By Enoch P. Young
(July 3, 1824 - January 11, 1910)
The Exeter News-Letter
An Old-Time Grocer - Part VII -
Editor, Exeter News-Letter. -- As a model country grocer of sixty-five years ago and less, I well remember "Uncle Elisha," so called by most of his acquaintances. The old building that contained his stock of goods was without inside finish, with the exception of one room, where was his bed, which later served also as a counter when he measured off his cloth goods. An old bureau or chest of drawers served as a depository for his cash, a substitute for safe and bank. Most of the silver change of those days was of Spanish coin, with the nine-penny, or twelve and a half cents, the four and a half penny or six and a quarter cents, American coins. These coins it was no uncommon thing for "Uncle Elisha" to hoard by the quart, and in paying it out his supply was such that he could make any fractional part of a cent available. It was told of him that once in paying for one of his vessels, he used a nail keg full of 6 1/4 and 12 1/2 cent silver pieces.
The boarding of "Uncle Elisha's" building, with the exception of the room mentioned, was in the rough, as the lumber came from the mill, with frame work exposed. In the part where he retailed his groceries, an old table was his counter, and on this he weighed or guessed at the quantity of most of his goods with the old scale-beams and weights, which looked more primitive even than their surroundings. But "Uncle Elisha" was honest to a fault, and he expected all others to be the same.
"Uncle Elisha's" vessels, which plied between Hampton and Boston, carried the products of the farmers of this section, returning freighted with grocers' goods and other supplies for his customers. These craft did much of the freighting both ways, previous to the advent of railroads. In the autumn they were kept busy transporting potatoes and other products of the farmers to Boston and a market, as Hampton was then a great producing town. Hayward's Gazetteer of 1840 states that Hampton had among its farm products, 10,972 bushels Indian corn, 55,485 bushels potatoes, 2,500 tons of hay, 1,835 pounds of wool, and previous to that yer there had been no other means of transportation than the small coasting vessels before described, and none of these were available after the winter's frosts had closed the rivers.
"Uncle Elisha" was extremely careful in providing for his winter trade, and an immense stock was snugly stowed away before cold weather. An old barn near his store, whose doors were never closed unless a severe storm compelled it, and an old shop without doors a few feet from his store, often contained hundreds of dollars worth of goods, no more protected from marauders than if they lay out in the open field. The losses "Uncle Elisha" suffered he never discovered or knew, but by his belief in mankind he was often -----ly imposed upon by professed fri----. His storehouses were never locked, and his only store door had neither latch nor lock. A rap on the outside and someone on the inside would answer the summons by removing a large wooden bar, then swing open the door and you could enter. No chairs for seating customers, but boxes and barrel heads were usually available. An old stove was sometimes placed in the storerooms and on a few of the coldest days in winter he tried to have a fire in it. If patience was one of your virtues, you must wait a while until the molasses got warm enough to run out, or you could leave with part of what you had paid for remaining in the measure. It might be here noted that the molasses of those days was as sweet as is that of to-day, and when "Uncle Elisha" would leave full hogsheads on the wharf or in the store yard over night, the boys soon found it out and had great fun licking it from a stick. Then, if ever, would "Uncle Elisha" scold, and the boys run. But "Uncle Elisha" was the children's friend. A gift of a stick of candy or a few peppermints to the children when sent on errands to the store by the folks at home, won their love and confidence.
How The Grocery Business Has Changed In Character
Sixty years ago nearly every grocer in Hampton sold intoxicating drinks in large quantities. Brandy pipes, gin casks, rum barrels, and an array of smaller casks were placed along one side of the store room, with no inclination to hide away. The smaller kegs were allowed to contain the more choice drinks intended for the "quality," such as could afford to ride in the "one horse shaw." West India and New England rums were among the leading drinks. Caldwell's and Old Medford, sold for twenty-five cents per gallon, and three cents per glass by the drink. No government licenses then. Barrels wer emptied every few days, and others were immediately put in their places, ready to do their part in bringing families to want and destitution, crowding the town with paupers, and the jails with criminals.
Then our town had nearly twenty of its inhabitants helped as paupers, at an annual expense of nearly one thousand dollars. Several of those here and there helped were in their younger life possessors of some of the great farms of the town, were industrious and prosperous, but by their appetite for intoxicating drinks they came to neglect home and business, and at their close of life filled a pauper's grave.
In those times, when visitors called at the house, it was common practice with many to place before the guest the decanter well filled with choice liquors, (The decanter then was among the ornamental pieces of the cupboard),with tumblers and sugar bowl upon the table, for the guests' entertainment. The guest was oftentimes the minister. The doctor was one of the privileged characters. At the grocery store he was allowed to help himself to his own choice of drinks. I remember seeing the then leading physician when in a store take a tumbler, help himself to liquor of his own choice,sugar it, and with spoon take his seat, then commence, sipping little, by little, with quite a while between sips, continuing till the glass was drained. I do not understand why he should be so long killing time, for the doctors' then, and now, were busy men, much on the move. Later I heard a noted rum drinker explain. He said he himself drank rum because he loved the taste more than he did the fiddle, and often wished his swallow was no larger than a horse hair, and as long as from Boar's Head to Cape Ann, that he might long enjoy the taste.
In ordering goods from the grocer, it was as common with some families to take a bottle or jug to get rum, as pail or jug to get molasses. Not uncommonly the order would be after this sort: Two quarts rum, plug tobacco, two cents worth snuff, two candles, (No kerosene then, tallow candles and tin lamps with fish oil were the principal lighting apparatus for both student and housewife) one pipe, twenty-five cents worth of flour, quarter pound tea, two quarts molasses, two nutmegs, paid for with a few quarts of shelled corn, beans, salt pork, hens' eggs, and other products of the farm as were at hand, and could be spared from the family larder, but mostly by the purchasers' credit. This credit was virtually a mortgage upon the purchaser's crops, which at harvest time, instead of going to his own barn and cellar, went direct to the grocer for supplies advanced the family. Money was then a luxury much out of the reach of many.
If one saved enough through the year to pay his taxes he was thought to be lucky. I knew a man of steady and industrious habits, but with a fairly large family and a fair farm, who made his practice for several years bidding off to board and care for several of the town's poor, (then the poor such as were paupers were at each annual town meeting set up at auction, to be cared for by the lowest bidder). One year he failed to get anyone, came home quite discouraged, and sat down and wept. He could not imagine how he should pay his taxes that year. Now no grocer sells intoxicating drinks as a beverage. The only good he sells requiring a jug is molasses, vinegar and kerosene. The loafers' roost has disappeared from the grocery.
E. P. YOUNG.
Editor, Exeter News-Letter. -- Your correspondent's reminiscences of old Hampton throw mine entirely in the shade. I wrote but little, and didn't go back so far. His sketches are very interesting, and I hope he will continue them.
The present generation in Hampton, evidently wide awake, are undoubtedly very glad to have some of us "old fellers," from 70 to 90 years of age, write up a little and tell them something about their ancestors. "One horse" towns in those days? Why, bless you, people were all just about like yourselves. They have souls. They cared as much for each other's temporal and spiritual welfare as you do; and they all wanted to get together occasionally and enjoy a jolly, good time.
Was the judge delving into Greek and Latin at the [Hampton] Academy, in the fifties, under Preceptor Norris? Yes, only his inspiration to "rite suthin'" came a little later than mine. A word more. Your correspondent's memory is so excellent in reference to the situation at Boar's Head, where, in the thirties [1830s], his father opened his hotel, that one might suppose he, (the judge) had certainly reached four-score years. But he hasn't Your humble servant is ahead of him, although he hasn't got there yet by half a dozen years.
J. M. S.