When 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.
By 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.
I 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.