Monday, July 31, 2017

The words "Grocery"and "Ordinary" had a Whole Different Meaning Before the 20th Century.

Before the 20th century, the term "grocery" and "ordinary" had a whole different meaning. During this time, whiskey-drinking was the reigning vice and a stock of liquors were being kept for sale, by the glass, in almost every road-side cabin and stops on stagecoach routes. The cabins of the settlers often displayed a sign which had the word "grocery," printed on it; meaning 'liquor by the glass or bottle sold here'. In addition to the liquor, they often kept a small stock of general provisions and supplies. The owner of a grocery was called a grocer.

The distances between one habitation and another were often considerable, and people traveling late in the day were frequently frozen to death in extreme weather, especially if in an intoxicated condition. Indeed there were more deaths from freezing than from any other fatality. Winters would kill mostly transient dwellers such as discharged soldiers, sailors, and farmhands out of work for the winter. 

The grocery stores we know today were called "General Stores," back then.

Proof: Ordinances of the Town of Chicago incorporated on August 12, 1833.

The saloon in Chicago had its origin in two places. The oldest was the inn or tavern, a combination kitchen, hotel, and drinking establishment. Much of the city's early social life revolved around Wolf Point on the Chicago River. Such spots included James Kinzie's (John Kinzie's son) Green Tree Tavern
Mark Beaubien opened the Eagle Exchange Tavern in a log cabin on the south bank of the Chicago River in 1829 then added a frame addition to the Eagle in 1831. Beaubien also opened the Sauganash Hotel, Chicago's first hotel, serving food and drink. 

The second type of drinking establishment evolved from grocers and provisioners who began to sell hard liquor in wholesale quantities. At first, their sample rooms were literally places where customers could taste-test the stock; long afterward, “sample room” became simply another name for a saloon. By the late 1850s, the term saloon had begun to appear in directories and common usage as a term for an establishment that specialized in beer and liquor sales by the drink, with food and lodging as secondary concerns in some places. Stops such as Stacey's Tavern in present-day Glen Ellyn or the Pre-Emption House in Naperville were popular among farmers journeying to the city.
As the rapidly growing ethnic population swelled, the saloon ranks through the mid-nineteenth century, but during the early 1880s, a growing overcapacity in the brewery industry began to force change. Overestimates of future growth, along with easy rail access to Chicago for St. Louis and Milwaukee brewers, left all of the producers scrambling for retail outlets.

The answer lay in an adaptation of the British “Tied-House” system of control. Brewers purchased hundreds of storefronts, especially on highly desired corner locations. The brewers rented to prospective saloonkeepers, along with all the furnishings, including recreational equipment such as billiard tables and bowling alleys. Schlitz and a few others built elaborate saloons, examples of which still survive in Chicago today. The Chicago City Council also contributed to the brewery domination by increasing the saloon license from $50 to $500 between 1883 and 1885 to pay for an expanded police force supposedly made necessary by the barrooms. Relatively few independent proprietors could afford to pay such amounts.
An 1880s Grocer's Newspaper Ad.
The General Store.
Today's stores offer a great variety of merchandise for the convenience of their customers, but in the 1800s, merchants simply sold the items they could obtain and resell. These general stores, mercantile's, 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 of these stores also doubled as a post office.

During the first part of the 19th 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 a large number of 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 actually 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 that 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).

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


  1. So my great grandparent owned a grocery in peoria area in the 1920s. Is there a directory or database of old groceries?


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