Barrel, Box, and Cracker

The cracker barrel is a standard feature of many a museum’s general store exhibition. Before the rise of commercial and sanitary packaging of crackers in the early twentieth century, the barrel’s technical function was to hold and ship crackers. Yet it is the cracker barrel’s social function as a gathering place within the store-scape that is highlighted in historical interpretation: the collected “cracker-barrel wisdom” of men engaged in political debate or local gossip, the sort of democratic engagement central to American public culture.

On the other hand, the open barrel invited free snacking by unscrupulous clerks and mischievous children, even as the proprietor was carving from a massive cheese wheel the cracker’s accompaniment. As the cracker barrel was being replaced by smaller tins and cardboard containers with sanitary liners in the early twentieth century, nostalgic stories of the cracker barrel (and the general store) only increased in number in the nation’s newspapers and magazines.

We know a lot about the crackers that filled these barrels. Food historians have written aplenty about the history of crackers in the United States. Flour-and-water hardtack, round Vermont crackers intended to be split open, and machine-produced soda crackers: all found their way into barrels.

So, what about the barrels?

The history of modern industrialization and commerce cannot be written without a consideration of barrels. Yet as one of the first historians of barrel-making (cooperage) observed in 1940, “Probably no single phase of industrial development has been less publicized than the development of the cooperage industry in the United States.”*

Barrels were (and are) efficient vessels for transporting goods from water and rum, soap and shoes, to nails and wire. (And let’s not forget crackers!) Constructed of wood staves bound by wood or metal hoops, a barrel is essentially double-arched, which means that when rolled on its side, only its widest part (the bilge) meets the ground; when upright, it can be rolled on its edge.

Wood was plenty, and with the creation of a national transportation system of waterways and railroads, the nation’s coopers were kept busy. They made two types of barrels: tight, for holding liquids, and slack, for solids.

Slack barrels held crackers, which storekeepers would scoop out and sell by weight. Barrels held about 1,200 crackers, not including the crumbs that would inevitably be made through transport.


Uneeda cracker tin, 1920s, MSU Museum

The problem with open barrels, however, was that they invited flies and vermin, unsanitary hands, and the like. The crackers at the bottom of the barrel were likely broken, wet or moldy or somehow spoiled, and dirty.  The beginning of the end of the cracker barrel began in 1898, when the National Biscuit Company was created thro

ugh mergers of companies which together comprised around 70 percent of the nation’s cracker industry. For a new brand, Uneeda Biscuits, the company in 1899 used new technology to wrap crackers in a moisture-proof “In-Er-Seal” surrounded by an attractive cardboard package or tin. Not a few consumers distrusted a package which did not reveal its contents, but by the 1910s the company’s advertising campaigns had won over doubters.


Thomas Herbert Russell observed in 1910 that

Advertising has sent the old cracker-barrel of boyhood memory into the limbo of the Past along with the old vinegar barrel and the old molasses barrel. When the store cat didn’t sleep in it at night the mice found it a cozy place in which to build their nests. Along came the National Biscuit Company in 1897 with its “Inerseal” dust-proof package, keeping the crackers clean and fresh and crisp, working a world-wide revolution in the cracker business.***

What that meant, of course, is that the cracker barrel was quickly becoming a memory.


*Franklin E. Coyne, The Development of the Cooperage Industry in the United States, 1620-1940 (Chicago: Kumber Buyers Publishing Company, 1940), p. 13.

**Thomas Herbert Russell, “What Advertising Has Done: Passing of the Cracker Barrel,” Advertising Methods and Mediums (Chicago: Washington Institute, 1910), pp. 282-83.


The McCaskey Account Register

Alindexthough it is currently partially obscured by a high display case on the main counter, the McCaskey Account Register in the MSU Museum’s general store usually receives attention by adult visitors. The register sits next to the cash register (to be a topic of another post), and the placement of these two objects encourages comparison and contrast. This register is part of the original furnishings given in 1963 to the Museum by the Rykala family from their general store in East Lake, Michigan.

These two registers tell the story of retail accounting in establishments such as general stores and, at the turn of the twentieth century, grocery stores.  Department stores, mail order concerns, and automobile dealers were increasingly offer credit and installment paying, while grocery stores were shifting from customer credit accounts (the McCaskey Account Register) to cash and carry (the cash register).


The editor of Trade: A Journal for Retail Merchants noted in September 1910, that

there are a whole lot of merchants who hesitate about changing from a credit to a cash basis and even after they have persuaded themselves that a reform of this kind is advisable, defer putting the plan into effect for fear everything will not work out as they desire and they will lose some patronage as a result.*

Perhaps it was also the case that the two systems—credit and cash—could co-exist nicely for general stores such as the one the Rykala family owned and operated.


Credit Slip depicted in Credit Accounting Appliance patent, July 9, 1907

The Register is composed of twelve sheet-metal “leaves,” each hinged so that an individual “leaf” may be viewed. Each “leaf” contains ten wire spring-clips on each side. Each clip held credit receipts (also produced by the McCaskey Register Company). The “leaves” are housed in an oak case, the base of which has three bins, perhaps to hold past credit receipts and/or receipt blanks.  In a 1910 patent infringement case instituted by the company, the presiding judge found that “such apparatus is simply a loose-leaf notebook set up in a cabinet,” and that is a terrific way of explaining the shift from previous pencil-and-ledger-book accounting systems.  Much like we term what we see on our computer screens a “webpage,” borrowing from the paper sheets and book leaves we also use, the judge in this case understood how one mental system of accounting was being transferred from one material form to another.

Invented by a former grocer, Perry A. McCaskey (1867-1945), of Lisbon, Ohio, the McCaskey Account Register received various patents from October 10, 1899, to May 14, 1907, making the earliest date of this object 1907. In 1903, McCaskey established the McCaskey Register Company in a former blacksmith shop in Alliance, Ohio. Although McCaskey left the company in 1908 to pursue other interests, the company continued to make accounting systems and credit registers until it was purchased in 1953 by the Victor Adding Machine Company. The company had expanded to Canada in 1908 and England in 1920, while a printing plant in Waltham, Massachusetts, supplied the printed materials for the “McCaskey ‘One Writing’ Cash Register” system. The immediate scarcity of metal during World War II and long-term competition from companies such as the National Cash Register Company contributed to this sale and the end of the McCaskey product line.

*Trade: A Journal for Retail Merchants 17:37 (September 14, 1910), p. 4. This journal was published in Detroit, Michigan.

Links to Pertinent McCaskey Patents (PDF files):

Bill and Account File, May 19, 1896

Credit Accounting Appliance, December 10, 1902

Credit Accounting Appliance, July 9, 1907

Credit Accounting Appliance, October 15, 1907


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.

Shop windows


Creating desire and a lifetime of consumption.

Today the term is “visual merchandising.”

Historians date the first intentionally built and “trimmed” or “dressed” shop windows to eighteenth-century London. The art and science of window dressing was established as an integral part of American retailing in the 1880s.

Beginning in the 1850s, department stores in American cities “grew up”—that is, the buildings in which these stores rose ever higher above the street. Street-level plate glass windows allowed shop owners and department store managers alike to appeal to passersby through attractive displays of goods. Gas—and later electric—lighting extended daytime past sunset, allowing for more potential customers to “window shop.”

Publications about window dressing began to appear in the United States in the 1880s.  L. Frank Baum–yes, the author of The Wizard of Oz–was fortuitously situated in turn-of-the-century Chicago to promote and chronicle the growth of this form of retail advertising. In 1900, the same year he published the first of his Oz books, he published The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows and Interiors. Baum had been the editor of The Show Window: A Journal of Practical Window Trimming for the Merchant and the Professional for three years, and had established the National Association of Window Trimmers of America. Relying on his background in theater and in sales, and perhaps on his failure in his own retail enterprise, Baum’s Bazaar, in Aberdeen, South Dakota, in 1888-1889, Baum understood that spectacle  sells.

But how did this new form of retail advertising affect country stores?  Saturday Evening Post writer Forrest Crissey observed in May 1915:

As a rule, window dressing, as seen in the country store, is a sad and depressing performance; there is large room for expansion along this line in even the most up-to-date country stores, and the skill the storekeeper acquires in this art has no mean relation to the profits of the establishment.*

Photographic evidence shows a tendency, in both city and country, to “mass” goods in windows (whether plate or pane glass), between 1880 and 1920. Not only were these displays of one type or families of goods, they symbolized in their numbers both popularity and abundance. Such a window display also signaled the shopkeeper’s ability to supply all customers’ needs.


The windows of M. P. Cady’s general store in Beaverton, Oregon, show stacked packages, circa 1910.

Yet the window should not be merely a stack of goods to the top edge of the window. This advice from the March 21, 1908, number of The American Stationer emphasized artistic order.

The emphasis of goods by massing, or by contrasting may well be studied, and this emphasis can be developed by the tyro in window decoration. In massing, make your display all of one class of goods, all papeteries, all pencils, or all something else; or, to vary it, make the display of related articles, like pens and ink, pencils and erasers, or other goods which are similarly related. Make the display as artistic as you can by arranging the goods in the window to represent harmonies.**

The MSU Museum’s general store has three windows awaiting more attention to the types of displays consumers would have seen between 1880 and 1930.

*Forrest Crissey, “Secrets of the Chain Store: Lessons in Efficiency for the Small Retailers,” Saturday Evening Post 187:7 (May 15, 1915): 16-17.

**”The Window,” The American Stationer 63 (March 21, 1908): 21.

Further Reading:

Bauer, Alfred Gay. The Art of Window Dressing for Grocers. Chicago: Sprague, Warner & Company, 1902.

Fischer, Albert T. Window and Store Display: A Handbook for Advertisers. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1921.

Iarocci, Louisa. ed. Visual Merchandising: The Image of Selling. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2013.

Mason, Harry Beckwith. Window Displays for Druggists. Detroit: E. G. Swift, 1908.

Picken, James Hamilton. Principles of Window Display. Chicago: Shaw, 1927.

Reading, Amy. “The Lady Vanishes.” The Appendix 1:2 (April 2013).

Rogers, Lewis A. The Art of Decorating Show Windows and Displaying Merchandise. Chicago: Merchants Record Company, 1924.

Taft, William Nelson. The Handbook of Window Display. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1926.

Soothing syrups

20160610_113609Front and center on the main counter in the Michigan State University Museum’s general store installation is an upright wood and glass display case containing patent medicines. (Today, we call these “over-the-counter” medicines.)

Patent medicines weren’t patented.

The term patent medicine is derived from the English monarch’s practice of issuing a royal warrant, or patent, to reserve manufacturing rights to the patent holder as the “true and first inventor” of a new product or process.

The patent system requires that patent applicants reveal, in the case of medicine, ingredients and formulas, and this no competitor in the lucrative proprietary medicine trade would do. Anyone could bottle the same mixture and not be sued for patent infringement, but anyone could be sued if they copied a competitor’s packaging design. It was much more lucrative to register a trademark which, unlike patents, did not expire. Advertising—and lots of it—persuaded Americans to dose themselves with vegetable compounds containing alcohol, cocaine, morphine, and opium.

Mrs Winslow

Trade card, Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, 1880s. Collections of the MSU Museum.

The sale and use of patent medicines peaked in the 1880s and 1890s in the United States, abetted by industrialized production, national transportation routes, the increase in newspapers and magazines and the advertising these media sought to fund publication. Trade cards carried the news of these “cures” in general stores.

It has been fascinating to read the ingredient list and claims on the various bottles and containers of the patent medicines on display in the MSU Museum’s general store. Oftentimes, however, such lists were not included on boxes, bottles, and instruction sheets. Take, for example, Mrs. Winslow’s Syrup, a Stomach and Bowel Regulator for Infants and Children. Each bottle contained ¾ grain of morphine and a measure of alcohol—no wonder its makers, druggists Jeremiah Curtis and Benjamin A. Perkins of Bangor, Maine, claimed it could cure teething pain and other ills of infants! The Syrup also contained fennel, anise, caraway, and a simple sugar syrup.


Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, Collections of the MSU Museum

Sources disagree on the date Mrs. Winslow’s Syrup was introduced: some say 1830, others say 1845. Like many patent medicines, the story of the Syrup’s origins gave the “medicine” an aura of reliable safety. Jeremiah Curtis’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Charlotte N. Winslow, supposedly created the “remedy” and used it successfully with the children she nursed.

By the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, Mrs. Winslow’s Syrup and many other patent medicines were under attack by the medical profession and temperance advocates. In 1911, the American Medical Association denounced the Syrup. It was sold—without the alcohol and morphine—until 1930.

Food and medicine safety is a constant concern. Should it be part of this exhibition’s interpretation?

Further Reading:
Bingham, A. Walker. The Snake-oil Syndrome: Patent Medicine Advertising. Hanover, MA:Christopher Publishing House, 1994.

Cook, James Graham. Remedies and Rackets: The Truth about Patent Medicines Today. New York: Arno Press, 1976.

Hagley Museum and Library. Patent Medicine. Accessed 12 June 2016.

Hechtlinger, Adelaide. The Great Patent Medicine Era; or, Without Benefit of Doctor. New York: Galahad Books, 1974.

Hiss, A. Emil. Thesaurus of Proprietary Preparations and Pharmaceutical Specialties: Including “Patent” Medicines, Proprietary Pharmaceuticals, Open-Formula Specialties, Synthetic Rremedies, etc. Chicago: G. P. Engelhard, 1898.

Nostrums and Quackery; Articles on the Nostrum Evil and Quackery Reprinted, with Additions and Modifications, from the Journal of the American Medical Association. Chicago: American Medical Association Press, 1912.

Strasser, Susan. “Commodifying Lydia Pinkham: A Woman, A Medicine, and A Company in a Developing Consumer Culture.” Working Paper #32, ESRC/AHRB Cultures of Consumption Programme, 2007.

Young, James Harvey. The Toadstool Millionaires: A Social History of Patent Medicines in America Before Federal Regulation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961.



Cigar store Indians

In the shadow of MSU Museum’s general store installation is a label-less “cigar store Indian.”

The use of emblems or figures to sell goods has a long history. The life-sized, wood sculptures that have come to be called a “cigar store Indians” first appeared as advertisements for tobacco shops in seventeenth-century Europe. Native Americans of North and South America had introduced tobacco to European explorers and settlers, who then introduced into Europe the practice of “drinking” (smoking) the fragrant leaves.

Yet European carvers hadn’t seen in person a Native American, so these early advertising sculptures looked more like the African slaves being taken, traded, and transported across the Atlantic Ocean. Thus these sculptures were called “Black Boys” and “Virginians.”

By the early eighteenth century, these figures, now more “Indian” in appearance and clothing, were advertising tobacco shops in the American colonies. Female figures outnumbered male figures at first, but by the early nineteenth century the “cigar store Indian” was male. By the turn of the twentieth century, city ordinances regulating sidewalk access removed many of these advertising figures from view, although many other visual stereotypes of Native Americans were still used in advertising many different types of consumer goods.

Today the “cigar store Indian” is considered by many as a shameful and degrading cultural stereotype of Native American peoples. Many Americans are calling for an end to the use of race-based stereotypes for sports teams’ logos, as team mascots, and in advertisements.


Detroit’s Daniel Scotten & Co. made Hiawatha Flake Cut Tobacco. Tin, Collections of the MSU Museum.

It isn’t clear how the decision was made to include this advertising figure next to the general store. Inside the store are stacked a number of packs of tobacco and other tobacco-related items, some of which bear caricatures and images of Native Americans. But no connection is drawn in the installation’s interpretation. As far as is known, the figure has been in place since 1970. I would like to know if there were any discussions about interpreting this figure in light of the American Indian Movement’s activities in the era, including the occupation of Alcatraz Island beginning in 1969 and the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee. (There is also no interpretive connection to the trader’s cabin, about twenty paces away from the store in Heritage Hall.)

We are adding a text panel next to the “cigar store Indian” and will be considering this issue as we work towards a new interpretation of the general store .

Further Reading:
Behnken, Brian D.,  and Gregory D. Smithers, eds. Racism in American Popular Media: From Aunt Jemima to the Frito Bandito. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2015.

Gross, Eleanor. “Containing the Indian Threat: Cigar-Store Indians in Nineteenth-Century America.” MA thesis, University of Washington, 2011.

Sessions, Ralph. The Shipcarvers’ Art: Figureheads and Cigar-Store Indians in Nineteenth-Century America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Weights, measures, standards


United States postage scale. Collections of the MSU Museum.

Walking through the MSU Museum’s general store exhibition, I am struck by the mute evidence of historic standards and standardization on almost every shelf and counter and in the display cases. From the envelope sizes in the post office boxes, the bolts of fabric housed on the nearby shelves, and the hats above, to the canned goods, medicine and liniment bottles, and casks and barrels, one may easily see a history of measurement—or, more precisely, measurements!

Back in graduate school, a professor asked (in passing) about the weight of a hogshead, and only a student in marine archaeology knew the answer. Of course she would have, because the term appears consistently on ship’s manifests. (For your information, a hogshead is a unit of volume for liquids. But it varied with its contents: 48 gallons of ale equaled a hogshead, but if it contained cider it measured 60 gallons. A hogshead of molasses equaled 100 gallons. In American usage, one hogshead equally two barrels or 63 gallons. A hogshead did not contain hogs’ heads. Luckily.)

Perhaps there is within the general store exhibition a lesson in standards and measurements that just may appeal to some school groups. (I know adults who would enjoy learning that a bolt of cotton fabric equaled 40 yards and of wool 100 yards. They would want to know why, and I don’t have that answer—yet.)


Hand carved measure. Collections of the MSU Museum.

So we will add to our rethinking of the general store a consideration of how and why manufacturers used the measurements and weights they did, and how storekeepers and patrons learned to calculate the costs of what they needed. Given other artifacts in the store—teacups, for example—we may be able to think about how to use the historic shift from handed-down receipts to mass-produced recipes changed how Americans cooked.

Here’s a handy reference on this topic: “How Many? A Dictionary of Units of Measurements” at the University of North Carolina.

Further Reading:
Kisch, Bruno. Scales and Weights: A Historical Outline. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965.

Whitelaw, Ian. A Measure of All Things: The Story of Man and Measurement. Hove, England: Quid Publishing, 2007.