Ohio History Journal





Professor of History, University of Kentucky

Any rural American over forty years of age and possessed of a

sound memory often lets his mind wander back to the countryside

and conditions of his youth. Many institutions and symbols of the

past are reminiscent of a life of peace and contentment. There was

the country church where he worshipped, or, perhaps more exactly,

sat and longed to be out in the sunshine and fresh air with the

ungodly. The country schoolhouse was surrounded by memories of

incidents which occurred in the lives of several generations. Scarcely

anyone can fail to recall the tender billows of love for a shy farmer

girl or boy which overflowed his soul at country school. Occasions

of boyish pranks, gawky adolescent accidents, and even the sting

of the master's switch are all blended into an azure haze of fond

memories. But none of these surpass in memory the delights of the

country store.

Just as the famous caravans from the East in the fifteenth century

brought exotic goods into medieval Europe, so the American country

stores of the last half of the nineteenth and first decades of this

century brought a wide variety of goods to their communities. North

and South, store architecture was fairly well standardized. Perhaps

this was not so true of the stocks of goods in the two sections.

Southern stores carried many types of merchandise which had a

fairly restricted local demand, and the same thing was true of

northern and western stores. But whatever the variation in stocks,

there was little difference in the fascination of stores for their cus-

tomers in all sections. Stores everywhere smelled alike, and the

general arrangement of merchandise was practically the same. Just

as stock was piled onto shelves and counters and tumbled into

corners and along the aisles in general disorder, so the odors of

the stores were mixed. There was a common smell of tobacco,

apples, kerosene, horse collars, freshly painted farm implements,


*This is the text of a lecture delivered at the Ohio State Museum, Columbus,

November 2, 1950.


The Country Store in American Social History 127

The Country Store in American Social History     127

the glaze on cloth, cheese, whiskey, asafetida, peppermint candy,

soap, oranges, human beings, the store cat, Hoyt's cologne, rats,

dairy feed, and a thousand other things which made up the stock

of a general store. There have been few odors in America which

have created so genuine a bit of nostalgia. Stock in modern stores

is moved so fast or is kept so clean and separated that there is

little opportunity for blending seductive odors of trade.

The old-fashioned country store was a genuine American in-

stitution carefully geared to the tempo and needs of a rural agrarian

society which pushed its way on to an extending frontier. In Europe

crossroad villages were dispersed at frequent intervals in farming

country, but they were more formal than American crossroads.

Abroad it was the church and its priests that set the pace in local

society, but here it was often stores and merchants who centralized

community life. Frequently country store sites remained isolated,

and countless crossroads have never got over being crossroads. On

the frontier the country stores were trading posts-and they still

are in many sections of the West and Southwest. Stores moved

in the vanguards of civilization, and wherever furs and hides were

sold and there was demand for goods, merchants always appeared

ready to do business. Even before there was a justifiable demand

for a permanent store along the frontier, there were peddlers who

drifted through the country seeking customers wherever they might

be halted long enough to trade.

A great American folk type was the Yankee who traveled into

new country with his packs of goods. James Flint observed in the

early part of the nineteenth century that anybody with a bundle

on his back was mistaken for a peddler, and he had to answer

endless questions about what he was carrying with him. It was

not from rudeness that back country people asked so many ques-

tions, but from a desire to purchase goods. As a result of this

feverish desire to trade, Mark Fletcher, clerk of the circuit court

of Kane County, Illinois, impressed a cross in one side of the

courthouse Bible and a silver dollar in the other. Protestants he

swore upon the open Bible, Catholics he bound upon the cross,

and Yankees were made to swear upon the impressed silver dollar.

Scotsmen were just as aggressive as easterners in seeking business

128 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

128     Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

and building stores. Thus it was that the country store early became

a permanent fixture in American life. Countless modern calendar

and popular advertising prints have portrayed the country store

as a long, shotgun-barreled room along whose walls were displayed

shelves filled with canned goods and packaged merchandise. A

heterogeneous mixture of tin ware, leather goods, clothing, hard-

ware, and household utensils hung down from the ceilings or were

crammed into the corners. The middle aisle was cluttered with

boxes, barrels, and bales of goods. But above all, the pot-bellied

stove stood out as a gathering place. Surrounding the stove was

a collection of broken-down chairs which had been whittled and

wallowed into a state of decrepitude that made them literally defy

all physical laws. Nail and horseshoe kegs, cartridge cases, apple

boxes, and bales of goods and sacks of feed supplemented the

ancient assortment of chairs as seats for loafers. An up-ended nail

keg served as a pedestal for the checker board, which was often

so badly worn and begrimed that the squares could scarcely be


The checkers themselves were so covered with soil that many

an argument originated because players could not tell their pawns

apart. A pair of ancient men bending low over a close game while

bystanders peered over their shoulders seem to be stock characters

in the frequent painting of this scene. There were others too; the

persistent discussers of the news of the day or the gossips who

kept their communities both disturbed and misinformed were there,

as were the wits with their jokes and pranks; the sport was there

also with tales of his feats both of fishing and loving. Actually

this is not too far-fetched a picture of the inside of the average

country store. Perhaps there never were more inviting loafing places

for countrymen than the stove-side of the local store in winter and

its porch in the summer.

A store without a porch was like a church without a pulpit. What

the stove was in winter the porch became in summer-a community

gathering place. Every loafer who had a pocket knife and energy

enough to whittle and talk could always find an ideal piece of

soft pine board to keep his hands occupied. Possibly no other

assembling place in rural America was the scene of so much casual

The Country Store in American Social History 129

The Country Store in American Social History   129

conversation and the exchange of so much miscellaneous news and

information. "I heard it at the store," was acceptable prefatory

explanation of the source of gossip and news. It was to the store

that thousands of countrymen went to tell both their good and bad

news. It was there that they sought help in emergencies, and there

they bought materials to tide them over their crises. It was over

the store telephones that distant relatives were called and told

to come home, or officers of the law were summoned in cases of

crime. Messages were left to be passed on by merchants, and these

were nearly always repeated in the hearing of loafers. Men came

to the stores to proclaim their good fortunes, to get drunk, and

sometimes to pick fights. They came to get petitions signed and

to air their views on politics and politicians. Often it was at the

stores that public opinion was crystallized around issues and per-

sonalities. Subscriptions to community charities and enterprises

were taken. Inevitably the country store became a center of com-

munity activity. On rainy days when farmers were bored with

sitting about their houses they could find an excuse to slip away

to stores to meet their neighbors.

Just as local gossip was passed about at the stores, news of the

outside world filtered in with commercial travelers. These harbingers

of industrialism and the cities came in spring wagons and double-

buggies loaded with sales kits, trunks, and chatter. Handing news

around was a necessary adjunct of the successful drummer. A good

salesman was ready to talk about crop conditions in his territory,

the general world situation, the latest prize fight, happenings in

the city, and frequently to pass on the newest salacious jokes which

he had gathered from the lobbies in favorite drummer hotels.

Salesmen who traveled from one country store to another pos-

sessed a rather specialized talent for dealing with people. They

could not be too sophisticated or they would lose their sales, yet they

had to exhibit enough polish of the city to impress their customers

with their importance. Their capacity for food seems to have been

surpassed only by their love of drink. They were fond of card

playing and pranking, and their association with women of easy

virtue became a cliche in American folklore and humor. Actually

the drummers were men who faced many hardships in bumping

130 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

130     Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

from place to place in horse drawn vehicles, and in making out

endless orders and reports for their houses. They were eyes and

ears of the businesses which they represented, and they reported

every significant change which came within their purview. Bed and

board in rural hotels were often less than luxurious, and seldom

was any of it up to the standards of even a modest home. Time hung

heavily on the drummer's hand and it is little wonder that he

occasionally got into ludicrous escapades in barren country towns.

But like postmen, salesmen went their way through rain, hail, sleet,

and snow; they were the advance agents of a vibrant American


But back to the store. There was an everlasting attractiveness

about it. In the shelves up front were the goods to catch the

feminine eye. Packed away in neat assortments were bolts of cloth,

rolls of ribbon, boxes of stockings, decorations for hats, oil cloth,

and the ever-present thread cases. Two names stand out in American

enterprise in J. and P. Coats's and Clark's O.N.T. thread. Their

cases or cabinets were sent everywhere in America. It was a poor

and insignificant merchant indeed who was not able to display

from one to a dozen thread cabinets. These counter fixtures have

now become prized antiques, and like the egret they have been

threatened with extinction from the counters. Back of them is an

extensive history of Scotch-American enterprise.

As early as 1840 the black and gold labels bearing the famous

legend "J. and P. Coats BEST SIX CORD THREAD" was intro-

duced to the American trade, and in April 1870 the first American

wound Coats thread was offered for sale. Customers could buy a

spool for a nickel, or six spools in a yellow box with a six-inch

ruler printed on the lid for a quarter. The sales cases were first

manufactured as a by-product from the spool factory. The early

ones were made of walnut, maple, and cherry and appeared with

long brass strips inserted in the faces of the drawers, which bore

the company's name. Later brass gave way to glass and the cases

were made larger and more elaborate. In order to overcome com-

petition the thread companies made their cabinets more attractive.

In an advertising campaign they gave away cards in series, but the

cards were so arranged that a customer had to buy a considerable

The Country Store in American Social History 131

The Country Store in American Social History     131

quantity of thread in order to secure a complete set of gaudy colored


Just as thread cabinets were standard store fixtures, so were the

small glass-enclosed counters which contained large assortments of

novelty merchandise and cosmetics. Here were kept papers of pins,

rolls of elastic, hair pins, hair curlers, rats, switches, hat pins, bits

of "cheap john" jewelry, garter buckles, corset laces, corset stays,

face powder, and colognes. Countless brands of perfumes and

colognes were offered to the trade by country merchants. None of

them, however, exceeded in general popularity Hoyt's famous line.

Earlier perfumers were almost as imaginative as the present com-

pounders in naming their products. They offered the American

female scents to fit many moods and intents. Among these were

"Little Tot," "American Girl," "Boudoir," "Bridal Bouquet,"

"Duchess Ladies," "Sensible," "Home Sweet Home," "Bow Wow,"

and "Happy Families." These brands could be bought wholesale

at from $.25 to $83.75 a dozen. Possibly the most popular variety

of all was the common counter brand, "Hoyt's 5-center."

In the section of the store which rather casually served as a

ladies' department there were many other goods which reflected

the time and taste of the American woman. Country stores kept at

least a full season behind the popular city styles, but even so their

stock was modern enough to indicate what was being worn in any

given period. In the latter part of the nineteenth century heavy

flowing long skirts and ruffled shirtwaists were offered for sale in

varying styles and prices. Foundation garments, especially the corset

and the voluminous underskirt, were standard lines of merchandise.

Corsets were offered in many styles and by many trade names-

most of them descriptive of the figures of the prospective wearers.

Every female beyond the age of fourteen went forth girded and

corded as though she were a bale of goods headed for an inter-

national port.

Tender young girls bound their lithe figures in such gentle little

supports as "Darling," "Little Pet," and "Young Ladies' Beauty,"

while their older and more coquettish sisters strolled forth fully

bastioned beneath such seductive binding as "Primrose Path," "A

La Spirite," "Talk of the Town," "Annie," "Cousin Jane," or the

132 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

132     Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

"Daisy." Mothers and matrons appeared in public fully buttressed

in such robust compressors as the "Queen Victoria," the "W.C.P.,"

and the "Admiral Dewey." The "Victoria" was a rugged binder

stoutly reinforced with steel stays held in place with canvas and

bound top and bottom with galloon webbing. The two halves were

pulled together fore and aft with strong laces which assured a

rigidity of shape regardless of the careless intent of Nature.

Shoes and stockings underwent numerous style changes. Some

of the earlier stockings appeared to have been made for the inmates

of a state reformatory. They had stripes running either up and

down the calves or winding around them in spirals. A few styles

had patterns resembling the national great seal worked into them

just above the shoe top. But whatever the design, their artistry was

indeed lost, because modesty forbade the showing of even so much

as a feminine ankle, let alone the calf of a leg.

Like stockings, shoes ran a rather wide gamut of style changes

from flat heel and broad toe numbers to those with unusually high

heels and tops which laced half way up the leg, and which had

needle-point toes. It is a fact of some historical significance that

American women won the right to go to the polls just about the

time they got their toes and calves bound so tight, and their heels

so high off the ground that they could scarcely stand erect to mark

a ballot. Many a merchant can yet recall the sad mistake he made

by overstocking his store with these sharp-toed, high heeled mon-

strosities of the post-World War I period.

Hats, like all other articles of female clothing, underwent rapid

changes. In the immediate post-Civil War years there were the fancy

flowery offerings which made the average female appear to be a

moving garden. Later feminine fancy turned to gadgets and feathers,

which grew heavier with each succeeding season until the ultimate

was reached in decoration--even including a hat pin with a vanity

box for mirror and powder puff on its head. By the nineteen twenties,

when the egret was almost a thing of the past and millinery extrava-

ganzas had been radically curbed by wartime shortages, milliners

went to the other extreme of offering merchants stocks of hats that

looked like eccentric Roman helmets fitted over the straight and

bobbed tresses of half-starved and less than half-clothed Junos,

The Country Store in American Social History 133

The Country Store in American Social History    133

who gave the additional appearance of having become rather well-


Once large assortments of piece goods, wrapped neatly in bolts,

were stored above counters where thrifty women sat long hours

selecting patterns with which to create homemade dresses. The

twentieth century, however, wrought a change. Even the checker-

players learned in many stores that their long-time possession of

floor space about the store was usurped by new style dress racks

which displayed ready-to-wear merchandise. Gradually the beautiful

old thread cabinets became less used for their original purposes

and did substitute services for money tills and filing cabinets. How-

ever romantic but complicated the earlier dress goods trade might

have been, modern decades brought a more sensible design in

feminine clothing. At the same time women became more style-

conscious even in the most isolated areas, and the country stores

finally had to give up most of their dress goods trade because

personal inventory liabilities became too great for little business

men to absorb them.

With changing times in both styles and economic conditions

there came also a radical change in parent-child relationships. Once

a father and mother determined what their children should wear

and bought such clothes as they chose. The child was seldom if ever

consulted about his clothing, and if a garment failed to fit he had

to wear it anyway. This was especially true of shoes. In many

localities a father rounded up his family in the fall, measured their

feet, and set off on a shoe buying expedition. In some instances a

man appeared at a store with an assortment of strings or pieces

of wood with notches cut on them and he bought shoes by length

and assumed that if the length was all right that they could be

stretched to the proper width. This same principle applied to quality

and colors of dress goods. Whatever the head of the household

brought home, that was what his womenfolk had to wear. How-

ever, it was more the practice that fathers and mothers went once

or twice a year on all-day shopping expeditions to the stores and

came home with enough clothing to last until the next annual

shopping day.

The era of the first World War saw many changes in public

134 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

134     Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

moral attitudes and mercantile practices. Earlier social mores

required merchants to keep much of their stock of women's cloth-

ing concealed in boxes and in large counter chests. By 1920, how-

ever, most false modesty had disappeared and the entire stock of

the store was displayed. Sales, and not social attitudes were em-

phasized. Brassieres, panties, slips, stockings, and every other article

of intimate feminine wear was not only put out for public view, but

was displayed in such a way as to draw a maximum amount of


Down the counter from the women's wear in most of the country

stores were the shelves and stands which held men's clothing. If

the early styles in women's clothing appear a bit strange in a

backward glance from this period in our social history, that of the

average man after 1865 and before 1920 was ludicrous. To begin

with, commercially-made shoes were not designed for right and left

feet until after 1880. It was not until 1910 that the average country

store bought shoes that exhibited any individual style, or were of

really good quality. In many areas of the country the coarse but

durable brogan was almost as much a staple as were the mustache

cup and buggy whip. Magazines today advertise without blushing--

and without scandalizing their readers--the athletic man prancing

about or otherwise exhibiting himself to public gaze dressed in

brief shorts which give the utmost freedom in movement. This was

not true of their grandfathers who voted for Garfield and Cleveland

and bought their underwear at country stores. Instead of giving

freedom of movement the late nineteenth century creations were

glorified hobbles. Earlier styles of undershirts had long sleeves,

and long rows of buttons down the front made dressing in the

morning a dreaded task. Drawers were bound at waist and heel

with stout cords, and because of this binding the American male

from 1865 to 1910 and the advent of Haynes's free-fitting B.V.D.'s,

was a wretched victim of his underwear. Their undershirts bound

them by their fiendish constrictions about the waist, and their legs

were hobbled. By the nineties the balbriggan type of underwear

was popular, but this innovation only shifted a bit the points of

constriction. After a few days of wear, the undraped male country-

man who did a great deal of stooping gave the appearance of an

The Country Store in American Social History 135

The Country Store in American Social History   135

antediluvian animal whose ample hide had drawn away from a

badly emaciated body.

Suits were of little better styling. Jean was, until the late nine-

teenth century, a popular material for making more durable types

of clothing. Worsteds were used more frequently for dressup suits.

Pants were tight-legged and long. Coats were box-backed and were

worn fastened up to the second button below the chin; lapels were

of black velvet and impractical. Hats ranged from the soft broad-

brim planter types to the more formidable derbies. If the catalog

pictures of men's clothing are to be trusted--which they are not-

the nineteenth century gentleman clad from the counters of the

country store was, in the language of the age, "a real dude."

There were other goods on the counters and shelves for the gentle-

men. In the novelty cases there were displayed a variety of straight

razors which promised to dispose of whiskers with great expedition.

Most popular were the English and German steel blades bearing

the famous Sheffield Wade and Butcher and Solingen Woesterholm

brands. The safety razor with its detachable precision factory-

sharpened blade was unknown. It was not enough for a man to buy

a razor; he likewise needed a strap, an individual mug, and a supply

of soap. One of the prices of manhood was an outlay of money for

shaving equipment, and it was with genuine pride that many a

young man stepped up to the counter and bought these materials

which showed him to be an adult. Mugs were sometimes stamped

individually, but most often the country store or general stock variety

was decorated in a way so as to please the fancy of unknown cus-

tomers. It was possible to secure one with the picture of a fierce

bulldog on the side, or the American eagle, a fighting cock, a

buffalo, a horse's head, or a lodge emblem. The average countryman,

unlike his town and village neighbor, could not avail himself of the

services of a barber and the personalized mug of barbershop history.

Every country store carried lines of hardware and cutlery. Hard-

ware assortments often consisted of heavy goods such as wagons,

buggies, and farm implements of all sorts. Hanging from overhead

in the stores was the ubiquitous buggy whip rack from which a cus-

tomer might make a choice of stock and then snatch the whip free

of the thread which held it suspended from the top of the rack.

136 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

136     Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

Hanging nearby on the wall and from the ceiling of the store were

bundles of buggy harness, plow gear, and horse collars. No country

store was ever complete without its buggy whip racks and festoons

of horse collars. In some ways horse collars and hanks of leather

lines and large rolls of trace chains hanging from the ceiling sym-

bolized the secure economic foundations of both stores and their


Kegs of nails, piles of plow shares, hammers, shovels, posthole

diggers, axes, wedges, chains, coils of wire, and bundles of horse-

shoes lay along the hardware counters as decorative features. Drums

of axle grease and tanks of kerosene with their leaky and smelly

pumps completed the picture. Tucked away in display cases along

counter tops were the smaller and more refined pieces of hardware

and cutlery which caught everybody's eye. Possibly no single instru-

ment of human use has ever worked its way so securely into the

affections and memories of the American male as did the Russell

Barlow pocket knife. This knife was a thing of homely beauty and

boyhood pride. The genuine article had bone handles, brass liners,

and came equipped with one or two blades. Long iron bolsters had

imprinted upon them an arrow pointing toward the open blade and

piercing the maker's initial "R." These knives sold for fifteen and

twenty-five cents each, and are even yet cherished possessions of

sentimentalists who love to recall earlier days.

Tucked away in the drawers reserved for articles of hardware,

were the more melancholic items such as packages of handles for

coffins and special coffin nails. There were plates for the lids, hinges,

and other necessary fixtures. At the dry goods counter were kept

rolls of white and black goods from which casket linings were

made. There was also a special type of heavily woven black or gray

material used to cover the clumsy boxes which neighbors hammered

together in moments of death. Just as at birth country merchants

supplied clothing for infants, they were equally as helpful in the

passage of life. The store was for many people in rural America

literally a place of first and last resort in the great moments of

human need.

One of the reasons why country merchants kept ample burial

supplies in stock might have been the fact that they also carried

The Country Store in American Social History 137

The Country Store in American Social History    137

extensive supplies of proprietary medicines. This post-Civil War

medicine trade is abundantly reflected in the advertising of both

the daily and country weekly press. Both a dietary deficiency and

improper eating habits stimulated the sale of various types of

bitters and tonics. Possibly it might be said that a lack of knowledge

on the part of the medical profession helped to encourage the

nostrum trade. Failure to diagnose and to properly treat many types

of digestive and infectious diseases led to the use of strong pro-

prietary stimulants. Large quantities of printed matter intermixed

with some country store records indicate fairly clearly the sales

appeal of this type of merchandise. Among the best known national

nostrums were "Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound," "Dr.

McLean's cordials," "Dr. King's Golden Medical Discovery,"

"McElrees' Wine of Cardui," "Thetford's Black Draught," "Dr.

Pierce's Favorite Prescription," and scores of others. There is

almost no end to the list of pills, ointments, and so-called antiseptics

which were offered to the public.

Every disease known to man, and many that have not yet been

diagnosed by modern medicine, were described in such a highly

imaginative yet generalized manner that no hypochrondriac could

fail to realize that he was afflicted with the same disease. But the

poor victim needed have no fear, because he could always buy a

medicine from his neighborhood store which would go speedily

to the seat of his trouble and cure it-or so said an army of people

who offered eloquent testimonials as to their cures. Before one

can become too eloquent about the romance of the store, he does

have to answer for its shortcomings as an efficient outlet for the

quacks. Perhaps it can be said generally that the countryman was

more easily seduced by the slick-tongued medicine men than his

brother in the larger towns and cities where possibly medical care

was more readily available. There was Lydia E. Pinkham, for in-

stance, who kept up a running line of sympathetic chatter to Ameri-

can women in which she figuratively took them on her lap and

drew them close to her ample bosom and dried their tears with

the assurance that both their pains and their fears were wiped away

when they bought her famous compound. Few or no women knew

that the motherly Lydia departed this life on May 17, 1883, but

138 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

138     Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

that her spirit went marching on in the clever publicity of James T.

Wetherald, a black and white copy advertising genius, who poured

literally millions of dollars into the field of newspaper advertising.

Possibly no one else ever did a more intensive job of advertising

nationally than did Wetherald, unless it be that mastermind, Dr.

S. B. Hartman, who offered Peruna to the American public. This

latter genius knew the value of potent testimonials, and he stopped

at nothing to give his medicine the proper send-off in the press and

at the store counters. Congressmen, senators, governors, sisters of

charity, religious workers, military officers, preachers, and even

doctors spoke glowing words of praise for the great Columbus,

Ohio, nostrum.

Many drugs were offered for sale in the country stores which

were not in the proprietary class. Among these were calomel,

laudanum, morphine, cocaine, quinine, copperas, and blue mass. No

store stock was complete without its rows of bottles of turpentine

and castor oil, harmless products which were used as a laxative

and antiseptic. Passage of the pure food and drug act of 1906

only resulted in changes of labels and the dropping of certain

brands of nostrums, but not the disappearance of the quack remedies

themselves. After this date the buyer had to beware, because the

contents of the medicines were on the label for all to see. After

1911 and the passage of the Harrison law, entries for balls of gum

opium and dozens of bottles of opiates in other forms disappeared

from the invoices.

In a generous supply of daybooks, almanacs, and calendars the

customer got one positive return from the purchase of patent

medicines. Many of the medicine companies resorted to this form

of advertising. Each year a shipment of supplies of these advertising

materials were sent to patronizing merchants to be made available

to their customers at no cost. The calendar and the almanac were

as much permanent fixtures of many households as were clocks

and mantel boards. For many persons the almanac was their major

source of information about the weather, recipes, mechanical hints,

agricultural information, and personal health. Aside from the

commonplace technical weather information and helpful hints,

many almanacs were important sources of American folklore and

The Country Store in American Social History 139

The Country Store in American Social History     139

earthy philosophy. In the days before the appearance of a drug

store in every settlement, the general merchant was a purveyor of

some goods that made human life a reckless venture.

Less harmful and ultimately far more cheerful was the country

merchant's role as a harbinger of Christmas. It would take a

literary artist indeed to describe the happy transformation which

came over the average general store with the approach of Christmas.

Warmth of the seasonal spirit was exemplified in the glow of the

pot-bellied stove. Boxes of oranges, and in regions where apples

were not grown, boxes and barrels of that fruit, indicated that

Christmas was near at hand. Added to these fancy additions to the

stock were bags of English walnuts, brazil nuts, and pecans, and

boxes of raisins and other dried fruits which stood exposed to the

trade on counters and at strategic spots along the counter bases on

the floor. Mixed in with the collection of fruit were small kits of

salt mackerel, which for some people enlivened the Christmas diet.

Occasionally sacks of green cabbage and bags of sweet potatoes

were added to the display of delicacies. Boxes of firecrackers and

Roman candles packed in sawdust were crowded in among cheese

hoops and thread cabinets. Toy wagons, tricycles, doll buggies and

houses, rocking horses, and other toys temporarily pushed more

mundane merchandise into the background. From this Christmas

trade the merchants received quick profits and much relaxation

from a year-long routine. There have been few more delightful

and memorable aromas in American history than that of apples,

oranges, raisins, cheese, and fresh painted toys in a country store

at Christmas time. Some people, even in this day of bountiful

supplies of fruit, still recall their early Christmas seasons when

oranges were seen in most places only at this time of year.

Some merchants offered more than apples, oranges, raisins, and

toys to their customers. A barrel of liquor tucked away in a side

room, and a case of bottles stuck discreetly under a counter helped

to enliven many a rural citizen's holidays. It was not well for a

merchant to publicize his sale of liquor, but it was most always

possible to get by with a limited trade at the year's end. Some

merchants kept whiskey only for the purpose of treating patrons

as they settled their annual accounts.

140 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

140     Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

In many places the store served a continuous human need as

a sort of cold "vittles" restaurant. A meal in a country store was

and still is a memorable thing. One brand of simple and down to

earth wit and opinion has borne the country store description of

"cracker barrel" philosophy. Possibly crackers were shipped in

barrels, and certainly they came in boxes. Storekeepers somewhat

detested handling them no matter what their bulk containers were,

because it was impossible to keep the absorbent wafers fresh and

crisp under ordinary storekeeping conditions. However soggy crackers

might have been, crackers and cheese became inseparably wedded

in the improvised country store menu. Big hoops of cheese were

necessary stock for every store. Possibly the fact that these discs

were kept in stores devoid of refrigeration for long periods resulted

in considerable ripening and gave them a pungent flavor, but

however that may be country store cheese was a fine treat. Merchants

spent considerable time inching the big yellow discs around on

graduated ratchet turntables and chopping out nickel's and dime's

worth of mouth-watering wedges. By the same token salmon,

sardines, cove oysters, canned tomatoes, peaches, and sausages were

top favorites on the counter menu. Southern stores reserved a long

section of a counter opposite the grocery shelf for eating purposes,

and many a merchant kept battered plates, pans, spoons, knives

and forks, and other utensils for customers' convenience. It was

here that most countrymen learned for the first time about the

delights of processed foods.

It would take a considerable catalog to list all the items which

found their way onto country store shelves. Contrary to general

concepts, the country trade was not a limited one. Merchandise

might have been of medium quality, but certainly the variety was

often extensive. An inventory of the average store's stock was

almost a listing of basic merchandise currently available in this

country. Missing, of course, were fancy goods and some of the

latest and most faddish types of clothing. Lines of utensils, tools,

arms, implements, vehicles, cloth, medicine, cutlery, and other

staples were most often as varied and modern as could be bought.

In many respects the country store was for more than six decades

in post-Civil War America the most efficient sales outlet functioning

The Country Store in American Social History 141

The Country Store in American Social History     141

outside the larger cities. Manufacturers and wholesale merchants

were conscious of this fact. So long as America remained a pre-

dominantly agricultural nation, the general store was a major factor

in the distribution of goods. It represented the so-called free enter-

prise system in what was possibly its purest form. Every storekeeper

was master of his own economic destiny. He used his own self-

devised system of merchandising, bought what goods he wished to

handle, sold them on his own terms, made fortunes, and went broke

as he pleased.

Not all of the merchant's responsibilities were confined within

the walls of his store. He functioned as an influential man in his

community. He had a voice in the running of the local school,

the church, bank, post office, mill, and politics. Because of his

advantageous position at the center of community trade, gossip,

and opinion, he was able to keep abreast of what was happening

about him. Often he extended his sympathy in the form of material

help to his needy neighbors, and on many occasions he had an

opportunity to lead crusades for community improvements.

World War I saw the beginning of the end of the widely dis-

persed system of country merchandising. Just as the buggies and

wagons in the merchant's warehouse were superseded by the auto-

mobile, and the hitching rack gave way to the gasoline pump,

and the buggy harness came down from the ceiling racks, the store

itself was at least given a staggering blow by the chain and

department stores in towns and cities. Woolworth and the whole

racket store trade helped to drive most of the so-called novelty

goods off the country store counters. Better integrated shipping

facilities brought in the chain grocery stores and their fabulous

assortments of foodstuffs, so that many of the famous seasonal

delicacies became everyday necessities. The old cheese racks with

their ratchet and thick-bladed knives were moved back to warerooms

to rust out. Christmas boxes of oranges ceased to be a thing of

the past when Florida and California citrus growers campaigned

to place their products in every store bin as staple commodities.

Kits of salt mackerel and the big boxes of salt meat gave way to

the butcher counter in the modern groceries, and country and small

town cafes robbed the lunch counter of its customers. Proud country

142 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

142     Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

women depended less and less upon the dry goods counters of their

local stores for clothing. As the automobile transported them about

a larger trading area, farm wives and daughters became more and

more label conscious when making their purchases. An artificial

social standard and economic sense caused people to be much less

inclined to admit the fact of their purchases of clothing from

country merchants except in a sense that they wished to give their

shopping a flavor of sophisticated adventure.

Specialization in nearly every line of merchandising tended to

rob old-line storekeepers of their favored position in both community

and national economic systems. Only in semi-isolated areas did they

cling to their former status of general suppliers, but even in this

they had devitalizing competitors. With the advent of major state

and federal farm legislation the merchant lost his position as a

creditor to the farmer. Customers who for decades had depended

upon local merchants as sources of credit now sought loans from

more efficient and less expensive credit facilities. Cash prices, clearly

marked on goods for sale in chain stores, which depended for profit

upon a quick inventory movement, abolished the old system of

secret code-marking of items, and no longer was merchandise priced

to customers to a large extent on their ability ultimately to pay

the price for goods which they bought on an extended period of


Where crossroads once existed there are now villages and towns

of ever-expanding proportions. No longer are these cities dominated

by their long gangling store houses with their square fronts

proudly proclaiming their owner's name, along with the virtues

of a host of articles ranging from Carter's Little Liver Pills to

Studebaker wagons. Now there are filling stations and short order

lunch and drink stands. Many of the antique store houses are left

standing like sleepy old men who linger on the outer edges of a

dancing party which is going at too fast a clip for tired feet. Many

of their attics house piles of account books and papers which tell

the precise story of their former days. Too few of these records

have been gathered into libraries where they may be cared for as

sources of economic and social life of the decades of the immediate

past. Many an old leather-backed account book contains a better

The Country Store in American Social History 143

The Country Store in American Social History   143

pattern of rural economy than modern statistical studies which

treat the subject. Too, there is a perfectly fabulous story of prices.

In those pleasant days of the 1880's eggs were six to twelve cents

a dozen, chickens were available at a dollar to two dollars per

dozen, hams sold for eight to ten cents a pound and bacon was no

higher, and country butter could be had for a dime. Wheat brought

seventy to eighty cents a bushel, and good stiff brogans could be

bought for a dollar and a half to two fifty a pair. A man could

even buy a fairly respectable wedding suit for as little as eight

dollars and seventy-five cents, a hard derby hat for two dollars, and

a fancy stickpin for his twenty-five cent tie for no more than a dollar;

a shaving mug cost a quarter with a cake of soap thrown in for

good will. The groom could drown his sorrows of the past and

sharpen his anticipation of the future in a two dollar jug of liquor,

and he could drive his fast trotting mare to the wedding in a new

$10.95 set of harness and hitched to a $45.00 runabout buggy. In

fact, there was no end to the bargains which could be purchased

in those far-off days before the modern world caught on fire with

wars and inflation.

Although the country merchant is not an entirely extinct species,

he has undergrone a radical change of character. Merchant-customer

relationships have ceased to be as highly generous and personal as

they once were. The old-line merchant knew a lot about his cus-

tomer. In the days when the merchant was also postmaster and

perhaps banker, he knew what mail was sent and received by almost

every customer. He had some inkling as to the stage of love affairs,

the location of every child who had left home to make his way

in the world. He knew who could read and write, and who had

to come to him for help with their letters. And what was most im-

portant, merchants could often head off orders to the mail order


In selling goods in many localities even the tightest merchant

had to observe certain definite rules of human conduct. The cus-

tomer most often could be trusted with the keys to a warehouse to

secure heavy goods. He could even be trusted to weigh honestly

produce which he had for sale, and to weigh and count with accuracy

supplies which he was buying. A wise merchant seldom weighed or

144 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

144     Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

counted loose merchandise to the final piece or fraction of an

ounce. To do so was to show a cheap close-trading characteristic.

When a pair of pants was sold, often a belt was included in the

deal, a free hat went with a new suit, and a pair of socks with a

pair of shoes, and an extra stick of candy with each nickel's worth.

A biscuit pan or a bucket of lard went with a barrel of flour, and

a tea cup and saucer with a bucket of coffee.

For some reason the country merchant never attracted the specific

attention of the census taker. It is in vain that one looks for statistical

information about the rural merchant and his store, but he was not

too insignificant to be considered by Dun and Bradstreet. Their

listings of credit ratings for the past not only locate the stores, but

they give some specific knowledge of the merchant's financial and

business status. Libraries and historical societies that would preserve

this important chapter in American history would be well-advised

to bestir themselves before all the records are cast into the fire

or hauled away to the dump heap. Writers of social history would

likewise do well to remember that the history of the country store

is not alone a story of a sentimental institution about which they

are writing, but rather the much bigger one of the distribution of

goods and the molding of the American taste before a large pro-

portion of this country's expanding population was finally coagulated

into a predominantly urban pattern.