My father ran a general merchandise store in the true meaning of the word. Our principal customers were farmers who drove to town with horse and wagon, horse and buggy, or horse and sled, at distances of 10 to 15 miles. As a consequence, we catered to the farmers’ needs and sold practically everything.
The store itself was about 35 feet wide and about 90 feet long. In the back of the store we had a flour house and a salt house. We carried groceries and dry goods. We sold shoes for men—both working and dress—as well as women’s and children’s shoes. A far from complete list of our items would run something like this:
- Plug tobacco in three thicknesses—thick, thin or medium
- Henderson & Aurora corsets with a high or low bust
- Gingham dresses
- Bolts of percale, gingham, cheesecloth
- Rubber boots, felt boots, overshoes
- Men’s sheep-lined overcoats
- Kerosene pumped from a tank
- Manila rope
- Men’s work and dress gloves
- Men’s work shirts and dress shirts
- Overalls—work pants, mostly bib overalls—some made in Oshkosh, Wisconsin
- Men’s undershirts and drawers, and, later, union suits, the BVD’s
- Neckties, collars, armbands, suspenders, belts
- A few men’s dress felt hats and men’s straw hats for farmers’ use in the field
- A representative stock of patent medicines:
- Swamp Root
- Lydia Pinkham’s Compound (for female disorders)
- Carter’s Little Liver Pills
- Epsom Salts
- Castoria (“children cry for it”) and Syrup of Figs
- Mustard Plasters (“good for sore backs”)
- Sloan’s Liniment (for man or beast)
- Father John’s Compound
We bought sugar in 100 pounds sacks, which were sold to the farmers. For those who could not use 100 pounds, we dumped the sack into a barrel and repackaged it in paper bags in ten- and fifteen- pound packages. In addition to cane sugar, we also had two kinds of brown sugar—dark brown and light brown. All of the sugar was kept in barrels and later packaged in paper bags.
Coffee was also bought in 100 pounds sacks, and then dumped in metal containers where it was sold by the pound and ground by hand.
We sold dried prunes with pits, dried apricots, and dried peaches from wooden boxes. In the basement of the store we had barrels of vinegar—the farmers would bring in their jugs, and they would be filled in the basement.
The store also had several boxes of cigars. There was a cigar factory at Sycamore, and one of the brands we carried was called the Belle of Sycamore—five cents apiece, six for a quarter. My father liked cigars and it was quite natural that he would carry them in the store. The cigars came in little wooden boxes and were not individually wrapped in cellophane as they are today. Consequently they would dry out very quickly. We kept the cigar boxes and the plug tobacco in a kind of partition in the wall with sliding glass doors in the front. We would saturate a brick with water, and the brick would be kept in with the plug tobacco and cigars to keep them from drying out.
Cigars were frequently named after authors, political figures, and men of prominence generally. Each box contained around twenty or so cigars. As you would open the little wood box, the top of the box would contain a flattering drawing of the important personage and a few paragraphs telling of his accomplishments. Robert Burns was the favorite cigar. One of them had a drawing of a little cottage with a rhyme or two, such as “as we journey through life, let us live by the way.”
Strangely enough, one of the men who ran a store in town, Leonard Kellogg, was also a cigar-maker. I used to watch him making cigars. Large leaves of tobacco would be cut into smaller pieces and then rolled and shaped into a cigar. He must have used some kind of glue material, although I never learned just what it was. He seemed to moisten the tobacco with his mouth occasionally. If a customer bought a good-sized bill of material, we were instructed to offer him a cigar, so we would take the box out and say, “have a cigar.”
We carried several boxes of five-cent cigars, Sycamore Belle (made in Sycamore, Illinois). We also carried:
- Chewing tobacco—scrap in packages. “Shure Shot” was one of the most popular brands. We also sold Climax, Star and Yankee Girl.
- Plug tobacco, thick, thin or medium. We had a cutting machine that cut the tobacco into plugs—the right size for your back pocket.
- Snuff—Blanding and Kalmer came in round little boxes about the size of a half-dollar.
One of our customers who lived several miles in the country would buy at least ten packages of “Shure Shot” every Saturday when he came to the store. With that name of “Shure Shot” he never missed the cuspidor!
The plug tobacco had to be cut into little squares of about two-inches square. We had a machine to do this, the cutting knife operated by pressing a hand lever. Each square of tobacco had a little tin trademark placed in the center of each plug. Kids had a lot of fun collecting these little tin tags. Some would collect Stars, other would collect Climax—just like kids collected marbles.
Perhaps it is easier to say what we didn’t sell: Cigarettes. In those days you bought a little sack of Bull Durham Tobacco with papers, and rolled your own. Only a few people smoked cigarettes in those days: mostly men who came from Chicago. It was an interesting sight to see a man hold a little paper in his hand while he spread the tobacco from the Bull Durham sack, twist the end of the paper, tap it, and put it in his mouth. He would then pull the strings together on the top of the Bull Durham sack and place it in his pocket. There were no filters, no mint flavors, just a plain cigarette which he rolled when he needed one.
There was a cigarette called Cubebs that were supposed to have some kind of medicinal property. They were sold at a drugstore.
Matches did not come in little packages those days. Smokers had to carry individual matches, which they struck on the seat of their pants or some wooden object. Matches were made of wood and had a good-sized head on them.
Women, of course, did not smoke cigarettes in those days. Later on, when girls in college tried it, they were promptly expelled from school. Of course, even then, they did not smoke cigarettes in public, and those that did smoke, smoked in some secluded place. If they were caught, their school days were over.
During World War II cigarettes were hard to get, and people tried going back to rolling their own, but it took a lot of practice to do it: Most of the tobacco would generally fall out before you could light the cigarette. I believe the men in the service in World War I really started the cigarette craze.
When chewing tobacco was popular, most public places, including offices, had to have a spittoon, or, as it was sometimes called, a cuspidor. That was the reason for the old song, “Toreador, Don’t Spit On the Floor, Use the Cuspidor.” Even as late as 1930 the office that I used had a cuspidor in it. I didn’t need it but it was in the office when I came.
In dry goods, we carried ribbons; laces; embroidery, cotton and silk thread, needles; women’s hose; and skeins of yarn.
We always had one sewing machine on display. When that was sold, we ordered another.
We also had patterns for men’s suits. We had a book from the Royal Tailoring Company which instructed us how to take measurements for a man’s dress suit. The measurements were taken as best we could following the directions and sent to the factory along with the patch of cloth selected. The suit was ultimately delivered to the store. You might say we did custom-tailoring, but not often.
There was no such thing as men’s Oxfords: in those days they were real shoes. We did not sell or carry much of a stock in dress shoes, and most of our business was in work shoes. We always carried a large stock of men’s overalls and mostly of the bib kind, in those days. We sold a lot of rubber boots, rubbers, felt boots, and four-buckle overshoes.
We always had on hand a round of cheese which we would cut as the customer ordered—a pound or two pounds, which would be weighed on the scale. Generally, we gave the customer a large sample which he would eat before buying.
Some few years later we gave green S&H Trading stamps, as it goes “way back to the country store.” No one ever dreamed that years later it would be treated as an innovation to attract the sophisticated shopper in the larger cities.
As I was growing up, we really had a busy store. My father would buy carloads of flour and sugar which would be stored in a warehouse in the back of the store. It is hard to realize today the volume of business which we could be transacted in such a small town, with no hard roads and no cars. The farmers did their trading in the closest town, if the merchants carried what they wanted to buy. This is what my father did in a successful way until autos and hard roads enticed the farmers to trade in larger cities.
We had some men’s work fur coats and sheepskin coats; men’s hats and caps; kerosene; molasses in cans or out of barrels; vinegar in barrels or in bottles; slabs of bacon; and small hams.
Flour was sold to the farmer in fifty and one hundred pounds sacks. Some customers would order 500 pounds of flour and a barrel of salt. Flour was kept in the flour-house, a separate building. Barrels of salt were kept in the salt house, another building back of the store. We handled no meat except slabs of bacon, which we did not slice—it was sold either as a whole slab or a half a slab. We also carried some ham butts. Meats were sold at Power’s Meat Market.
We could not carry all sizes and widths in shoes, so we used a shoe stretcher so that the shoes could be made to fit. What merchandise we did not carry, my father would arrange to buy from the wholesale houses in Chicago.
We carried a few suitcases and some dishes. We carried the dishes for the farmers’ wives, who often needed to buy them to serve the extra help at threshing time (also called harvest time).
Of course we carried a line of canned goods—peas, corn, tomatoes, salmon, ketchup, sardines, dried codfish, and Gordon’s Codfish. We also carried bread, but no cakes or pastries. We did sell cookies—Ginger Snaps—in a large wooden box, and dished out in paper bags. Crackers came in a large wooden box as well. In those days, things were not packaged as they are now. Many articles came in large wooden boxes, and then were picked out by hand into paper bags as the customers asked for them.
One of the items we sold in the store was corsets. When a farmer’s wife wished to buy a corset, I, of course, had to ask her what size and another question, which was “high” or “low” bust. I never knew the significance of this question, except I was told to ask it. I guess the reason was that on the front of each box holding a corset marked the size and also whether it was high or low bust. The corsets were always white and as they were spread out over the counter for the lady to see, they certainly were a formidable affair, certainly in comparison with present-day apparel.
The truth of the matter is that we were flexible. My father would buy whatever he felt could be sold in the store.
Credit to farmers
We did a large credit business with the farmers in the area. Dairy farmers needed credit to lay out till they milk check. Grain farmers needed credit till they harvested and sold their wheat, corn, oats, hay or whatever. Farmers had a passbook: we entered their charges in the book (e.g. “credit for eggs or butter”) and entered similar figures in our “Daybook.” The Daybook was then posted in the ledger. All, of course, by hand.
Some of the farmers who sold their milk would pay each month as they got their milk checks. We frequently had to carry them until they sold their crops in the fall of the year. When the price of milk and price of crops went down, we sometimes had to carry the farmer for quite a long while. In time though, most accounts were paid. My father was a good collector, and sometimes had to go to court. He had a good working idea of the collection laws.
Some of the farmers’ wives made butter, and we purchased the butter, giving the farmers credit toward their purchases. The butter came in earthen crocs of one or two pounds. We exchanged an empty crock for the one with butter, but we first weighed it and marked the weight on the bottom. When the crock was returned filled with butter, we knew how much to deduct for the weight of the crock. Mrs. Tewksbury’s butter was very good so we paid her a little extra. Not a bad system! We had only a small icebox for keeping butter. (Most people used their cistern or basement to keep things cool.)
Some farmers sold their butter to us and bought oleo. For years it was against the law to color oleo, so coloring material was sold separate.
My first job in the store was unpacking crates and boxes of eggs which the farmers brought to the store for cash or trade. I would then do what we call “counting eggs.” Many of our farmer customers brought their eggs in either twelve-dozen egg crates, or boxes packed in oats. It was my job to push down through the oats and take the eggs out, putting them in a crate or box. Pushing my hand through the oats, I frequently would stick my fingers through an egg, which would then be counted against me and not the farmer. Some of the farmers brought their eggs in twelve dozen crates which would then be emptied and the crate returned to them. Our egg crates, when filled, contained twenty-four dozen and were divided into partitions, with each partition holding one dozen. We had no device for determining the freshness of the eggs (called candling), but presumably most of the eggs we received were fresh. The eggs were later shipped by Northwestern Train to Chicago. We didn’t refrigerate the eggs in any way, but I guess they were as fresh as other people’s. We generally gave the farmers store credit for the eggs, but if we had to pay cash for the eggs, we bought them at a lower price.
I would also run various errands, get jars out of the adjoining building, packing merchandise, going to the post office, and learning where various items of merchandise were located in the store. After a while, I waited on customers, and I had to learn how to operate the cash register, make change, and make entries covering charge accounts. It was some time before I was permitted to grind the coffee.
Running the store
We had no typewriter or adding machine, and all entries were made by hand.
We had a telephone which was in the middle of the store, and a coffee grinder with a large wheel which was turned by hand. We used to crank with the telephone, too. That’s how you placed your calls with “Central.” She placed all calls.
We also had a National Cash Register (three drawers) operated with a crank.
Every article in the store was marked with the selling price and also the cost of the item, which was written in letters using some kind of code. I don’t remember the working of the code, but by looking at the letters, we could determine the cost of the particular item, and if necessary, reduce the price to make a sale.
My father never conducted any kind of sale—no spring sale, fall sale, pre-inventory sale, or anything of that kind. This probably was a mistake and as a result sometimes the inventory of certain items which had gone out of style became quite heavy. I remember at the time we had quite a stock of men’s button shoes when men no longer wore button shoes but had turned to lace shoes.
The store had no indoor plumbing, but had a small sink with water furnished from the town’s water system. Heat was also furnished by a base-burner coal stove located in the middle of the store. (We always had a few chairs for customers to sit on and warm themselves around the stove.) Coal was stored in the cellar. (Duck your head when you went downstairs to the cellar. Dirt floor, of course.) Later on, we put the furnace in the cellar, furnishing hot air from a large register for the store, and hot water heat for upstairs. The cellar was also used to store big rounds of cheese, barrels of vinegar, molasses, etc.
The store had a few other facilities: a hat stretcher, a shoe stretcher, a bench near the shoes so you could sit down and try to get your size. Along the dry goods counter were three round stools which could be adjusted by turning around.
My father always hired several clerks. Robert Huestis, James C. Moore, Paul Thiel, Lowell Simons and Mary Moore (in Dry-goods). In the good old days we had at least three full-time clerks and a boy or two to pack eggs. The hours were long: 7 in the morning till nine at night, six days a week, and 7 a.m. to noon on Sunday. We have some pictures of the store with my father in the front and the clerks in back.
On Saturday, we might be busy until ten or eleven at night. Some farmers with their teams got into town late. Until around 1915, the store had kerosene lamps which hung from the ceiling. These had to be cleaned, wicks trimmed, and refilled.
When the streetcar came through Maple Park (the Aurora DeKalb Electric Railroad) around 1915, we put electric lights in the store and house. We used direct-current: one switch turned on whole string of lights. When the streetcar approached, the lights would dim a little.
In the back of the store, beneath the floor, was a tank filled with kerosene. Customers brought their own can: we pumped kerosene with a hand pump. Many cans would have a potato stuck on the spout.
Most of our men’s work shoes were from Rice & Hutchins’ shoe factory in Massachusetts. Their salesman would come from Chicago to the store by the Northwestern Railroad with his trunk of sample shoes. He would spend most of the day talking to my father about life in general. He could not leave town anyway until the evening train. It was fun for me to see all the different kinds of shoes displayed, and hear him talk about his experiences.
I also enjoyed the visits of the cookie and cracker salesman: Sawyer Biscuit Company from Chicago. The salesman had a folding device with a number of trays holding all kinds of delicious cookies. Sampling was fun. Crackers (salted, soda, oyster) came in wooden boxes, and we dished them out by hand and paper sacks. Cookies came in small boxes and were also dished out by hand (sold by the dozen). “Ginger snaps” were a bestseller and the cheapest. As I remember, we carried at least ten different kinds of cookies.
In the back of the store there was a sort of office area—a high-top desk and a high stool to go with it—and a safe for the cash was deposited at the end of the day after removal from the cash register.
My father was a good talker. The farmers like to hear him talk about business, politics, and even religion. His specialty, though, was politics. I remember him saying he was introduced to William Jennings Bryan in his underwear. He was a very active Democrat and worked hard to help his nephew, Charles Clyne, become a member of the Illinois Legislature, and later US attorney in Chicago (1914 to 1922). He helped people get their Civil and Spanish American War pensions; also drafter deferments for farmers in the First World War. He was instrumental in getting jobs for people in the Post Office, and also at the State Hospital at Elgin. He was a good friend of Adam Cliffe of Sycamore, who later became a Federal Judge. I remember in 1912 he made fairly good sized bets (at that time) for Wilson for President, and Dunne for Governor. You had to put up or shut up in those days of intense political feelings.
My father was also superstitious. He would mark the thirteenth page of the Daybook with a lot of crosses so that it could not be used.
With his Irish ancestry he bore a strong resemblance to Mayor Richard Daley, both physically and emotionally, with loyalty to his race, his Church, his store, the Democratic Party, and his family—a loving and generous father.
Wets and Drys
The Drys would hold pep meetings at election time in the town hall. As a small boy, I was there, probably sitting in the first row. The Dries had a number of songs to pep up the crowd and emphasized the evils of drink, such as “The Brewer’s Big Horses Won’t Drive Over Me,” “The Face on the Barroom Floor,” and “Molly and Me.” They always lost the election in Maple Park, but eventually, of course, the Anti-Saloon League was successful in passing an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, creating the wild prohibition era and with it bootleggers, rum runners, gangsters— the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” Capone, Bugs Moran, Touhy, McGurn, Colisimo, Legs Diamond, Dutch Schmidt and all the rest. The founders of our present day, all powerful syndicate, Organized Crime, Mafia, or whatever you may call it. What a terrible monster was born from our good intentions! Our people pay a high price each year to Organized Crime.
Shortly after I was born, the doctor found I had a double rupture-hernia, so I wore a double-truss (a metal band covered with leather, two straps and buckle).
As I grew up, the truss had to be enlarged, so my folks took me to Chicago from time to time to the truss manufacturer. I remember the name: Sharp & Smith! I guess my father hoped that somehow or other the rupture would go away or the truss would effect a cure. The man at Sharp & Smith would have me cough and hold his hand on the hernia. Of course, surgery was the only cure, but folks in those days had a dread of hospitals, and only had operations as a last resort. I played baseball—second base for our town team—ran races, wrestled (I took a correspondence course from the Farmer Burns School of Wrestling, and learned about the Half-Nelson, arm lock, etc.), rode bicycles, and chinned myself on the hitching post. During World War I, when the doctors examined boys entering the Army, they found many boys had hernias. The hernias were then repaired by surgery. Hearing of the successful results, I convinced my father that surgery was necessary if I were to throw away the truss. Of course, wearing a truss was embarrassing as I grew up, undressed, and took showers in the locker rooms.
I was operated on in the summer of 1921 by Dr. John Golden at old Mercy Hospital on the South Side of Chicago. Ether was used for anesthetic in those days, which gave me some severe pains. I was in the hospital for three weeks. It was very hot that summer, no air conditioning. Windows were kept open, hoping for a cool breeze. My father took the Northwestern train to see me every day. When I left the hospital, I stayed with my Aunt Rose on Sedgewick Street.
 Sperry & Hutchinson stamps were a retailer loyalty/rewards program. Participating retailers would buy stamps and distribute them with customer purchases. Customers could redeem the stamps for products in the Sperry & Hutchinson catalog. In the 1960s, S&H printed more three times more stamps than the USPS. The program still exists at greenpoints.com.