General stores were vital to economic and social life in rural Mississippi from the early 1800s through the early 1900s. Today, the long and narrow wooden buildings stir nostalgia in many people by evoking rural community. In their day, with their walls lined with various goods and their owners trying to keep up with the latest trends, these stores connected farming people to an intriguing range of tastes and experiences. In frontier areas, proud settlers often believed that general stores were signs of civilization and good taste.
Shopping corresponded to the social divisions in rural Mississippi. Men drank alcohol and lounged on the buildings’ front porches, making general stores primarily male institutions. Women sometimes felt uncomfortable and stayed away, especially on weekends. Postbellum general stores usually accepted African American customers’ money but often forced them to enter via the back door and refused to allow them to try on clothing before purchasing.
The white men who did the majority of shopping concentrated on what they saw as necessities—tools, shoes, hats, flour, tobacco. About half of their purchases were cloth or sewing notions. Few bought luxury goods, although general store merchants consistently advertised that they had the latest items from urban centers. Mississippians who bought luxuries generally traveled to cities or had agents buy goods for them.
Most shoppers at general stores did business on credit. Store owners recorded purchases in a ledger, and customers planned to pay in the fall when the crops came in. A minority paid with produce. Farmers who worried about staying out of debt tended to keep their purchases to a minimum. Many traveled to general stores only once a month, enjoyed a day at or around the general store, and then loaded their wagons and returned home. Most general stores were independent businesses, some owned by Russian Jews or other immigrants who started out as traveling peddlers. Some general stores served the interests of powerful economic institutions by dealing only in scrip issued by plantations or timber companies.
Novelists and memoirists frequently mention general stores as important sites for crossroads social life. In Light in August William Faulkner’s Lena Grove has to summon all of her courage to brave the “man-eyes” that watch as she enters a general store to buy sardines. Faulkner’s Ab Snopes makes his first stop in Yoknapatawpha County at a general store in search of land to farm. In memoirs by Clifton Taulbert and Charles Evers and stories by Mildred Campbell, black children encounter ridicule and terror at white-owned general stores. Eudora Welty’s “The Little Store” emphasizes the magic she felt as a child when she first had the freedom to choose among small luxuries.
In the early twentieth century, department stores, chain stores, cash stores, and mail-order catalogs all offered a wider variety of goods and different types of shopping than did general stores. Department stores and the new grocery stores encouraged shoppers to walk around and choose goods for themselves rather than asking the storekeeper for one item at a time. Many general store buildings today have closed or sell secondhand items or antiques.
- Thomas D. Clark, Pills, Petticoats, and Plows: The Southern Country Store (1944)
- Ted Ownby, American Dreams in Mississippi: Consumers, Poverty, and Culture, 1830–1998 (1999)