Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Old-Fashioned Mercantiles

As of July, I began writing my next western novel. Since the opening scene is set in the town mercantile, I found it necessary to describe the store. However, it had been a lot of years since I watched Little House on the Prairie. I didn’t recall what the interior of Mr. Oleson’s Mercantile looked like, and I certainly didn’t recall a lot of the details of what a western mercantile might carry. It was perfect timing that we took our short vacation in St. Augustine when we did.


Outside of the Oldest Store Museum
© Jennifer Uhlarik
The first stop on our July vacation was to the “The Oldest Store Museum.” This museum is modeled after a historic store owned by Mr. C.F. Hamblen. His mercantile opened for business in 1875, and the store grew right along with the city of St. Augustine. When Mr. Hamblen died in 1920, the store was bought but continued to operate in one form or another until 2012.
The museum was a fun one, set up like Mr. Hamblen’s store would have looked in the early 1900’s. My story is set in 1873, so some of the featured items displayed in the museum were too “new-fangled” for my purposes, but in general, I still got an excellent idea of how such a mercantile would have looked.

We were met on the mercantile’s porch by a store clerk who offered to give us a tour. Had she been unavailable at that time, there were several rocking chairs on the porch where we could have waited, or where we could catch up on the town gossip fresh from the proprietor after our shopping was done. Since the clerk was ready, she told us a little about Mr. Hamblen and the history of how he opened up shop in the 1870’s, then showed us inside.


Selection of gingham and calico fabrics
and sewing notions.
© Jennifer Uhlarik
The interior of the building was lit with sunlight that flooded in through two large windows on the front and side of the building, as well as a few oil lamps hanging from the tin ceiling. The center of the room had displays of blankets and other goods. Along two sides of the rectangular room stood more large-sized goods, such as a large coffee mill standing about four feet tall and just as wide, or gingham and calico fabrics and sewing items that the women-folk would want to see up close.


Mercantile counter and shelves, including stick candy in jars, old
cash register, and the Edison cylinder music player (far left).
© Jennifer Uhlarik
The other two walls were lined with long counters, one with glass-front drawers containing beans and spices. Behind the counters stood floor-to-ceiling shelves stocked with canned goods, tins, fashion items, and other merchandise. On one of the counters sat three large apothecary jars filled with stick candy in various flavors. We were given our choice of root beer, cherry, or watermelon flavors—on the house. At the end of that counter stood a glass case with many types of patent medicines to cure what ails you.

 
Patent medicines and elixers in a glass case.
© Jennifer Uhlarik


The clerk explained that they were the largest store in Florida, and if they didn’t have something in stock, they could order it. If they couldn’t order it, we must not need it. She then proceeded to show us several modern gadgets to outfit our homes. A cream separator, a milkshake maker, a cork sizer, and an Edison cylinder music player, among other things—all of which could be ordered and would arrive in “just two weeks time.” We were given demonstrations of some of the merchandise. That silver-tongued clerk talked us into ordering several of the items on display (including the latest styles of women’s shoes—two pair of each color).

Store counter displaying cream separator (bottom left), women's shoes (center),
hats and unmentionables (in countertop glass case), and men's shirt collars (above the shoes).
© Jennifer Uhlarik

Bicycle inside the warehouse portion.
© Jennifer Uhlarik
After we finished in the main showroom, we were led past the in-house butcher and into the store’s warehouse. The warehouse was like a large barn and had all kinds of interesting goods to consider. Bedroom furniture, bicycles, typewriters, firearms, farm tools, various types of washing machines (including the latest, greatest goat-powered version). We talked a while with the warehouse manager, then were allowed to look on our own for a few moments at the other warehouse displays.


Selection of firearms and hunting traps.
© Jennifer Uhlarik

Overall, the museum was amusing and educational, and it certainly was a real help to me in getting a feel for what a mercantile would have looked like back in the day. I hope you enjoyed learning about it.

It’s your turn. What historical tours or sites have you seen that you most enjoyed?


Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen, when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has won the 2012 CWOW Phoenix Rattler, 2012 ACFW First Impressions, and 2013 FCWC contests, all in the historical category. She is also the winner of the 2013 Central Florida ACFW chapter's "Prompt Response" contest. In addition to writing, she has been a schoolteacher of English, literature, and history, as well as a marketing director. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers and lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, teenaged son, and four fur children.

12 comments:

  1. I have been to many really historic places in St Augustine, and I agree with you - it is an amazing place. Last year, my son and I went on a tour of the forts there for our homeschool. We also enjoyed the battle reenactment in Olustee, Florida, and the Civil War/Train Museum in Kennesaw, Georgia. That is where we learned about The Great Train Race during the Civil War.

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    1. Hi Susan, Thanks for stopping by! The fort in St. Augustine is always a fun visit. Such an interesting history, and the view from the top is amazing. I've also taken in the reenactments. My brother is a Civil War reenactor who goes to both Olustee and the Brooksville Raid almost every year, so it's especially fun when you've got family participating. Haven't had a chance to see the museum in Georgia, but maybe one day...

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  2. Loved the virtual "tour"! I have always been fascinated with the old time stores. Ever wonder why women's feet were so skinny and little back then?? The names for medicines and "cures" always make me smile.

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    1. Hi Susan, I'm so glad to hear you enjoyed today's post. :) The tour of the mercantile was truly one of the highlights of my trip this year. Old-time medicnes and "cures" are often fun. One that they touted on this tour was a de-wormer (I can't recall the name now), sold in a 3-bottle set. You could purchase a single bottle, but to get the whole set of instructions, you had to buy all three bottles, since the label was made in three parts, one part stuck to each bottle. What a gimmick! LOL

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  3. I love your post! Old timey stores whether grocery stores or 5&10 cent stores or mercantile stores are some of my very favorite things. When my husband and I go to Arkansas, there is a store we visit that takes me back in time. There is also an "1880"s town" set up in South Dakota where you can even rent clothes that might have been worn at that time to walk around in and really go back in time. Are we fortunate to be able to still enjoy bits of history!

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    1. Oh Melanie, the South Dakota town sounds like real fun! I would love to see that. :) Thanks for sharing about it.

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  4. Thank you for sharing this wonderful tour with us, including pictures. What a wonderful place to visit! Some of my favorite historical tours are presidential homes. They are truly fascinating!

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    1. Hi Britney, I've had the pleasure of touring a few presidential homes myself, and they are always fascinating. Glad you stopped by!

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  5. This was great fun learning about the old mercantile. Would love to visit one ! I'm fortunate to live in a small village where we have two antique toy and doll museum's. One was founded by the original owner of a Ben Franklin store. He had a collection of hundreds of items from that store which he had for over 90 years. The original store sits on village square. Along side of which The McCook house stand which is the home of the McCooks of the civil war. It is a beautiful home full of family possessions. I feel really blessed to live where history is part of our present.

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  6. Love the old mercantile. I enjoy visiting living museums. An exciting way to do research for a story. The most recent being to Beamish, an authentic living museum in the north of England, with a town that looks exactly as it would have in 1913 with guides dressed in the clothes of that period. The early 20Th Century buildings were transported to this local and used for a series on BBC based on Catherine Cookson's novels. I absolutely loved it. Thank you for this tour of the mercantile, Jennifer.

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  7. Loved your post, Jennifer, & seeing inside the mercantile store! Thanks for the pics!

    I love historical tours & sites -one of the most interesting I have seen is the Creation Museum, near Cincinnati, Oh., which tells the story of the bible, from creation on. There are exhibits specifically for children, restaurants, a book store, a planetarium, movie theatres, & animated exhibits - as well as an outdoor picnic area, gardens, fountains & bridges, flower gardens, snack stands, & a petting zoo.

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  8. I have to ask: were you really able to order the shoes/boots? I've always wanted some of those "granny boots." Do they have website? Thanks for a fun post--that sounds like my kind of museum! Next time I go visit my dad in Florida I'm going to have to get him to take me there. It kind of reminds me of the Olsen's merchantile from Little House on the Prairie! I'd have to say the house of the seven gables, the Salem witch trials' museums, and the graveyard where all of the victims of the witch trials are buried.

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