Over the Counter and On the Shelf: Country Storekeeping in America by Laurence A. Johnson

An excerpt from the book Over the Counter and On the Shelf: Country Storekeeping in America by Laurence A. Johnson a look at stores in United States history.

OVER THE COUNTER AND ON THE SHELF: COUNTRY STOREKEEPING IN AMERICA. 1620--1920. By Laurence A. Johnson, edited by Marcia Ray. Rutland, Vt.: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1970.

About the book: The American country store was a hodgepodge of merchandise, from groceries, drugs, and hardware to the whiskey sold in the back room. Merchandising has changed since the days of the open cracker barrel, but the general store is remembered as a pleasant and important part of America's past.

From the book: The storekeeper himself was a man of consequence, his opinions respected, if not always agreed with. Though he often lacked formal education, he was almost always exceptionally well informed. As postmaster he kept up with the times through the periodicals and newspapers that passed through the office. Yearly buying trips to Philadelphia, New York, Boston, or New Orleans introduced him to a wider world. Slack time in winter could be improved by reading and meditating on the books he carried in stock. Not at all unusual was the book selection of a merchant in a small Missouri town in 1829, who advertised volumes by Josephus, Byron, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Scott, Fielding, Herodotus, Hume, Smollett, Milton, Defoe, Homer, and Bunyan. No wonder, in an age of flowery harangue, the storekeeper was capable of Fourth of July speeches full of classical reference, and holiday toasts 2nd to none. In his political beliefs, he seldom hesitated to stand up and be counted.

With the years, the general health of the public became even more precarious if one can judge from the amount of patent medicines sold by peddlers and through general stores. In June, 1841, The New York Tribune printed a testimonial from Jane Bemee of Utica, N.Y., a young woman of 32, who, in the 2 years she had been bedridden with a disease that was "eating away her face," had consumed: 14 bottles of Phoenix Bitters, 20 Boxes of Life Pills, 100 boxes of Brandreth's Life Pills, 3 bottles of Phelps Arcanum, 4 Bottles of Smith's Anti-Mercurial Syrup, 5 Bottles of Swaims's Panacea, 3 Bottles of Indian Panacea, $6 worth of Conway's Boston Medicine, a large quantity of Fowler's Solution of Arsenic, and different preparations of mercury prepared by doctors. Blissfully, she concluded her testimonial, which was witnessed and corroborated by a justice of the peace at Utica--"I am satisfied that my life has been preserved and my health entirely restored by the blessing of God and the use of Bristol's Fluid Extract of Sarsaparilla."

Benjamin T. Babbitt was the 1st of the soap manufacturers to put soap in a wrapper and sell it as a "bar." Up to that time, in 1851, soap had been made in loaves for the grocer to slice off and weigh, much as he did cheese. Babbitt was also the 1st to give his wrappers a trade-in value and put a premium offer on the wrappers. This innovation grew out of necessity, for people did not take readily to packaged soap. It seemed to lose its identity in its new wrapping, even though the name and trademark appeared on it. The premium offer changed all this, and as his sales spurted, other soap merchants quickly followed suit.

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