- A Country Storekeeper in Pennsylvania: Creating Economic Networks in Early America, 1790-1807
Samuel Rex came to Schaefferstown, a village of five hundred in south central Pennsylvania, in 1789 to work as a clerk in a general store. He went into business for himself in December 1790, operating a country store until he sold it to his brother in 1807. A large number of documents survive from his business, including daybooks, ledgers, receipts, and an inventory. Diane Wenger utilizes these papers to examine the role that Rex and, by implication, other country shopkeepers played in the local and regional economy around the turn of the nineteenth century. At once a biography of Samuel Rex, a business history of a country store, a study of the consumption patterns of a rural [End Page 508] Pennsylvania German community, and a contribution to the transition to capitalism debate, the book adds to our knowledge of rural economic life and rural-urban trade in early America.
Samuel Rex grew up in a village north of Philadelphia. The son of a shopkeeper, Rex arrived in Schaefferstown as a twenty-three year old on a one-year contract to work as a clerk at a newly established general store. When his boss moved on, Rex stayed in Schaefferstown and opened his own store in a rented room in a tavern. He married the daughter of his landlord and eventually moved the business to the large town hotel. Rex ran the store, the second largest in Schaefferstown, from December 1790 to May 1807. He faced competition from at least two long established storekeepers, as well as from inn and tavern keepers who sold goods. He eventually sold the store to his brother and became a gentleman farmer, hiring wage laborers to work his fields and renting land to tenants. Remaining active in local affairs, Rex lived in Schaefferstown until his death in 1835. The net value of his estate, $15,961, was comparable to that of a modest Philadelphia merchant.
Rex's customers extended from town out to the farms and iron plantations in the countryside to the Philadelphia merchant community, thereby creating a network linking rural and urban consumers and producers with each other. Most of Rex's local customers lived within a few miles of the store: 58 of 68 heads of household in Schaefferstown in 1798 had accounts at the store. Rex sold a wide range of essential as well as luxury items. A huge variety of goods were on sale ranging from alcohol, books, groceries, hats and clothing, hardware, household goods, meat, patent medicines, provisions, and textiles. A customer might have found French brandy, saffron, a camel's hair shawl, a violin, velvet shoes, and conch shells on the shelves alongside more mundane items like candlesticks, ham, and flax linen. Women made about ten percent of all purchases at the store. Rex also provided banking services. Customers could borrow cash or pay third-party debts by using their store accounts. Rex accepted locally-produced items as payment from customers only when he could use them himself or resell them profitably. He spent three to four times more on farm products, mostly pork, butter, and whiskey, than on locally-produced manufactured goods. These items were paid for with store credit. He also made large purchases from local suppliers to acquire replacement store inventory. These mostly cash transactions were for such products as earthenware, tin ware, barrels, and tobacco products. Rex also had long-term arrangements with local craftsmen, such as the nail smith and the tanner. In addition to buying and selling goods, store customers could [End Page 509] also send and receive mail and obtain legal and writing services from Rex, a practice he continued after selling the store.
Between one-third and one-half of the store's income came from the iron-producing community. Cornwall Furnace was five miles west of Schaefferstown and Elizabeth Furnace was five miles south. Another half...