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A California Gold Rush Store Sold Everything in General

Updated on October 11, 2016
Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle's interest in California history was rekindled when she began leading tours at a local museum in an 1850s Gold Rush town.

The General Store Was Usually the First Business in a Gold Rush Town

The Gagliardo General Store building still stands in the old mining town of Hornitos, California, but most of the original fixtures, shelves, counters and display cases - along with much old merchandise - has gone into an exhibit at the Mariposa Museum and History Center in the nearby town of Mariposa.

As one of the first places of business in a gold rush town, the general store was an old-fashioned version of Walmart. It sold just about everything IN GENERAL and almost everything imaginable, in the 1850s and later.

Old General Store

The Gagliardo Store building in Hornitos, CA.  Brick walls are 18 inches thick. Iron doors are for security and fire prevention.
The Gagliardo Store building in Hornitos, CA. Brick walls are 18 inches thick. Iron doors are for security and fire prevention. | Source

Everything you need . . . and almost everything you want.

General stores were not clothing stores, though you might buy shirts and hats and corsets there.

They were not grocery stores, though you could get, beans, cheese, coffee and even oysters in a tin. They weren't hardware stores, but you would find garden tools, carpentry tools and kitchen tools as well as wire, chains, kitchenware, lanterns and chamber pots.

They also sold eyeglasses, looking glasses, magnifying glasses, bear traps, barrel taps, hats and caps, hair restorers, apple corers, doorknobs, watch fobs, soap, rope, blue jeans, jelly beans, chair cushions, sewing notions, skin lotions, curative potions, shirt collars, horse collars and hair curlers.

Often, since it was often the only store in town, people knew exactly where to shop.

Potions and Pills

Photo by Linda Gast
Photo by Linda Gast

Just Be patient

In fact, if the store didn't have what you were looking for - and if you could wait a few weeks - the storekeeper could probably order it for you.

When you purchased items, perhaps with a pinch of gold, no one asked if you wanted paper or plastic. People brought their own shopping baskets, or else had their purchase wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string, even if it wasn't one of their favorite things.

Wrapping paper and string dispenser. Photo by Linda Gast.
Wrapping paper and string dispenser. Photo by Linda Gast.

Early in the California Gold Rush a few people figured out that selling supplies, provisions and tools to the argonauts could be very profitable, as well as being easier than trying to find gold in other ways.

Shipping charges on most wares were high, but merchants often marked up prices for a very good profit.

Miss Jenny Gagliardo, who took over running of her family's business in Hornitos in 1920, seemed to have a different philosophy.

She kept meticulous records, but was likely to forgive an overdue payment when people really needed a little help in paying for groceries.

 Miss Jenny lived next door to her store and was there each day. Photo by Linda Gast
Miss Jenny lived next door to her store and was there each day. Photo by Linda Gast

Running a general store was hard work, but at least it didn't require freezing your extremities in a rushing creek fed by frigid snow melt.

Chipping away rocks in a dark damp tunnel was also fatiguing and dangerous work where a man could get crushed by a cave-in or blown up by dynamite. All things considered, shop-keeping was a relatively easy and smart way to make a living and stay alive.

Miss Jenny, who was in her 90's when she passed on in 1960, was behind the counters of the Gagliardo Store in Hornitos for about 75 of its 100 years in business.

She preserved some of the the past, probably inadvertently, by shoving unsold merchandise to the back shelves of the store and refusing to sell the old stuff -- even to collectors who inquired.

Honest and reasonable merchants could make a good living by providing necessities. They were able to acquire their gold dust in a way which didn't involve squatting in an ice cold creek for hours, while moving hundreds of pounds of wet gravel and sand in hope of finding a tiny flake of gold.

Photo by Linda Gast
Photo by Linda Gast
show route and directions
A markerMariposa, CA -
Mariposa, CA 95338, USA
get directions

B markerHornitos, CA -
Hornitos, CA 95325, USA
get directions

The Museum exhibit includes unique merchandise:

Candle mold.. Some say that Irish miners figured out how to tune it in such a way that it was possible to play a melancholy rendition of Danny Boy by blowing in the pipes. (Okay, that's a lie, even though it looks almost plausible.) Most people used it for candle making, six at a time.

Candle holder.. When is a candle holder more than a candle holder? Underground in tunnels, the miner's candlestick could be jammed between timbers, wedged into rocky crevices, hung on a ledge, or set on a flat surface.

The candles gave light, but they were also a time telling device. Miners would not take an expensive pocket watch into the mine tunnels where it might get damaged by gritty dust. A candle burned at a relatively even rate and indicated the passage of time by the remaining height of the burning taper.

When the candle burned down to a certain level it was time to stop for lunch, and time to replace the candle. It also was in an indicator or air quality, since candle flames (and miners) tend to fade with a lack of oxygen.

Room for five mice.

This is similar to the museum mouse trap-- but it has room for five.
This is similar to the museum mouse trap-- but it has room for five.

Rat and mouse traps.. People did not want mice or rats in their houses and barns, but there were were no rat traps in the mines.

Would you want to spend your work day with a bunch of rats? Maybe you already do? The Miners did, and even brought extra bits of bread cheese or sausage to share with the sneaky rodents at lunch break.

The sensitive tiny toes and whiskers of rats could detect the slightest tremor, of impending earthquake or cave-in. When the rats made a bee-line for the exit, miners were close behind.

The four customer mouse trap ... This model has room for a mouse family of four and though it might trap the tiny rodents, it does not look particularly lethal. Perhaps it was a "catch and release" model. In any case it's sort of hard to imagine that a fourth mouse, after seeing all the tails and mouse behinds protruding from three sides of the device, would decide to stick his head in the fourth hole.

The "thunder pot"

Also called a "chamber pot", might be hidden under the bed in the bedchamber. The elegant porcelain chamber pot in our museum is too pretty to be hidden, but apparently not terribly rare.

Several people have mentioned seeing one like it before. Our museum guides are usually too polite to inquire about the extent of anyone's familiarity with the item.

Children find this pot particularly fascinating when the real meaning of "no indoor plumbing" dawns on them. Bathroom humor has great appeal for ten year olds.

It is a good chance to remind the kids that taking out the trash is not such a terrible chore. A hundred years ago they would have been taking out the chamber pot.

The fruit and leaf motif on the top has not been unequivocally identified. The leaves look like grape leaves, but the fruit??? A fig? an under ripe gourd? An exotic or extinct pear? A prune? We are still waiting to hear.

Travel bloomers have a secret.
Travel bloomers have a secret.

Travel bloomers ... Convenient ladies undergarment with a central opening designed for necessary comfort stops on the trail, were devised with modestly in mind and to circumvent the need for undressing.

If there were no convenient trees and bushes, voluminous long skirts and petticoats provided a tent of privacy.

Casket liner with a full warranty ... This is something we have never quite figured out. Is it a "lifetime" warranty? And if it is, does it expire immediately? Did anyone ever check on how the liner was holding up? Did they get any endorsements from satisfied customers?

Silk stockings... Brightly colored silk hose were probably not worn by respectable ladies. However, with the long skirts and petticoats, who would know? Was this the original " Victorian's Secret"?

Carbide lamps-- Add a little water to the carbide powder in a lamp attached to a miner's cap, and it produces acetylene gas.

A very small flame, backed by a polished reflector gave a brighter light than the candles provided, though candles continued to be used for their other aforementioned advantages.

Early automobiles used similar lamps, slightly larger, for headlights.

photo by Linda Gast.
photo by Linda Gast. | Source

Prince Albert is in the can- Many brands and several forms of tobacco were stocked by the store.

Most of it was in dried "plugs" or twists that could be chewed -- though it could also be chopped finely and smoked in a pipe.

Our impressive red coffee grinder with the curved spokes on the wheel, and its elegant decals has a great deal more charm than those found in today's supermarket which are operated by the touch of a button.

Turning the crank to operate the grinding mechanism provides the operator with a much more interactive and elemental experience with the aromatic beans.

Things in bulk bins.

Photo by Linda Gast
Photo by Linda Gast

Cheese cutter-- and fingernail trimmer. Before cheese was packaged in impossible to open, yet resealable plastic bags it was possible to buy a wedge of edam or gouda or colby sliced off on enormous round and wrapped in plain brown paper wrapped with string.

No one worried that it had been breathed upon by other customers, but this was before most germs were invented. Or perhaps before people lost their immunity to cheese germs.

Slate Book--
made of stiff sheets of cardboard covered with a mineralized surface. The pages could be marked with letters, math lessons, and other schoolwork to be checked by the teacher. It was then erased and used many times, saving tons of paper.

Straight -Last Shoes-- Right and left foot shoes were identical in shape in the U.S. before 1860. They needed to be "broken in" by by marking one shoe and making sure that it was always placed on the same foot.

Continually wearing them, perhaps walking through the creek now and then, helped them to gradually become more comfortable and conform to actual foot shapes.

During the war between the states, the military was unable to provide enough U.S. made footwear for the troops. Boots were imported from places like England and France where they were doing an interesting thing-- making designated right and left shoes.

No one wanted to go back to the old style after trying the comfy foreign footwear.

Much of the unsold merchandise saved by Miss Jenny, and donated to the museum, dates back to the early 1900s and earlier. Some of it seems to show that the people of Hornitos suddenly came to their senses and stopped buying corsets and stiff shirt collars. Lots of these particular items were left unsold.

( "Silly Person's Guide to a Gold Rush Museum" will tell you more about the museum. Click the blue sentence.)


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    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 8 years ago from North America

      I thoroughly enjoyed this Hub and did not know about the straight shoes. Now we know what "breaking in shoes" really means.

      Great photos for this text as well! Thanks so much.

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 8 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thank you , Patty. Those straight last shoes don't look very comfortable. Also thanks for the plug in the forum.

    • Melody Lagrimas profile image

      Melody Lagrimas 8 years ago from Philippines

      Very interesting...Thanks for this enjoyable hub.

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 8 years ago from California Gold Country

      The museum where I volunteer is an amazing place- each and every humble item seems to have a personal story. Thanks, Melody.

    • johnb0127 profile image

      johnb0127 8 years ago from TX

      This seems like an interesting store! I want to visit there now! Thanks for the insight

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 8 years ago from California Gold Country

      The whole museum is intteresting, this is just a part of it.

    • LondonGirl profile image

      LondonGirl 8 years ago from London

      This article is amazing - absolutely fascinating, thank you! Are you going to do more about other parts of the museum, too?

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 8 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thank you, LondonGirl. I have done a couple, already. There 's one called something like "A Silly Person's Guide Guide to a Gold Rush Museum". I also have one inspired by the patent medicines  of the Gold Rush era, and one about the Chinese Walls. If you search my profile with  "gold rush" you will probably find them. 

      I am thinking of doing others, thanks for asking.

    • LondonGirl profile image

      LondonGirl 8 years ago from London

      thanks, off to look now

    • debris profile image

      debris 8 years ago from Florida


      Wow is all I have to say to this hub. I'm a relatively young person and adore history, and the "simpler" times of society. I really enjoyed reading about the way things used to be. Thank you for this little gem. I have bookmarked it so that I might be able to look back and read it again!


    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 8 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thanks, so much Debris, from someone who is relatively old. (Older tha most of my relatives.)

    • Zollstock profile image

      Zollstock 8 years ago from Germany originally, now loving the Pacific NW

      What fascinating tidbits of history! My grandfather used a chamber pot when I was growing up (on the other side of the Atlantic) – although I was riveted, I knew to stay away from that outdated household item. And has anyone told you lately that you have a delightful sense of humor?

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 8 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thank you for looking in, Zollstock. ( Don't look in the pot.)

    • kiwi91 profile image

      kiwi91 7 years ago from USA

      This is really interesting! There are still a few of these types of stores scattered across Wyoming and Utah, but they don't have quite the selection you've described here. It's fun to see some things haven't changed entirely.

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 7 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thanks, Kiwi. Actually they have changed, but at least they are preserved for us to get a glimpse of the past, in places like this.

    • profile image

      johnmossy 7 years ago from IRELAND

      Very interesting.

      In those days the wealthy people kept the chamberpot in a bedside cabinet that matched the other furniture.

      I have an endless store of useless information.

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 7 years ago from California Gold Country

      Yes, some of those commode cabinets were very attractive. I have seen one that looks like a Victorian style stool with large leather-bound books sitting on it. The "books" were a hinged lid which hid the chamber pot compartment.

    • WildEyes profile image

      WildEyes 7 years ago

      Ah, Rochelle. Thank you so much for this stroll down memory lane. :)

      What a happening little place it must have been, and to be able to carry so much stock in such an isolated place!! Traffic way back when wasn't like what we know now, so it likely took those snazzy stockings months to travel from the factory to the shelf.

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 7 years ago from California Gold Country

      You are exactly right, Wild eyed one. The people who did find gold-- and were patient, had access to an amazing amount of stuff. They did have to pay a price, which probably make them more awesome among their peers.

      The freight wagons carried everyday necessities as well as the luxuries, but their heaviest cargo was cast iron replacement parts and 'stamps' for the ore crushing mills.

      Hope you will read my hub about Gold Rush Medicines (Dose of Deception).

      I appreciate your comment.

    • oliversmum profile image

      oliversmum 7 years ago from australia

      Rochelle Frank. Hi. What an incredible story of times gone by. How hard these folks had to work, and under what conditions that work was carried out. The store holders seem to have had a lot of compassion and went out of their way to get what their customers asked for. The photos are beautiful.I am going to read this story again soon, It is just to wonderful to read once. Thank you. :) :)

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 7 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thanks oliversmum.

      I was at the museum this morning giving a tour of these things. It was the first time in quite awhile-- but everything was pretty much the same. I have another hub on "a silly person's guide to a gold rush museum" that has a little more in a similar vein.

      Thanks for your kind and enthusiastic comment. I love it.

    • profile image

      lila hastings 7 years ago

      just kidding

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 7 years ago from California Gold Country

      About what? Did I miss something?

    • Wayne Brown profile image

      Wayne Brown 7 years ago from Texas

      Thanks Rochelle...this was very interesting, well-written, and I learned a lot too! WB

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 7 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thank you Wayne Brown-- I appreciate your kind comments.

    • john000 profile image

      John R Wilsdon 6 years ago from Superior, Arizona

      It was such a joy to read this hub! I am an amateur prospector and have visited Sutter Creek, Mariposa, Columbia, and you get the idea. To look at the gold rush through the eyes of a general store owner (more or less) was a great idea. Great hub!

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 6 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thank you, john000. I have a few more hubs on the theme. Glad you enjoyed it.

    • Certified Gold profile image

      Certified Gold 5 years ago

      Very nice store! Nice Pictures! Thanks for sharing your hub with us Rochelle! Have a Nice Day!

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 5 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thanks, CG. Glad you liked it.

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 4 years ago from Arizona

      I love little towns with general stores. It is like going back in history. However many are updated with high prices etc. thanks for the photos and sharing.

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 4 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thanks for the comment, carol7777. The stores can be a good reflection of what life was like in past years. These days, I think we sometimes have too many choices.

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