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A California Gold Rush Store Sold Everything in General
Old General Store
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.
Potions and Pills
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, 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.
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.
Early in the California Gold Rush a few smart 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 would often mark up prices for a very good profit. If you were living in Gold country you could count on prices being high. It was the perfect illustration of the supply and demand principle.
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. Food and other products were a little easier to get by the time Jenny owned the store, but most items still were shipped from long distances.
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.
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.
Miss Jenny, started working in the family business when she was a young teenager and was behind the counter of the Gagliardo Store in Hornitos for about 75 of its 100 years in business. She was in her 90's when she passed on in 1960.
She preserved some reminders of 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.
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.
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", this item might be hidden under the bed in the bedchamber. The elegant porcelain chamber pot in the Mariposa Museum is too pretty to be hidden, but apparently not terribly rare.
Several visitors have mentioned seeing one like it before, but 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 to ten year olds.
It is a good chance to remind the youngsters 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?
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 of a puzzle. Is it a "lifetime" warranty? And if it is, does it expire immediately before use? 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 candles provided, though candles continued to be used for their other aforementioned advantages.
Early automobiles used similar lamps, slightly larger, for headlights.
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.
The 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.
Cheese Cutter: and fingernail trimmer. Before cheese was packaged in difficult to open plastic bags it was possible to buy a wedge of Edam or Gouda or Colby sliced off of an enormous round and wrapped in plain brown paper and tied up with string.
No one worried that it had been breathed upon by other customers, but this was before germs were discovered. Or perhaps before people lost their immunity to cheese germs.
Slate Book: made of stiff sheets of cardboard covered with a mineral coating. 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: Shoes for the right and left foot 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 helped them to conform to actual foot shapes.
During the war between the states, the military was unable to provide enough shoes manufactured in the USA 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.)