Guest post by Melissa Barker opens the world of our ancestors in a unique way. Learn about the life of Great, great-granddad in mercantile records for genealogy!
The Mercantile, or sometimes called The General Store, is where many of our ancestors shopped. There would have been so much to see in these kinds of stores. The penny candy on display in the candy jars, a barrel of crackers, a wheel of cheese, and of course the caskets. Yes, I said caskets!
Today, when we walk into the mall or our favorite grocery store, we will most likely not see caskets for sale. But in the local mercantile of the 1700’s-1900’s, it was common to see caskets on display and for sale. It was also common for the mercantile to be the local undertaker or funeral director that handled the funerals for the local residents.
Until the advent of the superstore, the mall or any larger retail store, there were the Mom and Pop stores in almost every community. These stores carried everything a person could ever need for their daily lives. These stores prided themselves on the variety of products they stocked on their shelves. A lot of them kept very good records as they conducted their daily business. The store owner would keep up with these business transactions with simple ledger books. Ledgers recorded what was charged by patrons and what was still owed to the mercantile. To the genealogy researcher, these ledgers can be a gold mine of information about their ancestors.
Dress Your Dead in the Finest
Records for the local mercantile could list anything purchased at the store, including those items associated with death. There could be invoices or receipts that specifically list fees for embalming the deceased, the purchase of a casket, clothes to dress the deceased, etc. [Can’t find a death record for a family member? This would make a very interesting alternative record!]
Right along with the records for caskets can also be a listing of grocery items bought for the family. Information that can be found in these ledgers is varied but most of the time, it will include the shopper’s name, what they bought, how much each item cost, and the date it was purchased. Then, there would be a running tab with a total. As the shopper paid their bill, which would be marked in the ledger as well, the amount and the date it was paid would be recorded. Just this small amount of information can tell you a lot about your ancestor’s daily life.
Finding Mercantile Records for Genealogy
This is why researching the local businesses where our ancestors lived, especially the local mercantile or general store, is important. Local businesses generated store ledgers, piles of receipts, accounts payable records, and even a record of who bought a casket for their dearly departed. These types of records could be in an archive, historical society, genealogical society, library, university archive or local museum. Remember, these unusual record sets may not be easily found by the novice researcher and you may have to ask the archivist what kinds of mercantile or store records are available.
When trying to locate these types of records, you will usually find them in the Manuscript Collection or the Special Collections part of the archive. For instance, in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives, we have a collection of mercantile records entitled Parker & Richardson Merchandise Store Records. This collection includes various receipts, invoices, customer correspondence, and ledger books detailing the customer’s accounts for those that shopped in this particular mercantile.
Adding mercantile or general store records to your research list is a great idea. Sometimes, just knowing the birth, marriage, and death dates of our ancestors isn’t enough. Seeking out records and information about their daily lives adds so much more to our ancestor’s life story. Wouldn’t you agree? Leave us a comment below and let us know what wonderful archive finds you have made!
Remember: It’s Not All Online, Contact or Visit an Archive Today!
Melissa Barker is a Certified Archives Records Manager currently working as the Houston County, Tennessee Archivist. She is also a Professional Genealogist lecturing, teaching and writing about the genealogy research process, researching in archives, and records preservation. Melissa conducts virtual webinar presentations all across the United States for genealogical and historical societies. She writes a popular blog entitled A Genealogist in the Archives and is the Reviews Editor for the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) magazine FORUM. She writes a bi-weekly advice column entitled The Archive Lady that can be viewed at www.GeneaBloggers.com. She writes a bi-weekly column for her local newspaper The Stewart-Houston Times on the history of Houston County, TN. She has been researching her own family history for the past 27 years. You can contact Melissa Barker by email: melissabarker20@hotmail