Businesses on Main Street: The General Store

Most small towns across Iowa in the late 1800s and early 1900s looked alike and nearly all had a general store. And a visitor to a general store in Osage would find the same merchandise as a visitor to a general store in Atlantic. But sometimes a store had a specialty.

In 1898 Bedford, Iowa, had eight general stores—each with something special like a glassware department, a supply of prime country butter, a large assortment of fruits and vegetables, or a bakery.

A Little Bit of Everything

Racks of brooms and bushel baskets of seasonal fruits and vegetables sat outside on wooden platforms in front of the store. The mingled smells of molasses, vinegar, fish, cheese, freshly-ground coffee, kerosene and oranges greeted customers at the door. As one walked toward the back of the store, where a big, black pot-bellied stove sat, the shelves and counters full of groceries and dry goods caught the buyer's eye.

There seemed to be no unfilled spaces. Bins of tea, coffee, dried fruits and vegetables, beans, rice and oatmeal stood behind the counters. Kegs of butter, pickles, fish and chewing tobacco sat in front. Hardware items in the back of the store crowded among barrels of crackers, vinegar, kerosene, molasses and stacks of flour sacks. Inside glass canisters peppermint sticks, corn candy, jelly beans and licorice strings tempted those with a sweet tooth. Stocking caps, writing slates, milk pails, pots and pans dangled from overhead wires strung across the store. General stores did not sell meat, except maybe ham and bacon. Nor did they sell milk.

Families at the turn of the century did not buy everything they ate or used. Nearly everyone, whether in town or country, had a garden for summer vegetables, a cellar full of home-grown potatoes, onions, turnips and home-canned fruits and vegetables. Townspeople still might keep a cow for milk and chickens for eggs. There were some things, however, that were not produced at home. The general store answered these needs.

A Storekeeper's Hours

The store opened at sunrise and closed at night when most people had gone to bed. Sunday was a day off for the storekeeper and the clerks, but Saturday kept them waiting on the steady stream of customers. The doorbell jangled as people came and went, stopping to talk with friends about local news.

General stores in many small towns across Iowa offered residents a little bit of everything. It was a special occasion when the family came in from the farm once a week to shop at the store. Shoppers stocked up on household supplies and the latest news from their neighbors!


  •  Lisa K. Abel, “The General Store,” The Goldfinch 3, no. 3 (February 1982): 6.


Besides provided a place to buy supplies, why was the general store an important part of a community.

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