Novelties and fancy goods

Novelties and fancy goods were the types of attractive goods that may bring in more customers and entice loyal customers to spend a few more cents.  Inexpensive jewelry, hair combs, hand fans, watch fobs, pipes, handkerchiefs, small purses, small toys and backgammon boards, and other items related to personal adornment and household decoration,  were objects that delighted one’s fancy, little luxuries that were affordable to the many than for the wealthy few.

Country or general store owners kept current in the business of retail. Traveling salesmen brought to the store door the latest in goods and advertising and display methods, while customers brought mail order catalogues with images and descriptions of the latest styles and newest things. We fall into the “nostalgia trap” when we consider a museum’s general store a step back into a distant past that separated the city from the country, the sophisticated from the rustic, and the newfangled from the old-fashioned.


Carson Pirie Scott, Illustrated Catalogue of Staple and Fancy Notions, likely 1893

According to trade journals such as the Dry Goods Reporter and the Dry Goods Economist, women were the targets of the “up-to-date novelty section” in any country store. One retailer wrote in 1915, “Women may be tempted to buy in this line easier than in any other, partly because the amount involved is small, and partly because she simply cannot resist the pretty new novelties.”

The same retailer offered more of the gender-stereotypical advice for a successful trade in fancy goods:

A good plan, and one which is in use in many country stores I have observed, is to give the fancy goods section to one of the sales girls who is held responsible for the condition of the stock. … The class of merchandise is one they usually adore, and their enthusiasm is transmitted to the customer.

Located at the “front position” of the store, a “good, bright” novelty section in an attractive glass display case will entice women, who “love the little accessories that go to complete her toilette…. Even in the very small towns, the sales of novelty collars, bags, pins, combs, belts, ties, etc., may be built up and put on a profitable basis.”

In some ways, the country store owner would only win by adopting a novelty line. In the cities, where styles could trend quickly with the rapid pace of shoppers, the country store’s “class of trade” only came “to town about once and month, and it is usually not difficult to interest them in a practical dress accessory novelty.”

All quotations from “Novelties in a Country Store,” Dry Goods Reporter 46:35 (August 28, 1915): 61.


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