money after they had paid their taxes. But surely December was not the month for staples and necessities. There were eleven other months of the year in which to trade for Macbeth Pearl Glass Lamp Chimneys, axle grease. Dr. Price’s Baking Powder, wash boards, stove polish, J. & P. Coats’ Spool Cotton Thread, an ax helve, or Pearline (“Pearline is never peddled”). This was not even the time for case-lot purchases of those crispy food novelties—the new patented breakfast foods like Egg-O-See or the Shredded Wheat biscuits that came from the sunlit factory at Niagara Falls. Piper Heidsick Plug Tobacco (“Champagne Flavor”) might be considered by Father; or the oyster crackers left by the new “cracker man” to go with the Chesapeake oysters, seasonally displayed with the head off the barrel. Peeking in you could actually see the big succulent oysters, shipped in salt water from the distant port of Baltimore. Jelly by the pail would be a good buy that an indulgent father might consider. A treat for himself would be the popular tie of the year—if the year were 1901, the “King Edward.” He would never buy a moustache cup for himself, but he might like to have one if it appeared on Christmas morning, or even a shaving mug, handsomely embelished with an illustration on its side depicting the life of the farmer.
For Mother there were new dimities, delaines, madras, ginghams and calicoes to be seen, with braids, gimps and passementeries to go with her new Russian-style shirtwaist. A set of china bedroom crockery would fit out the “spare room” so nicely, particularly if Grandma were to come to live with them. It was a day of rich adventure. Let imagination soar with horn tombs for wings, and a set of yellow nappies for ballast—those cunning little dessert dishes with sloping sides that were all the rage among the polished hostesses of Boston, Cincinnati and St. Louis. It was a big responsibility to raise a daughter who had already showed a strong bent for the decorative arts in saving her father’s cigar bands for a whole year—enough to cover a card tray completely with these colorful examples of tobacco lithography. Christmas morning must bring more buttons for her “charm string,” already a wondrous long necklace of jet, mother-of-pearl, brass, wooden blanks covered with cloth, enamel buttons with a tiny inset of velvet, and ingenious rakings from the sewing box. Such a daughter could be counted on to pop the Christmas corn and thread it, until the fluffy white garlands were long enough to drape the tree generously with edible snow. She always placed the little wax candles on the tree so that they burned with the prettiest effect. Perhaps a mother with such an artistic daughter would be wise to settle upon the pyrography set, and end all indecision.
Thinking of the younger children, she might use some of the egg money then and there to buy a sack of ginger snaps, or hot peanuts from the fragrant roaster over there. Where, by the way, are the children? Looking at the candy display, of course! Pressing against the counter. Numbering every jar, each safely established on the shelf back against the wall. Each top was a stately pleasure dome sheltering peppermint sticks; or horehound; or rock candy, the crystal clear and the pink kind, each on cotton strings; common and “French” kisses; cigars molded in chocolate or maple sugar; lemon drops, the hard kind, good for sucking; mottoes; jawbreakers; cinnamon red hots; “lickerish” shoe strings; bellyburners, one cent each; and glorious Zanzibars, either lemon or peppermint-flavored, that kept fresh through all weather and in all climates. Chewing gum? Step up and name your brand. Yucatan, Red Beauty, Mint Julep and Red Star were great favorites.
But this was only the beginning. When the holiday time approached, more room had to be made by drastic means. Carriage bolts, nail kegs and egg crates were pushed aside. The oatmeal barrel was rolled into the back room, without regard for the wishes or comfort of the store cat. They just had to make more room—for toys, watches, tiny knives and forks, wooden soldiers, dolls with china heads and kidskin bodies, linen dogs and cats, to be stuffed and sewed up at home. Tiddledy-winks were tumbled in alongside the new game of Lotto. Articles of the omnipresent “tin” made a brave show. It was sheet iron, really, brightly plated and painted, fabricated cheaply into millions of horses, rattles, trumpets and trains.
If you were a boy, and older, there were Barlow knives, under glass, unfortunately, with bone handles and two blades, good for mumblety-peg. For young hunters, a Stevens single-shot .22 calibre rifle. For wintering pleasantly in the country there were Winslow’s skates, and the light No. 2 steel traps a boy needed to set up his own trap line and grow wealthy. For the musically inclined, the stock offered the simple Jew’s harp, harmonicas, or a resplendent guitar.
While Mother feasted her eyes on gay colors, and ran a rough hand shyly over a modish fascinator that she might look at but hardly possess, Father was engaged with the possibilities of Christmas giving for his wife. There was “Hallowed Hymns,” a sound choice, to balance against the scrapbook she needed for her greeting cards, visiting cards, and her growing collection of trade cards, brightly-colored bits of lithographed cardboard which she pored over on the long winter evenings. Color printing was a novelty. The cards were infinitely desirable, even when frankly commercial. He remembered the one of the Estey Organ Company, showing an angelic but hearty girl-child strumming a harp in a setting not immediately identifiable; but it must have been either Heaven or Brattleboro, Vt. The Estey card was a particular prize because of the Estey reed organ that stood in their own parlor. She had also a choice series of “girls of all nations” put out by Walter A. Wood, who manufactured reapers at Hoosick Falls, New York. Trade cards were all the rage. Willimantic Thread, B. T. Babbitt, J. D. Larkin & Co., of Buffalo—to name just three from among thousands—contributed to this collecting vogue for popular art blended with commercial puffery. There was a beautiful picture card in every package of McLaughlin’s XXXX Glazed Coffee. Since there were eighteen designs in the set, the purchase of seventeen more packages of McLaughlin’s was a practical certainty.
An album was nice for pasting up newspaper poetry if you had enough. And Mother had enough. Columns and pages of it, such as the favorite about the old tramp, haled into court and addressing the judge:
down to His Honors’ ringing verdict:
The judge was, inevitably, the crusty old colonel whose life the soldier had saved at Spottsylvania.
Yes, it was a sentimental age, and Mother did not lag behind her times!
Since this was a day of reconnaissance. Father did not make final decisions on major matters. Just to cover the situation to a degree, he purchased a match safe for the kitchen wall, an almanac for the New Year, and a “dressy comb.” Such slight purchases did not call for unrolling the heavy brown straw wrapping paper, mounted like a roller towel, with a stationary blade that sheared the paper off in the length wanted. There were bags for small articles, with red and blue stripes on them, magazine in a rack overhead. The clerk reached them down in a single sweeping motion of the arm and tied them up beside the beehive twine-holder, filled with “Tea Twine,” a nice handy cotton twine.
Advertising did not play a great part in the fortunes in the country storekeeper. “Advertising don’t take the place of dustin’,” as one successful rural merchant said, a man who diligently dusted all his foodstuffs, in fact his whole stock, every morning. But the store owner usually had palm leaf fans in the summertime to give away with his name and address imprinted on the fan. And the paper bags that Father got for carrying his little purchases did carry a message of an institutional character, like the bags of F. H. Dean, who conducted a store for forty years at Monkton, Vermont. They were ornamented with an imposing cut of a large fierce eagle, and the legend:
Being a man of rectitude in financial matters, and having shared substantially during the crop year in the McKinley Prosperity he had voted for, Father look the occasion to settle his account. He remembered how he had read in Willard’s Almanac as a boy the advice to the farmer for December: “Settle all your accounts this month; collect what’s due you, if you can; and pay what you owe, which will not be difficult if you have the money. Short settlements, it is said, make long friends, and there is nothing like a good start with the year.”
It was a deep satisfaction to see written in the store’s great ledger in Father’s own handwriting, the words: “Settled and made even all Book accounts to this date ” followed by the formal ink signatures, the merchant’s and his own. Now the new year would begin properly.
By an ancient tradition, it was up to the storekeeper to show his application. He scurried jovially. Jellybeans for children. A length ribbon for Mother. A cigar for the valued customer who was now in the clear, with no debit balance against his name. A sign over the cigars said “Nine Good Cigars for 25 ¢ ” and Father was duly appreciative.
In the simpler country store days, presents ran to something useful, like a pair of warm mittens, or to something catable—candies, nuts, apples, or an orange. Yes, an orange. Family funds were limited, and so were the stocks at the four-corners store. But all the thrill and magic of Christmas were there, in the planning and choosing, and the giving and receiving.
There came a day when the life of each township and hamlet took on a quicker rhythm, and the reason was spelled a-u-t-o. The car brought the city and the farm so close together there was no room left in between for the old-time country store. Small stocks of gift goods grew smaller still, gathering the dust of the passing seasons like Eugene Field’s little tin soldier.
There are still stores in the country, of course. Groceries, drugs, hardware and the like can still be bought locally, and in very small towns the postoffice may still be tucked away in a store corner, while nostalgic traces of the old regime linger along counters and shelves held over from an earlier day. Yet the store is no longer the self-sufficient center of social and commercial life for an isolated community.
But the memory of holiday time at the general store lingers on in fond recollection. To some it is still a warm personal memory. To the rest of us, it is a heritage and a tradition of life in December as it was lived by a majority of Americans before the customers of the general stores had disappeared down the concrete slab that sped like an arrow to the Big Town.