19TH CENTURY MERCANTILES
Some of my earliest memories involve shopping trips with my mother, back in the . . . well, let’s just say it was a few decades ago. She’d make a list of all the places we had to go—the hardware store for the screws and bolts my dad needed for a project; the paint store for pink paint to touch up the wall in my bedroom; the drugstore, where we’d pick up a prescription for my grandmother—and maybe have time to cool off with an ice cream float at the soda fountain before heading on to the grocery store.
If we were shopping for a special occasion—new clothes or a wedding gift—we might drive downtown to visit J.C. Penney’s, or Diamond’s, or even Goldwater’s, some of the big retail names in Phoenix at that time.
Then along came K-Mart . . . and Wal-Mart . . . and Target, and things changed. If those superstores had existed when I was little girl, my mother could have picked up everything on her list in one place.
A thoroughly modern idea? Not exactly.
Nineteenth-century frontier towns out on the edge of civilization couldn’t support a wide array of specialized stores. In those days, a shopping trip like the ones my mother made meant a visit to the local mercantile.
If you could travel back in time and stroll into one of those general stores, what would you be able to find?
Men were in the majority among the early settlers, and that was reflected in the merchandise available. A homesteader’s purchases might include:
- a keg of nails for putting up a barn;
- doors and windows to spruce up the house in preparation for his wife’s arrival from the East;
- shirts, jeans, and overalls to replace the tattered clothing he’d worn out making all those repairs.
And let’s not forget the animals on the homestead. Their needs could be met as well, with everything from veterinary supplies to harnesses and horseshoes.
Once the settler’s wife joined him, she might spend her shopping time exploring other areas of the store, stocking up on canned goods or laying in a supply of staples—flour, sugar, and the like. Arbuckles’ coffee was a popular brand of that day, and the beans could be ground right there in the store, just the way it happened at the Ross-Nelson Mercantile in Trouble in Store.
Next she could browse through bolts of fabric and assorted notions to choose the right combination for her next dress. Anything else she might need for herself or her household could be ordered through one of the available catalogs in the event the mercantile didn’t keep that item in stock.
Another popular purchase was patent medicine. Advertisements for these remedies appeared in newspapers across the country, and a wide variety of them found a place on the shelves of many a frontier emporium.
With so much to choose from, a shopper could spend a good bit of time browsing through all the items available. But the mercantile was more than just a place for shopping. It was a place where old-timers could gather to spin yarns . . . or play a game of checkers. A place to hear news and to share it, to mail a letter, to visit with far-flung neighbors.
It was part of the glue that helped hold a community together.
Congratulations to Susan Lulu who won the drawing for the autographed copy of Trouble in Store!
MONA: Thank you, Carol, for this fabulous peek into the shopping adventures of our friends in the 1800s! We appreciate the Book Giveaway too!
CAROL: Thanks so much for inviting me to visit with you and your readers, Mona. It’s always a joy to spend time with you—especially when we can talk about days gone by!
Another great Old West, Arizona read from Carol Cox — Love in Disguise!