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My Father’s Grocery Store

July 2024
17min read

It was a lot of work, but somehow running a retail food store in the pre-cellophane era was rewarding

As I remember, I was nine years old when my father decided that the time had come for me to “help out” in his grocery store. The year was 1910, and the place was Mansfield, Ohio. Twelve years would pass before I escaped completely from that thralldom.

In the beginning my duties were as small as I was: taking an occasional deposit to the bank and obtaining change, collecting small accounts, and delivering orders to customers who lived nearby and wanted a few groceries in a hurry. I also scrubbed the mold—it was harmless—from the hams and sides of bacon that hung in our back room, and from “Lebanon bologna,” a wonderful smoked summer sausage which we bought in barrels, it you please, from a maker in Lebanon, Pennsylvania.

I do not remember the amount of my pay, but I suspect that I was doing a little work for the allowance I would have received in any case. And I had one compensation enjoyed by no other youngster in town. My father loved baseball, and every day the team was in town, except Saturdays and Sundays, we were in the bleachers. (On Saturdays we had too much business in the store; and on Sundays, in our family, we went only to church.) I can still remember Mansfield’s first baseman, Zeke Reynolds; a third baseman named Tim Flood who had an arm about as strong as an old maid’s; and a pitcher, Jeff Holmquist, who once went twenty-seven straight innings, won his game, and retired from baseball with a permanently ruined arm.

As time passed I became a kind of junior clerk, waiting on customers when my father and the two clerks were busy, putting up orders, and packaging the many commodities that we bought in bulk. (Packaging in the modern supermarket appalls me, and I cannot reconcile myself to the lavish use of paper bags. We never used one if we could avoid it. Did the customer want to carry home a purchase of six or eight articles? We sold him a basket.) There was sugar, granulated, powdered, light brown, and dark brown, to be put up in two-pound and five-pound bags; an insecticide called Slug Shot, which we sold in one-pound packages; and coffee—always coffee.

Coffee deserves special mention. My father sold Chase & Sanborn’s coffees almost exclusively. We carried the premium Seal Brand, which even then came in tins, but our big seller was a Santos that we sold under the private brand of Angle’s Lunch Coffee. (Twenty-five cents a pound when I first remember it.) We received it in sixty-pound bags direct from Boston, ground it in our own mill, and packaged it in purple glazed-paper bags supplied by Chase & Sanborn. We also carried Mocha, Java, and Maleberry Java in the bean. Try to find any of the three in stores today.

Tea, too, was a bulk commodity. Although we stocked Lipton’s, Salada, and Chase & Sanborn’s Orange Pekoe in packages, most of the tea was hulled out of a row of big canisters which stood on a shelf behind the coffee mill. We had four: one each for young hyson, oolong, gunpowder, and spider-leg Japan. In comparison with coffee we sold little tea, so incoming shipments were infrequent. But they were exciting occasions. Tea was shipped then, and may be still, in big cubic containers of paper-lined lead foil. These were covered with straw matting, bound with split bamboo, and marked with Chinese and Japanese characters. Foreign foods were no novelty in our store—we had sardines from France, Portugal, and Norway; condiments and jams from England and Scotland; grapes and raisins from Spain; bulk olives from Italy—but here, in the great packages of tea, was the mysterious East. Nothing quite equalled them.

I am sure that the store’s volume, in coffee and tea, was insignificant by today’s standards, but fifty years ago it was large enough to deserve careful cultivation. Every Christmas brought a substantial gift from Chase & Sanborn: an inlaid tea caddy, a silver coffee service, a silver tray. These were cherished, not so much as possessions but as evidences of a relationship that somehow seemed to transcend the merely commercial.

Our own packaging of sugar, coffee, tea, and other commodities was prevailing trade practice. The grocery store of 1912 bore a far closer resemblance to the store of 1882, when my father first entered the business, than it did to the store of 1921, the last year of which I have direct knowledge.

In 1912 we still sold many kinds of food in bulk only. On the floor stood paper-lined bushel baskets containing navy beans, marrowfat beans, kidney beans, lima beans, dried peas, split peas, oatmeal, and rolled oats. (Oatmeal and rolled oats are not the same.) We had tubs of salt mackerel and kegs of sour, dill, and sweet pickles. Cheese came only in wheels or bricks and was not, thank God, processed. In the summer, if sales were slow, oil would begin to ooze from the last segment of a wheel of Herkimer. A day or two later maggots would appear, and simultaneously, through some kind of telepathy, our one customer who would buy cheese only when it had maggots in it. (I always wondered whether he ate maggots and all or picked them out first, but I am sure his cheese was unsurpassed in richness and pungency.)

There were times when selling bulk goods meant hard work. Vinegar, for instance. Because ours was a “quality” store we stocked vinegar in bottles—cider vinegar, tarragon, and white wine—but most of what we sold was drawn from a barrel into containers which our customers supplied.

Tapping the barrel took both skill and muscle. A full barrel weighed well over two hundred pounds. The first step in the procedure was to swing it up on end, pry out the wooden stopper, and drive in the spigot, making sure that it was turned off. Then we had to work the barrel onto a low cradle, with the spigot at the bottom of the front end and the bung at the top of the barrel.

Next mine the turn of an ingenious tool. The bung starter, made of hard wood, had a head something like the head of an axe and a narrow, (hit haft with just the right amount of spring to it. One hammered on the barrel around the bung, which gradually loosened. It was then wrapped in a piece of burlap and fitted lightly into the bunghole. The burlap was porous enough to admit the air that was needed before the vinegar would How from the spigot, and yet dense enough to keep out flies and insects—or most of them.

Incidentally, in my youth the bung starter was the barkeeper’s favorite weapon. Most whiskey was sold from barrels, so at least one was to be found behind every bar. Time after time, when the unmistakable sounds of riot came from the saloon next door, I have looked on the scene from the safety of the rear entrance—our store and the saloon shared a back porch—and watched one of the Wolf brothers in magnificent action, conquering the field with a bung starter. Hy the time the police arrived, only an ambulance was needed.

One other lively memory centers on the next-door saloon. The local breweries sold beer on credit, but every Monday morning each saloon had to pay its bill in lull. A collector saw to that. By long-standing custom, he bought one for the house when the bill was paid. Bin here the rules were strict: the “house” meant only the customers who were present when the collector came through the swinging doors. There were live saloons around the public square on which our store was situated, and every Monday morning some artlul maneuvering took place.

About ten o’clock a dozen barflies would emerge from Schmutxler’s and head tentatively lor the Park Saloon. Julius Weber, the collector for Kenner & Weber’s Brewery, would tag along behind with great deliberation. When three-fourths of the distance had been covered Mr. Weber would veer sharply to the right and head at top speed for Wolf brothers’. Instantly the pack would change course, but Mr. Weber usually won. And so did Mr. Bricker, the collector for Mansfield’s other brewery.

To return to the scoops and balance-weight scales and paper bags. … Selling bulk goods, as I have indicated, was trade practice, but with my father it was also the result of a strong conviction. Bulk goods, he believed—and with reason—were just as good as those that came already packaged, and always cheaper. Why make the customer pay an unnecessary premium?

Take Argo starch as an example. Kor many years he refused to handle it. 1 can still hear him say: “I have bulk starch just as good as Argo, and 1 can sell it at half the price.” In time we came to stock Premium soda crackers and LJneeda biscuits in packages, but he always preferred to sell the Premium crackers from the lins iii which they came and the Uneeda biscuits from their characteristic cottonwoocl boxes, (I wonder what he would think today of radishes and green onions in cellophane bags. I know what he would think—and I can almost hear him snort.)

By the time I was gently but firmly led to work, my lather had been in the grocery business for almost thirty years. In his own boyhood, the same persuasion that he exercised on me had taken him into his lather’s grocery store, and the result was a determination to escape from it at whatever cost. The price was apprenticeship as a carriage painter.

After four years he became a master painter, armed with a certificate ot competence and good character. (The document is one of my most cherished possessions.) Finding no work at his home in southern Pennsylvania, he started west, making his way, after a few months, to Mansfield, Ohio, where he had relatives. There he found work at his trade, but he was injudicious enough to fall in love with the daughter of a prominent grocer. He married the daughter, started to work in the store, and in 1882, when his father-in-law decided to go into the wholesale business, bought it.

His first an was characteristic. The store, A. W. Remy & Son, was well known. My father immediately took down the sign. While the removal was in progress Louis Freundlich, Mansfield’s leading clothing merchant, walked up.

“John,” he said, “you’re making a mistake. Remy’s is a well-known, respected name. Operate under it.”

“Mr. Freundlich,” my father replied, “maybe I’ll succeed and maybe 111 fail, but whatever I do, I’ll do under my own name.”

John Angle had just that kind of quiet courage. He was a prohibitionist by strong conviction. The saloon next door served a light lunch—not free, but costing no more than ten or fifteen cents. It consisted of sandwiches and soup. Although the soup was made in a wash boiler, it was good—bean soup, split pea, or vegetable. (My father always maintained that it was purposely overseasoned so that it would lead to another beer.) Most of the ingredients for the lunch came from our store.

One day a friend came in with one of the localoption petitions that the Mansfield diys regularly and vainly circulated. (Mansfield had a large German population, and the good burghers had no intention of giving up their schnapps and beer. They didn t, until compelled to by the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act. It is ironic that the first federal Prohibition commissioner should have been Honest John Cramer, a Mansfielder.)

“John,” my father’s friend said, “I don’t suppose you will want to sign this on account of the boys next door”—pointing to the saloon—“but I thought I’d give you a chance.” “Let me have it,” my father replied, and immediately affixed his fine bold signature. The Wolf brothers, be it recorded to their credit, continued to buy split peas and cabbage and tomatoes as if nothing had happened.

The Wolfs were only two of our rather incongruous customers. Three or four doors away stood Brunk’s tailor shop. There worked Mr. Mendlich—ten hours a day five days a week, and until nine at night on Saturdays. We could always count on Mr. Mendlich on Saturday night. His first stop, after work, was Wolf Brothers’, where he bought two bottles of beer. Next came Angle’s Grocery. Mr. Mendlich was an Austrian with a rudimentary knowledge of English.

“Da feesh,” he would say, and whoever was waiting on him would fetch a quarter-pound of dried herring, “blind robbins” in our parlance. “Brod,” “kase,” and two or three other standard items followed—the list never varied. Mr. Mendlich, obviously, was preparing for a Saturday night lunch, his one pleasure of the week. He was a very small man, no more than four and a half feet tall, and always neatly dressed in heavy, old-fashioned European woolens; he was always pleasant and deferential. Forty-five years ago I thought him funny. Today I look on him as an admirable citizen and a complete gentleman.

And there was Phoebe Wise. Phoebe was as much a part of Mansfield’s history as Johnny Appleseed, the Dowie Elders, and Senator John Sherman, and more romantic than any of them. She was a recluse who lived a short distance out of town and quite near the Ohio State Reformatory. The story was—whether true or not I never knew—that when Phoebe was a young woman she had a lover of whom her father disapproved violently. The young man could not call at the house, and had to see Phoebe surreptitiously. One night the reformatory siren wailed to announce the escape of a prisoner. Soon afterward there was a noise in the bushes near the Wise house. Phoebe’s father took his shotgun and fired in the direction of the sound. Later, when he investigated, he found the dead body of his daughter’s lover. Thereafter, Phoebe dressed only in the clothing she had assembled for a trousseau, and left the house only when need compelled her to.

One summer afternoon I stood in front of the store, disgustedly watching two country boys cut capers for the benefit of their girls. One had a bottle of evilsmelling medicine, which he insisted on poking under all noses. Phoebe Wise approached, dressed as always in her 1880 finery. “Hey, Phoebe!” the boy with the bottle called out. Phoebe, though slightly “touched,” had dignity, and everyone treated her with consideration. “Hey, Phoebe!” the boy repeated. “What does this smell like?” Phoebe sniffed the bottle gravely, and then commented with deliberation: “To me it smells just like horse-piss.” The boys and their girls retreated in red-faced confusion and Phoebe, unperturbed, made her purchases.

At the opposite end of the social and economic scale were two other customers, Mr. Leiter and Peter Scholl. Mr. Leiter was an aristocrat; at least he lived on Park Avenue, the fashionable street, and enjoyed an independent income. But the income was Mrs. Leiter’s, and she was not noted for her liberality. When she sent Mr. Leiter shopping, she gave him the exact change that he would need.

Now Mrs. Leiter was a vegetarian, and so, perforce, was her husband. Yet, in the store he always managed to sidle up to the meat slicer, eyes open for any nubbin of summer sausage or slice of boiled ham that might be lying there. He thought that he snitched these morsels and wolfed them without our knowledge. We pitied Mr. Leiter. Had we known when he was coming I think we would have been prepared with something more substantial than the usual scraps.

Peter Scholl was an aristocrat, but a real one. He owned the Independent Oil Company, a distributing firm; lived in one of Mansfield’s great Victorian houses; and was driven back and forth to work every day by a liveried coachman behind two of the finest bays I have ever seen. He was tall, portly, and florid, with waxed mustaches, and winter and summer he wore a Homburg and a Prince Albert coat. In appearance he resembled Bismarck, but not in manner. When he stopped at the store to buy French sardines packed in olive oil and vegetables—a delicacy that seems to have disappeared from American groceries—or greengage plums in heavy syrup, or peaches in brandy, he would deal only with my father, to whom he was as deferential as he would have been to Bismarck himself.

Peter Scholl knew, of course, that my father was his customer, although a very small one, but I wonder whether the owner of the Independent Oil Company ever knew the strength of John Angle’s loyalty. We had a kerosene tank from which we sold a few gallons a week. The kerosene came from Peter Scholl’s company. At intervals a Standard Oil salesman would try to get the business, small as it was. Whatever the inducement—a big discount, a new tank free—it was rejected with contempt.

I wish I could say that all the “carriage trade” customers were like Peter Scholl. A few were so insufferable that they aroused prejudices in me from which I have never escaped—prejudices which, in fact, I cherish. They were the ones who drove around in White Steamers, belonged to the country club, played golf, said “marasheeno” instead of “maraskeeno” and “tomahto” instead of “tomayto,” were alternately imperious and condescending with all of us at the store, and rarely paid their bills on time. I have never joined a country club, I gave up golf after one brief whirl, I say “maraskeeno” and “tomayto,” I treat clerks with courtesy, and I pay my bills promptly. … Page a psychiatrist.

In happy contrast were the Canarys. Tom Canary was a “white-wing”—he swept up the horse droppings from the streets around the square. His route took him past the store, and he frequently stopped to place an order. Whenever possible, I delivered it, because I found the sight of old Mrs. Canary smoking a corncob pipe endlessly fascinating. To this day, I have seen no other woman indulge in this pleasure.

Mrs. Canary smoked Five Brothers tobacco. I doubt that the brand is still on the market. And what, I wonder, has happened to some of our other steady sellers—Star Brand plug, Red Band and Mail Pouch scrap, fine-cut under any name, and Bull Durham and Duke’s Mixture? I say nothing of cigarettes: in Ohio the seller had to pay a stiff license fee, and the demand, before World War I, was too small to justify our handling them.

I look back, with mixed feelings, on another element of our business: the sale of Fourth of July fireworks. We stocked heavily: torpedoes, firecrackers, cannon crackers ranging in length from two to twelve inches, grasshoppers, Roman candles, sky rockets, pinwheels, fountains, and relatively harmless sparklers. Part of our stock was displayed in the front windows of the store and part on sidewalk tables. Since the clerks and my father were usually busy inside, I took care of the sidewalk.

There, for ten days, I would alternate between excitement and fear. To sell fireworks was fun, but to watch men paw through Roman candles with one hand while the other hand held a lighted cigar—that was not fun. Moreover, the mild admonitions of a twelveyear-old boy had little influence on adults. We escaped accident only through good luck.

This was the bad side of fireworks; the good side came out on Fourth of July night. Since my father was able to buy at cost, he always laid in for his family a more lavish assortment of fireworks than anyone else in the neighborhood. On the whole, it was his show. The children, un- der close surveillance, were allowed to wave sparklers, and the older ones were trusted with an occasional Roman candle, but it was my father who nailed the pinwheels to the fine hard maples that bordered the street in front of our house and fired the sky rockets from a specially constructed trough. The display was memorable, and no one was ever hurt.

The Fourth of July, in my boyhood, had only two rivals in the calendar of events. One was the annual grocers’ picnic. The great day approached at snail’s speed, but it never failed to arrive. At 7 A.M. the town’s grocers and clerks, their wives and families, with heavily laden picnic baskets, boarded a Baltimore & Ohio special train for Sandusky, fifty miles north on Lake Erie. By nine o’clock the train had reached its destination, and everyone ran up the gangplank of the old side-wheeler that plied between the city and Cedar Point, three miles across the bay.

Fifty years ago the Point was paradise. (It may still be.) For excitement it offered a huge roller coaster; for the “fast” set it provided a dance hall and wine rooms, where the very good wines of the Lake Erie islands could be bought by the glass; but for everyone from the land-locked city of Mansfield the great attraction was a marvelous beach sloping so gently that even small children could wade far out in safety. Here our family spent most of the day, the women dressed in middy blouses with long sleeves, baggy bloomers, and long black stockings; the men and boys almost as amply clothed. (I wonder where we changed. I don’t remember bathhouses.)

About dusk, and all too soon, came departure time. Once more the trip across the bay, then the boarding of the B&O special. Many of the picnickers, tired out because unaccustomed to sun and water and stuffed with the contents of the baskets, would curl up to sleep. They rarely succeeded. There were always some who had underestimated the strength of the island wines or overestimated their own capacities, so the return trip was at best noisy, and at worst marked by a few brawls. But these were incidents readily overlooked even by our abstinent family. Nothing could mar the pleasures of the grocers’ picnic. Even the weather was beneficent. I do not remember a rainy day.

The other great day was Christmas, which I suppose I looked forward to with especial zest because it was my birthday. But for the joys of Christmas I paid a price. There were two hundred Christmas trees to be boxed, and I was a helper, though not a willing one. My father had discovered years before my time that by nailing trees in boxes, which served as standards, he could get larger sales and higher prices. All year long he saved the fine white pine packing cases in which all canned goods were delivered. The trees would arrive about the time my Christmas vacation began, and from then until the twenty-fourth of December I would be busy with hammer and saw.

I was fatuous enough to think that I would escape this chore when I went to college. I didn’t. I sometimes suspect that boxing Christmas trees, like my experience with some of Mansfield’s elite, left me with a psychosis. Never since have I touched the simplest carpenter’s tools except under urgent necessity.

The Christmas-tree trade was my last experience with the grocery store. In fact, my days as a clerk ended with the summer of 1917, after I had finished my junior year in high school. For three months I worked full-time. I opened the store at 6 A.M. A few minutes later the truck gardener appeared, his wagon loaded with vegetables of a freshness rarely encountered today: green onions, green turnips, kohlrabi (who now knows kohlrabi?), radishes (especially the slender white icicles), carrots, leaf lettuce, green and wax beans that really snapped, peas in pods that crackled when opened—all pulled no later than the preceding afternoon. As the summer advanced, sweet corn came on the market—first the Early Evergreen, then the scraggly but delicious Golden Bantam with its big yellow kernels in four double rows and the wonderful Country Gentleman whose kernels didn’t grow in rows, and finally the large white Stowell’s Evergreen, lord of all the sweet corns. No hybrids these, but the true varieties, with a flavor and a succulence lost forever.

All summer there were berries: strawberries, blackberries, black raspberries, red raspberries, and huckleberries shipped from the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania, my father’s boyhood home. These were his special care. For hours each day he would stand at a counter, turning each quart from its original wooden box into a new one. In the process he would pick out any that were soft or mouldy. At the same time the larger ones managed to land on top, and somehow the thirty-two quarts of the standard crate became thirty-four quarts. In the winter, by similar necromancy, the contents of a container of bulk oysters expanded in the same proportion.

The vegetables, the berries, the tomatoes, the cantaloupe and watermelons, the peaches and pears and plums and early apples that appeared before the end of the summer, were offered for sale not inside the store but in front of it. The fruits were displayed in bushel baskets, berries and garden vegetables were ranged on long tables, and watermelons made a row near the curb.

In the winter the same outdoor tables held smoked sausage and fresh sausage in the gut—far superior to the stuff that comes in cloth bags—pudding meat, souse, and head cheese, all produced by local farmers. Spring saw the tables loaded with sassafras root and Richland County maple syrup, at least the equal of the more famous products from the Western Reserve and Vermont.

My working day, that summer of 1917, lasted from 6 A.M. until 6 P.M. Until 6 P.M. , that is, on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. On Monday, for some historic reason which no one remembered, we stayed open until 9 P.M. ; on Saturday until 11 P.M. My father, as reluctant a riser as I am, arrived at the store between 7:30 and 8 o’clock in the morning. Even in my time he had given up the Monday night stint—there was little business—but on Saturday night he stayed to shut up shop. This meant balancing the cash register, computing his personal grocery bill for the week, making a final inspection, and examining the fruits and berries to see whether there were any which could not be expected to survive until Monday. Those which looked doubtful he took home, and on Sunday afternoon my mother converted them into preserves or canned them.

Arriving home about midnight, my father embarked on a program that never varied. First, he bathed and shaved in preparation for church the following morning. Then he dressed, at least to the extent of trousers and undershirt. Next, he addressed himself to a snack. If oysters were in season, he would have half a pint raw, seasoned with vinegar and salt and pepper. For the rest of the year his preference was cove oysters (in cans) or his best sardines. Following the first course came half of one of the pies my mother had baked that morning, and then three or four cups of coffee. The food gone, he read the Saturday Evening Post until, in spite of the coffee, he found himself nodding. And so to bed. I doubt that the most ardent concertgoer, the most dedicated devotee of the theatre, ever found more pleasure in music or the stage than my father derived from his simple Saturday indulgences.

The pre-supermarket grocery store called for long hours and hard work. Ours, at least, yielded only a modest return. The peak of my father’s earnings came during and after World War I, when he netted, without charging anything for his own services, about $5,000 a year. In the 1920’s, chain-store competition began to hurt. Business dropped off, yet he managed, with the invaluable aid of my mother, who worked harder even than he did, to maintain a large house, feed the family well, and bring the last of eight children to maturity. When he sold the store in 1939, after fifty-seven years, it was no forced sale, but one dictated by an arthritic condition which made long hours on his feet impossible. And I am proud to say that all his bills were paid, and that he ended up with a small surplus.

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