- A Country Storekeeper in Pennsylvania: Creating Economic Networks in Early America, 1790–1807
For Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania, general storekeeper Samuel Rex, counting was king. For Diane Wenger, Rex’s copious records of his business dealings—jotted down day by day in ledgers over a span of more than sixteen years—illuminate the ways in which storekeepers, farmers, iron forge owners, carters, and merchants established and managed economic and social networks with each other across the rural–urban divide in the early republic. Revisiting the transition-to-capitalism debate, Wenger rejects the notion that a “market revolution” eclipsed the rural ideal of household competency and propertied independence in these years. Instead, she argues that economic actors in Schaefferstown—located seventy-five miles from Philadelphia—were much like the farmers and tradesmen whom Daniel Vickers and Martin Bruegel studied in coastal Massachusetts and the Hudson River Valley. They were part of “a blended society in which market and community interests existed simultaneously” (2). Wenger uses Rex’s accounts to examine the experiences of farmers and ironworkers who produced and sold goods for store credit and the ways in which Rex served as a “culture broker” for these [End Page 168] rural folks, providing them access to a wide array of consumer goods—“sling glasses, Tenerife wine, and twilled velvet” among them—that would make credible displays of prosperity (9, 2). Moreover, Wenger sifts through the data from local tax records, probate inventories, Philadelphia business records, and city directories to trace the parameters of these networks and show how they worked, in the process situating Rex within an expansive economic sphere connecting Pennsylvania villages with Philadelphia and the broader Atlantic world.
Rex, a descendant of German immigrants, moved to Schaefferstown in 1789 from Chestnut Hill (near Philadelphia) to serve as a storekeeper’s clerk. When his employer cleared out of town a year later after being hassled by creditors, Rex opened his own shop in close proximity to farms and iron “plantations” staffed by German immigrants and lowly workers whom one snooty traveling minister unfairly called “wild forest people” (15). Rex could not have chosen a more advantageous time to go out on his own hook, for renewed European demand for mid-Atlantic grain during the wars of the French Revolution led to a business boom. Proceeds from Pennsylvania wheat lined the pockets of Philadelphia merchants and village storekeepers alike, and an array of foreign manufactured goods spruced up the mantelpieces, windows, and tables of the eager clientele who patronized Rex’s shop to affirm their good taste or illustrate their desire for upward mobility.
Rex’s success depended not only upon local trade but also upon his ability to foster temporary and more permanent partnerships with the ironworkers and wagoners traveling through Schaefferstown on the way to Harrisburg, Lancaster, or Philadelphia, and the urban merchants whose access to the Atlantic market made his local dealings possible. Wenger productively analyzes local commodities trades from Rex’s economic perspective, contending persuasively that he gave store credits principally to producers of items he could use in his own home or reliably sell in local and extralocal markets. Not content simply to sell goods, Rex also provided legal and banking services to his customers. Like other business proprietors in this era, he utilized family connections in and around Philadelphia to negotiate the best deals with urban wholesalers, and eventually parlayed his storekeeping venture into land ownership, a spacious home, and respectable status as a “gentleman farmer” (141).
As Wenger acknowledges, while the ledgers portray social and economic relationships in considerable detail, they do not tell the whole [End Page 169] story. In order to explain gaps in the record of Rex’s economic connections with customers and suppliers, she offers readers informed conjecture founded upon research in other sources to explain why the account books might be missing crucial information. Wenger ultimately thinks the daybooks show that Rex brokered “mutually advantageous exchanges of goods” for his clients that “enhanced their material lives...