THE GENERAL STORE
• The 19th Century County Store is a real store that once stood in Lower Bryant Landing in North Baldwin County and was used by Baldwin County Citizens.
• The store was moved to Bicentennial Park and restored to the 19th century period and stocked with period items that it was common to have a general store where settlers would come periodically to trade goods and purchase cooking, farming and household supplies.
• This store was actually built in the 1950’s, owned by two men, Mr. Beasley and Mr. Byrd
• It is a direct descendent of the country stores that sold goods to local residents in the late 19th and throughout the twentieth century, before it became easier to travel elsewhere to buy goods.
• The store was a part of the landing, where the owners sold bait, food (pork and beans, ice cream) and rented cane poles to fishermen and people staying in the near adjacent cabins along the river.
• The store served as a popular gathering place, particularly among children. There was a large picnic area in front of the store, complete with slides and swings, for families to get together.
Today's stores offer a great variety of merchandise for the convenience of their customers, but in the 1800's, merchants simply sold the items they could obtain and resell. These general stores, mercantile, or emporiums, served rural populations of small towns and villages, and the farmers and ranchers in the surrounding areas. They offered a place where people could find food and necessities that would have otherwise been difficult to obtain.
In addition to merchandise, a general store offered a meeting place for isolated people to socialize and do business. Many stores also doubled as a post office.
During the first part of the century, these stores stocked necessities, but as the economy prospered after the Civil War, more and more luxury items found their way onto the shelves. The storekeepers purchased merchandise from "drummers" (salesmen) who represented large wholesale houses and manufacturers located in larger cities and seaside ports.
At first, only locally produced perishable goods were sold in the general store; but with the expansion of the railroads, the advent of mass production, and technological advances such as the refrigerated boxcar, the local shopkeeper could display goods from all over the country.
What was a general store like in the 19th Century? Certainly, not anything approaching the modern grocery or department store. Most stores had at least one large display window, but inside they were still dark and gloomy -- and depending on their geographical location, probably damp and humid to boot. Most were crowded with shelving along every wall. The floors were also crammed with boxes, barrels, crates, and tables holding goods.
The front counter held display cases for smaller items, as well as needed machinery such as a coffee grinder, scales for weighing merchandise, and a cash register. Surplus merchandise was stored in the cellar or basement, or possibly on the second floor (if that was not the living quarters of the grocer's family).
Most of the items to be found in a general store would be familiar to us today. Food and consumables included coffee beans, spices, baking powder, oatmeal, flour, sugar, tropical fruit, hard candy, eggs, milk, butter, fruit and vegetables, honey and molasses, crackers, cheese, syrup and dried beans, cigars and tobacco.
The apothecary section of the store, as in a modern grocery or department store, was well represented with many patent medicines, remedies, soaps and toiletries and elixirs. The major difference between many of these items and modern ones is that none of them were tested to see if they worked! Most patent remedies of the era were alcohol based, which explained their popularity in many cases.
The dry goods section of the store included bolts of cloth, pins and needles, thread, ribbon, silk, buttons, collars, undergarments, suspenders, dungarees, hats and shoes. Essential items such as rifles, pistols, ammunition, lanterns, lamps, rope, crockery, pots and pans, cooking utensils and dishes, farm and milking equipment and sometimes even coffins could be found inside a general mercantile!
The average store would have been considered none too clean from modern standards. The roads outside were unpaved and unwashed; the dirt tracked in by customers would have included animal waste (and possibly human if someone had emptied their chamber pot into one of the
streets). The cast iron stove heating the store during cold weather produced soot which settled over much of the merchandise. And it was not unheard of to discover rodents foraging about inside the store.
When money was scarce, the shopkeeper might extend credit to a regular customer, or accept payment in kind (bartering).
Here are a couple of price lists, detailing the actual cost of some of the staples a family might need: