Okay, so I squandered a quarter on a book. (Personally, I think any monies spent on books are well invested, but not everyone agrees with me.)
It was an odd one — the book, that is — titled “Over the Counter and on the Shelf: Country Storekeeping in America 1620-1920.” A library discard, the book attracted me because I want a grocery back in Osawatomie. Sorry, Paola, Garnett and Ottawa, I prefer to shop at home.
In months past, when people would ask what I would do if I won the lottery, my answer was pretty direct: I would bring Walt home from the nursing home, ensure college educations for our grandchildren and start a grocery store in Oz. A retired grocer friend estimated the cost of re-opening Ron’s Country Market as no less than $300,000, so my plans were fairly generous. Sadly, I haven’t yet won the big one.
So I settled for reading about grocery stores, really the early “general stores.” The author of the book, Laurence A. Johnson, is credited with setting up the second supermarket east of the Mississippi. I accepted that as sufficient expertise for writing this historical and social study and was only a little disappointed. Johnson deals in generalities (no pun intended) and much of his book lacks relevance to this area, but I continued to read. Here is a brief summary:
The general store began with the old trading posts, those early mercantile establishments in America dealing with the French and Dutch and then the Native Americans. Those Indians turned out to be reasonable traders and, in 1634, confirmed the basis for all country stores to come — “plenty of everything and all in one spot.” Those posts became cash businesses by the middle 1800s, often located in someone’s home. Later that century, when frame buildings made log cabins obsolete, stores were built with cellars cool enough to keep goods fresh.
Purchases were wrapped in “pokes” — cone-shaped papers — or just plain paper until the paper bag was invented in 1870. Coffee came late to the American store and table but became more important to many than alcohol. Jell-0, believe it or not, was first produced in 1897 by a cough syrup manufacturer seeking to market a packaged product. Oysters were popular and Wells Fargo and American Express could transport them across the country in iced barrels. Thus the frequency of oyster suppers in Miami County and elsewhere.
Cereals became packaged. Stores added hardware and illuminants and even wire screening. Flies were a scourge and fly traps and snares and even fans preceded flypaper. There were mouse and rat traps, and pesty ailments could be treated with a variety of patent medicines, including Fowler’s Solution of Arsenic and Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters, containing 44.3 percent pure alcohol.
Dry goods were the last items to be stocked in those stores, which were mostly gone by 1930, replaced by chain food stores and the low prices and wider selection made possible by quantity buying.
Today, we have the New Lancaster General Store in our area and we have the big box ones that claim to have what those early Native Americans wanted. But I think I would have liked the chance to shop at George Roberts’ Grocery, Confectionary and Fruit House in Osawatomie in 1880. He advertised edibles, sweets and “cigars, tobacco, furniture and coffins.” Don’t think even Walmart has that combination.
That same year, F.A. Spader, proprietor of the City Meat Market, advertised “Best Steak, 8 cents a pound,” and H.B. Smith and the Chestnut Brothers claimed to stock “everything usually kept in a country store.”
Johnson’s book details that list, but the days of eight-cent steak, just like those old-time stores, are long gone.