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The General Store: The Original Walmart

What did American homesteaders living over a century ago buy when they made their trips to town for groceries and supplies?  I started thinking about this as I unloaded the bed of our truck, after our monthly shopping trip last week.  What did they take out of their wagons?  What am I buying that was completely foreign and unnecessary to them?  They were self-sufficient as a way of life and produced much of what they needed on their farms.  In my journey to be more self-sufficient, I want to know what they used their hard earned incomes to buy.  I think we can learn something by understanding what they purchased beyond what they could produce.

oleson-montage1When these homesteaders went to town to purchase supplies, they visited the general store.  It makes me think of “Little House on the Prairie”.  The customers would hand the storekeeper their list and he would put together the items while the ladies perused things like fabric and clothing items.  General stores began to decline around the turn of the 20th century, but at their height they served as one of the most important places in town.  They were the only places that rural communities could purchase supplies.  They were the most popular gathering places where townspeople could socialize and get news.  They often also functioned as post offices and drugstores.

The food items they sold included coffee beans, spices, baking powder, oatmeal, flour, sugar, hard candy, eggs, milk, butter, fruit and vegetables, honey and molasses, crackers, cheese, syrup, dried beans, cigars and tobacco.  Dry goods included bolts of fabric and other sewing supplies, shoes, hats, chamber pots, spectacles, undergarments, suspenders and overalls.  They also stocked other important items such as guns and ammunition, lanterns, rope, pots/pans and other kitchen items, and farm equipment.  Homesteaders paid for their purchases with cash, store credit, skins, wood, or perishable food items like farm produce, eggs, milk, butter and cheese.  Storekeepers would then sell these items to their customers.  More than half of a homesteader’s food budget was spent on cereals, flour, cured meat and fish.  The rest was used for salt, spices, sugar and beverages.  Notice that toilet paper is not on the list!  It did not start becoming popular until the end of the 19th century and then only in homes with indoor plumbing.

RFD_3By 1930, the general stores were on their way out.  Rural Free Delivery had been instigated by the United States Post Office.  This meant that homesteaders no longer had to take trips into town to get their mail.  It also meant that they could receive catalogs from companies making it possible to purchase a much bigger variety of items through the mail.  As further advancements were made, roads and automobiles made it possible for people to travel further.  Bigger cities offered specialty stores that had been thriving for some time.  The general store was traded for specialty shops where the shopper could peruse from a variety of the same kind of item:  shoe stores, hat stores, dress stores, tobacco stores, etc.

Today we have  our supercenters.  One stop shopping is back, but in a much bigger way.  Actual necessities make up a very small portion of their inventories.  They are focused on selling whatever Americans will buy, largely comfort items and convenience food.  Can you imagine just going to the store for flour, cured meats, salt and sugar?  It brings a whole new meaning to necessities, doesn’t it?  The cereal they bought was not the cold cereal that we eat today.  This was not invented until the middle of the 19th century.  The cereals they bought were grain products like oats, buckwheat, corn, barley, and farina.

cerealI really don’t think we are better off now for the variety of things that we find in stores like Walmart.  We all know that the majority of it is made in China, but aside from that there is just so much stuff!  So many choices!  Why is that better?  Why do we need an entire aisle devoted to processed breakfast foods?  When my family has cereal, we eat old-fashioned oatmeal.  On rare occasions we will enjoy mini wheats.  But I don’t buy cereal often.  It is just so expensive!

Americans’ appetites have grown out of control and there is no sign of it stopping.  The food industry is doing everything imaginable to get us addicted to their products so that we keep coming back for more.  They are using addictive chemicals to make us come back for more and more, without ever being satisfied.  At the same time, we feel that we deserve convenience foods because we’ve had a hard day, we’re too busy to cook, and the husband walks in and says let’s order something.  Convenience food is too easy!  We can order pizza online at the click of a button and have it arrive on our doorstep without even getting off the couch.  Life revolves around food, particularly convenience food.  Americans are addicted.  We have such a deserving mentality.  We want what we want when we want it.

Whatever happened to working for our food?  We all know that convenience food is unhealthy, but it also takes working out of the equation. So it’s a double whammy.  We gain weight from the processed, chemical food that never leaves us fully satisfied because it is full of calories and very little nutrition.  And we have forgotten the natural exercise that working for our food affords by growing and preparing it ourselves.

My family has chosen to live an off-grid lifestyle.  We are learning to be self-sufficient.  That takes a lot of hard work, as well as unlearning a lot of things.  What sounds good for dinner?  Well, whatever is in the pantry and/or the garden.  Town is too far away to order takeout.  By the time we even get there we could have fixed dinner and probably eaten it.  Our goal is to “wean” ourselves off of the comfort items and convenience foods that the modern world offers.

I’m so grateful that we are learning how to raise our own food, preserve it, and prepare it all from scratch.  I still have a lot to learn, but when I think about the first American Homesteaders I am encouraged that self-sufficiency is possible.  Are the true necessities enough for me?  Are they enough for you?  What would happen if you had to do without your luxury and convenience items?  Are they so important to you that you would go through withdrawal?  I think we can learn a lesson from the first American Homesteaders about what true necessities really are.

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About JaimieB

Jaimie lives with her husband on their off-grid homestead known online as An American Homestead. They live with their two sons and her parents Tim and Joann on 50 acres located deep in the American Ozark Mountains.

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13 comments

  1. Great post! I think about that often, and I think the few boxes of cereal we buy or a boxed cake mix are truly for when we just run out of time! They are nice to have around but planning and plenty of rest is the key! I pulled a cake mix out of my pantry (the only one in there) several months ago, and it was expired by over a year. I guess that’s a good thing! We do homemade items, I DO buy TP, and a few other toiletries that are oh so nice to have a round, but all in all, I think a life free off all of the junk in box mixes and premade items, while ‘conventient’, sure aren’t good for you.

    I also wanted to mention that my family had gone on a mission trip to Nicaragua 2 years ago, and there were stores in town that you told them the items that you wanted and they would go and get your items for you. Reminded me of those old general stores.

  2. I’m no expert on self sufficiency. But have been reading up on it for some years now. I don’t see why it has to be hard.

    Example. Sunday afternoon, cook enough food for 5 days (M-F). Cook some chicken, Cook some veggies. Cook some Potatoes. Mix and match different combos. Refrigerate. Call it short term canning.

    I do have one complaint. Modern day kitchens are too small. We have turned the grocery store into our pantry.

    • You are right that it doesn’t have to be hard and making fewer trips to the grocery store is good start. However, the point I was making is that we are trying to take it to another level by limiting what we buy at the grocery store. I want to get back to the days when essentials to buy were flour and sugar because we are able to produce everything else. My goal is to be as self-sufficient as possible. For me, this includes no refrigerator. Cooking in bulk and freezing or refrigerating is not true self-sufficiency. Keeping your meat on the hoof until you are ready to eat it and canning or smoking it when you butcher more than you can eat. Canning or drying the produce from your garden to get you through the winter. That is self-sufficiency.

  3. I’ve been finding recipes, to replace the convenience foods. One was Rice O Roni, I found a recipe I liked and made it. Rice, is cheap and the vermicelli noodles, .33 cents a bag at Winco, and water, a few spices and I have homemade rice o roni. I do use coupons, and try very hard to limit our convenient foods. I’m amazed at how much money people spend on food. I was a Walmart one night and the gal bought three frozen bags of fruit, 12 boxes of microwave dinners, a hand bag, wallet, and a few other small product’s . I figured she would spend around $80.00 no it was more like $168.00 on nothing. Another guy, spent $54.00 dollar’s on 10 frozen dinners, that was it. I was shocked at how much fast frozen food, costs. I really wanted to ask them don’t you know how to cook? I’m making sure my children, know how to boil water, kids now a days don’t even know how to do that. Keep up your hard work it does pay off for sure.

    • I know! It’s crazy what people will pay for convenience food. I feel like the food I make at home is pretty convenient most days. I love your rice idea. I’m sure it’s a lot healthier too. I make rice a lot of different ways with a variety of seasonings depending on my mood. Tonight I made rice layered with refried beans, corn, cheese, and tomatoes and peppers from the garden. The beans and corn were canned. I put the rice on to cook earlier, but the rest took me about 10 minutes to prepare.

  4. Jamie I am just so amazed at all you have learned to do, love to do and have gotten accomplished on your homestead to date. I spent several days this summer in the heat just thinking about how I could function without a refrigerator after reading your post. Other than a deep root cellar I was at a loss. Your family as first year serious gardeners so encouraged me as do most your post. You really gained a large variety of canned items for the winter. Seemingly, when I think about being able to grow some grain, other than sugar cane (tropical), rice (moisture and long season), molasses and a few other items there isn’t too much needed to make most of the recipes. A trip to Honeyville really opened my eyes how many convenience food are all made from just the basic foundational items.

    When I was young around 10 years old my grandmother used to give me 3-4 ingredients and tell me to make something from what we had on hand for dinner. It may have been a few potatoes, some chicken, and a few tomatoes. Or a block of cream cheese, some fresh garlic and a bag of rice. I could go in her garden for what was in season, or her pantry which only had the basics like flour, baking soda, sugar and homemade canned items. It always had to serve 4. I learned to cook from taste and sight as well as to waste nothing. She used to tell me to pretend there was no grocery store. She lived through the depression and wanted me to know I could do something with very little. If I home schooled girls this would defiantly be one of their weekly assignments.

    We now work for paper and the system just to trade valuable time and our lives for money to pay taxes and then buy food and shelter in places that are not even environmentally healthy. That is why what you are doing makes so much sense. Question? Have you ever thought about how much money you save on taxes you use to pay on incomes, food, gasoline, heat, childcare if you both worked, and your time even if it were at minimum wages in a year. I bet that would make a great article. You are truly an American (Dream) Homestead because you are will to work so hard and sacrifice the 21st century entrapping of convenience. Blessing.

  5. Jamie and Zach,
    I remember when I was growing up in NE arkansas, We lived on a lg farm. Our garden was 1 ac.
    We had our own chickens, cows, pigs. The only time we went to the gro store was to get …
    flour, sugar salt, pepper, salad dressing, cho chips and m&m’s……thats all we purchased from the store.
    MOM made everything from scratch. When I got married at 15 and hubby 16…. I cut up chicken.
    made cake from scratch. I didn’t know cake come in a box. I made home made bread…. I’m sure your parents remember this as well. I am only 56 now. I still do things the old way….. I also live in AR. We live in the suberbs now. We don’t eat out and we purchase ground beef in centerville. it is non gmo, non atb etc…..
    We do our best eating and cooking the old way….. even tho we are on city water we use a berkley.
    solar stove / oven in the summer or sunny days. wood fp and c. heat for back up.
    What I’m trying to say…..IT IS WORTH IT….. p.s. mom always made the best cho chip and m7m cookies.
    I have 2 recipes U might want. cho cake and yellow cake …U can do a million things with these recipes…..
    have a great life…. Charlie (female)

  6. To be honest it was just a little over two years ago when my husband and I both realized what this world has come to and as believers we know it is only going to get worse. We began talking about being prepared for whatever natural disaster or economic situation might occur. Around this same time we both realized we were running ourselves ragged in a rat race and it all felt pointless. We both believe God has something better for us. We began talking about working with intention and real reward. We both decided to work toward living off-grid. A big part of this was being careful with what we buy. My husband hates cereal and refuses to eat it but I would buy it from time to time for our kids. We began stocking up on oatmeal because it has a long shelf life and just stopped buying cereal. I can honestly say we do not eat out at all for many reasons. One is because we are trying to limit our consumerism and honestly we live out in the country and there isn’t a fast food restaurant for 10 miles. I honestly just don’t understand how families with children can afford to eat out. It isn’t affordable for us. I make a meal plan each month and then buy only what we need for me to make those meals. One thing that was actually never a problem for me is purchasing quick pre-made meals. I was raised in a home with a single mother to 5 children and she made everything scratch and began teaching us early on how to cook and bake. She had to take on two jobs to provide for us and she wasn’t home much so being the oldest I took on the responsibility of cooking all the meals. My mother simply never purchased quick meals so we never had them in the house and we always lived out in the country so I never had delivered food in my life. Looking back, living in poverty really taught me many things that I am thankful for. Now with having four children of our own and me being a stay at home mom, we pinch pennies to make ends meet. I plan to instill the same knowledge in my children that I had. I pray they grow to be God loving, hard working, and wise adults. Thank you for another great post!

  7. I wonder what they did for toilet paper … scrub bits of fabric?

    • From the research that I have done, they used whatever they could find. Corn cobs were popular and later the Sears Roebuck catalog! Free TP right in their mailboxes! I even found that it took a very long time for the sale of toilet paper to catch on because people were so used to using whatever was free. It sounded ridiculous to them to pay for it! Something so essential to us was laughed at as a ridiculous expense when it first entered the market.

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