Woodbury County, Iowa Genealogy
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GENERAL MERCHANDISING IN THE EARLY DAYS
By Elsie (Hennum) McFarland
Nostalgic memories of early days in a general store are a bit hard to describe. Upon entering, there was a peculiar aroma-a mixture of ground coffee, spices, tobacco, shoe leather, and smoke from the refueling of the stove. In winter months, the pot-bellied stove beckoned to friends to enter and catch up on friendly chatter as they did their trading. If the benches that were there weren’t roomy enough, a few boxes could always be added.
In those days, all merchandise was in boxes, many of them wooden, or in barrels. Quantities of merchandise was the rule, where possible. Among the items in boxes or barrels ere sugar (both brown and white), dried vegetables, some kinds of flour, cookies vinegar, and kerosene. The items then had to be sacked or dispensed in amounts to fit customers’ needs.
There was an especially good kind of grape juice that came in a keg of ten gallons or thereabouts. The merchant pushed out a plug in the end of the keg and placed a spigot in its place. Customers brought in a fruit jar for a pint of quart of juice.
A tall glass jar sat in a prominent spot on the meat counter. This held very fat dill pickles which sold for a nickel apiece. One pickle made several servings for a special Sunday dinner.
Candy was placed from the barrel to glass dishes for flared, oblong metal pans in the candy showcase. The merchant had to be careful not to have too many chocolates on hand when warm weather approached. Refrigeration was an unheard-of commodity for anything for years. Meat was the first to be refrigerated.
Farmers came to the store on Saturday nights with their eggs in cases of twelve dozen. Many of these cases were half an orange crate which the merchant furnished, along with flats and fillers of pasteboard. Fillers held three dozen eggs. The merchant paid a man to stand and candle the eggs. An expandable device lifted the three dozen eggs over a light, which revealed spots or dark eggs. The candling job usually lasted from right after supper until well after midnight.
The merchants’ egg cases held 30 dozen eggs. These were hauled to Sioux City to be sold on the wholesale market on Monday. The merchant received 2 cents a dozen for handling the farmers’ eggs. With the fluctuation of the market, this didn’t always mean a profit for the merchant. The farmer was paid for the eggs with groceries in trade, or in coins bearing the merchant’s name in the amounts of 5 cents, 10 cents, 25 cents, 50 cents, and $1.00. Farmers also received, at intervals, premiums of dishes or silverware for a bonus.
Tobacco and related products were a popular part of the general store. Horseshoe chewing tobacco came in a large flat piece which had to be cut with the old tobacco cutter. Redman snuff was widely used. Bull Durham was another favorite tobacco. ‘Roll your own’ cigarettes were the rule of the day, and papers were an irritation to those who had to handle them.
Bananas had a special tube-like container to hold a large bunch. Occasionally a spider bit someone as he place a bunch upon the hook for display and sale.
Back rooms and under-counter spaces held surplus barrels and boxes which always needed cleaning and rotating. These spaces held a certain fascination for the small fry who often hid there.
A general store sold many items of food, kerosene, men’s clothing and hats, yard goods, patterns, shoes and overshoes – both men’s and women’s, blankets – mainly a sheet-type double blanket that folded in the center, and many other miscellaneous items. Trade agreements were in force so that you did not buy any drug or hardware items from the general store.
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