A Country Storekeeper in Pennsylvania
Creating Economic Networks in Early America, 1790–1807
Diane E. Wenger
A Country Storekeeper in Pennsylvania
Creating Economic Networks in Early America, 1790–1807
Diane E. Wenger
“A very fine piece of work on local Pennsylvania history.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Samuel Rex, however, left behind a vastly different legacy. A country storekeeper who operated out of Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania, during the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Rex left a surprising array of documents exposing just how he ran his business. In this book, Diane Wenger analyzes the part Rex and others like him played in the overall commercial structure of the Atlantic region.
While Wenger’s book has a strong foundation as a work of local history, it draws conclusions with much broader historical implications. The rich set of documents that Samuel Rex left behind provides a means for contesting the established model of how early American commerce functioned, replacing it with a more fine-grained picture of a society in which market forces and community interests could peacefully coexist.
“A very fine piece of work on local Pennsylvania history.”
“This book rests heavily on the best and most complete collection of business documents I have ever seen. They not only cover every aspect of Samuel Rex’s store but also relate it to the people of Schaefferstown, the Rex family of Germantown, the iron forges of Pennsylvania, and the business world of Philadelphia. This provides a picture unavailable elsewhere.”
“Diane Wenger's analysis of the economic life of a rural shopkeeper in Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania, exemplifies an excellent use of microhistory to rethink a larger historical phenomenon. . . . Her methodology and exhaustive research . . . [provide] a much-needed complement to interpretations of the early national economy that rely on abstract theories of political economy or aggregate data from hundreds or thousands of historical actors. . . . The book will also be of great use to those with an interest in the Pennsylvania German culture, microhistory, material culture, or archaeology. . . . Wenger is at her best in the detailed analysis she provides of Rex's account books, ledgers, and other business documents. Her extensive appendixes, which painstakingly detail customer visits and goods sold, will prove almost as valuable to scholars as her interpretation. This close reading of documents often glossed over by other scholars sets Wenger's work apart from other studies of the early republican economy that focus on theories of political economy or dwell on the rise of the market. . . . Wenger's work contributes to an emerging literature interpreting the early American economy on its own terms and through the eyes of those who experienced the changes it wrought directly. By taking as evidence material actions, experiences, and artifacts, rather than abstract ideas, [this book provides] a fresh and welcome insight into the complex nature of the early republican economy. . . . A Country Storekeeper in Pennsylvania provides readers with a satisfying interpretation of the role of rural storekeepers in early national Pennsylvania and raises new methodological and conceptual questions for future studies elsewhere.”
Diane Wenger is Assistant Professor of History at Wilkes University.
List of Figures and Tables
Preface and Acknowledgments
Introduction: A Country Storekeeper and His Network of Relationships
1. Beyond “Wild Forest People”: Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania
2. The Rex Store and Its Local Customers
3. Feeding the Furnaces: The Iron Community and the Rex Store
4. “Orders Thankfully Received, and Carefully Executed”: Rex and the Philadelphia Merchants
5. A Life of “Comparative Ease”
Epilogue: Rex’s Network and Its Significance
Appendix A: Rex and Valentine Families
Appendix B: Goods Sold at the Rex Store, 1790–1807
Appendix C: Tradesmen and Craftsmen Who Used the Rex Store
Appendix D: Philadelphia Merchants Patronized by Rex
Appendix E: Samuel Rex’s Carters
Appendix F: Location of Samuel Rex Documents
A Country Storekeeper and His Network of Relationships
Schaefferstown is a small Pennsylvania German village located about seventy-five miles northwest of Philadelphia. Founded in 1758, it is noteworthy for its European-style town square, its early water system, and its many Germanic buildings. These include two eighteenth-century taverns: the Franklin House, built by town founder Alexander Schaeffer, and the Gemberling-Rex House, a fachwerk (half-timbered) building that retains a number of early and significant architectural features. Besides their original function as eighteenth-century taverns, what these two buildings have in common is the man who operated a country store in the former and lived in the latter from about 1802 until his death in 1835—storekeeper Samuel Rex.
Rex himself was not unique. Hundreds of men—and some women—operated general stores in early America. When the Duc de la Rochefoucault-Liancourt toured the United States in the 1790s, he observed, “There is no point . . . however remote, even in the woods, in which one store, and frequently more, may not be found.” Nor is the survival of Rex’s store and home particularly remarkable. What sets Rex apart is the large number of documents that survive from his business and permit a close analysis of one country storekeeper and his role in the economy and society of the mid-Atlantic region.
Rex’s business was far more complicated than his rural location would suggest. His customers extended from Schaefferstown out into the countryside to farms and iron furnaces, and from there to the merchant community in Philadelphia, and the deals that he negotiated in each of these places created an interconnected network of relations that linked rural and urban producers and consumers with each other and with the Atlantic world of goods. The purpose of this study is to locate Rex’s role in each node of this network, and to analyze how customers in each place used and were affected by his services.
The idea of a network of relationships is not new. Darret and Anita Rutman introduced the concept in the 1970s and demonstrated its utility in A Place in Time: Middlesex County, Virginia, 1650–1750. The Rutmans explain that this approach enables researchers to see a geographic neighborhood not as an isolated locale but as part of a much larger set of relationships that link the local community to the broader society. Likewise, in Community and Social Change in America, Thomas Bender describes trade in colonial America as “bounded by networks of personal relationships.”
While my analysis of Rex’s network offers insights into rural south-central Pennsylvania and country-urban trade in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it also has implications beyond local and regional history. This study calls into question one of the most powerful historical models for this period—a sudden, disruptive market revolution and its assumption of a community-oriented eighteenth century giving way, amid struggle and disharmony, to a market-oriented nineteenth century. It demonstrates that a more fitting paradigm for understanding early America is a blended society in which market and community interests existed simultaneously. Despite profound differences among the communities that Rex dealt with, residents in all three regions blended traditional, community-based negotiations with impersonal, market-driven deals. When it came to doing business, early Americans in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries melded community and market relations.
Rex’s network also reveals the important role that the rural storekeeper played in the economy and society of early America. When I set out to study Rex, I expected to find him selling, as Charles Sellers suggests was the case in all country stores, “a limited range of high-utility commodities.” I soon discovered that Rex sold far more than the necessities of rural life. Alongside tobacco, molasses, powder, and shot, Rex’s store offered such nonessentials as sling glasses, Tenerife wine, and twilled velvet. My initial misconceptions about Rex and his customers are hardly surprising, given a pervasive nostalgia for rural America. Despite evidence to the contrary, frontier myths continue to evoke images of sturdy yeomen who raised all their own food, dressed in homespun, and obtained other modest necessities by bartering with neighbors. Likewise, literature on general stores has contributed to misunderstandings about life in early America. Writers alternately celebrate the country store as a gathering place where locals played checkers, swapped stories, and exchanged gossip, or vilify the storekeeper as a cheat and swindler, but most downplay the store’s important commercial functions and its place in the local and national economy. As Thomas Schlereth points out for a later era, “paeans are sung to its legendary front porch, its inspirational cracker barrel, and its hospitable potbellied stove rather than its innovative merchandising displays, special bargain packaging, or widespread use of national-brand advertising.”
Although nostalgic depictions of the store and negative tales of predatory storekeepers seem to be diametrically opposed, the two readings have a common thread. Underlying both views is the distinction between community and market not unlike Ferdinand Tönnies’s classic Gemeinschaft und Gesselschaft opposition. In this construct, the intimate social relations characteristic of a community are disrupted and even destroyed by the impersonal, coldly calculating, mercenary market economy; depending on one’s interpretation, the storekeeper symbolizes either the warm, personal community or the disruptive forces of the competitive market.
While the supposed transformation from community-knit to market-driven storekeeping also involved changes and technological improvements often characterized as a “transportation revolution,” many historians follow Tönnies’s lead and see the phenomenon in social relations. Paul G. E. Clemens explains that community implies personally negotiated exchanges, often of goods and labor, conducted according to local custom; such exchanges met immediate needs and conserved assets for the next generation. At the other extreme, market exchanges are portrayed as part of a more distant world and often include taking risks to make profits. Prices are set by supply and demand; wage labor rather than neighborly exchange of service is common; and goods are produced with a view toward selling them for profit.
The tensions between community and market emerged in the early 1970s as part of the new social history. Historians who wrote in the community studies genre mourned “the world we have lost,” in Peter Laslett’s famous phrase, and the destruction of community cohesion by encroaching capitalistic relationships. Most community studies addressed these market forces obliquely, but Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, in Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft, explicitly linked the witchcraft hysteria of the late seventeenth century to anxiety over New England’s changing economy.
While the first community studies focused on New England, a few historians looked to Pennsylvania. In Best Poor Man’s Country: A Geographical Study of Early Southeastern Pennsylvania, James T. Lemon stressed that early settlers in this region of Pennsylvania were classically “liberal”; “they placed individual freedom and material gain over that of public interest . . . [they] planned for themselves much more than they did for their communities.” He noted correctly that Pennsylvanians were part of two economic systems: the subsistence (or household) economy and the Atlantic business world; linking rural residents to this world was a chain of credit—a network—that included backcountry storekeepers.
James A. Henretta refuted Lemon’s argument, and his response opened the scholarly debate on America’s “transition to capitalism.” Henretta reasoned that farmers strongly resisted market involvement and favored a safety-first mentalité that would secure their estates for their children, and he specifically cited storekeepers as one of the problems farmers faced. He explained that, from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, there were increasingly antagonistic social relations and a growing class gap between farmers and middlemen, including rural merchants, who frequently appropriated a share of farmers’ profits in the form of monetary liens. While these liens were sometimes imposed for good reason, more often “the farm population—especially those of its members who were young or landless—paid a disproportionate price for access to the productive system because bankers, speculators, and merchants were able to use their political and economic power to set the terms of exchange in order to gain a greater share of the growing wealth of the society than was warranted by their entrepreneurial contribution.” Ironically, while Henretta was challenging Lemon’s work on Pennsylvania, the resulting debate focused on New England and clouded scholarly understanding of the mid-Atlantic region. Although Pennsylvania, with its staple wheat crop, was quite different from New England and its mixed economy, both regions became subject to the same broad assumptions. In fact, the transition-to-capitalism theory is an especially poor fit for the mid-Atlantic region, where eighteenth-century farmers grew wheat and other products using new technologies, were dependent on world prices and long-distance markets, and lived within age-old social relations. Indeed, the Rex study is important simply for its geographic focus on Pennsylvania, since the rural mid-Atlantic region has been woefully neglected in comparison to New England and the Chesapeake.
On one side of the transition debate are “social” historians who take a neo-Marxist view and see early America in transition (from an unspecified economic state) to capitalism. This transition involved a struggle between farmers and middlemen who sought to appropriate farmers’ livelihood and turn them into dependent wage workers. On the opposing side are “market” or “economic” historians who view farmers as enterprising protocapitalists and capitalism as a natural development of an expanding economy. A number of historians have addressed the market/community question, but Winifred Rothenberg and Christopher Clark have emerged as the foremost spokespersons for the two positions. In From Market Places to Market Economy: The Transformation of Rural Massachusetts, 1750 to 1850, Rothenberg challenges social historians’ concept of a “moral economy,” in which farmers resisted the market, and argues persuasively that this theory speaks more to historians’ own political ideology than to that of eighteenth-century farmers. Using neoclassical economic models, she charts the convergence of local and regional crop prices and wages to determine when a market economy (as opposed to the market as a place of exchange) began to change the nature of agriculture in Massachusetts. Rothenberg is more interested in farmers’ behavior than in their mindsets; she points out that they were increasingly willing to travel greater distances to sell crops and buy consumer goods, and that they showed other signs of market orientation as early as 1750.
Clark interprets farmers’ actions differently. In The Roots of Rural Capitalism: Western Massachusetts, 1780–1860, he concludes that farmers sold crops (a true “surplus” rather than goods produced specifically for sale) only after they had met their families’ needs. When economic changes forced farmers to take on new kinds of work, raise different crops, and deal with outside markets, they did so reluctantly, while still clinging to their old values. In Clark’s analysis, storekeepers did not actively seek out country produce; they were forced to take crops and goods in payment because cash-poor customers had no other means of payment. For Clark, relationships between storekeepers and their customers were antagonistic rather than complementary; local commodity exchanges and the market cash nexus were “competing ethics of exchange.” As we will see, the evidence from the Rex store complicates Clark’s reading.
Debates on the transition to capitalism have lost their early vigor, but the question of how rural residents responded to new market forces has not yet been settled. More recently, historians have rephrased the question, seeking evidence of an early nineteenth-century “market revolution.” Following the lead of Charles Sellers, some see the rise of the modern market economy as the cause of political, religious, and social changes of unprecedented magnitude. The concepts of “transition to capitalism” and “market revolution” are related, but, Clark warns, they are not interchangeable: “Adaptation to dependence on markets entailed changes in the practices of production and consumption, [but] it did not necessarily bring about changes in social relations. . . . The transition to capitalism was, on the other hand, essentially a shift in social relations, particularly the growth of wage labor.”
Although the focus of the discussion has shifted, Hal Barron comments that the “expansion of the market economy in the rural Northeast during the nineteenth century has become the ur debate for the field [of rural history]—its conceptual paradigm.” As Barron notes, this debate has social and political implications as well as academic relevance. Farming was the primary occupation in early America; a Jeffersonian reverence for agrarian life and individual freedom remains ingrained in the American character. Furthermore, many present-day Americans are deeply concerned about suburban sprawl, disappearing farmland, and a fragile environment. Related to this is a suspicion of big business; as Americans recoil from accounting scandals and corruption among CEOs that toppled businesses and sent stocks plummeting early in the twenty-first century, the evils of unbridled capitalism seem more apparent than ever, and nostalgia for the values of a simpler rural time likewise grows apace.
A market revolution is a compelling, and perhaps a comforting, way of understanding early America, but this model has fostered a simplistic interpretation of the past. It has become common to characterize the eighteenth century as a time of traditional community-based exchanges and the nineteenth as an era dominated by impersonal market and long-distance exchanges. In a similar way, the transition-to-capitalism debate overlooks the fact that participating in the market and providing for one’s family are not inherently antithetical practices. The theory of a sharp disjuncture between old and new ignores the fact that market-based and traditional community transactions existed simultaneously in both the eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries.
Some historians, however, suggest an alternative to the transition-to-capitalism and market-revolution models, a more nuanced and, as this study suggests, a more accurate way of understanding this era is a blend of market and community mentalités. Daniel Vickers argues that farmers strove for competency or “comfortable independence” and that this concept arrived in America with the first immigrants and endured until industrialization. Farmers who were motivated by achieving competency were neither averse to the market nor immersed in it; they used market opportunities to meet their household needs, not to accumulate wealth. The point at which a person reached competency varied according to individual needs and desires. Sally McMurry stresses that the idea of competency could have satisfyingly moral overtones. She determined that New York dairy farmers and their wives produced cheese and sold poultry to provide “necessaries and conveniences of life without superfluity.”
In a similarly conciliatory mode, some scholars argue that the economy of early America was a blend of market and community. Clemens notes that such factors as distance from urban centers, growing conditions, and cultural considerations affected farmers’ interactions with markets. Rather than a community-oriented eighteenth century giving way to a market-oriented nineteenth century, he sees the mid-Atlantic region at this time as a place where market and community transactions took place simultaneously and market relations were “embedded in community life.” Richard Lyman Bushman likewise advises that historians abandon the notion of a sudden and dramatic turning point and instead perceive the change from the eighteenth to nineteenth century as evolutionary. He argues that eighteenth-century farms were neither subsistence nor commercial enterprises but a “composite” of both, a blending of economies in which crops were produced for use and for sale with no distinction between the two—even in New England, home to communal villages. Naomi R. Lamoreaux also argues for a more nuanced understanding of business relations in the early Republic. She finds that the behavior of farmers and merchants was remarkably similar. Both used single-entry bookkeeping and seldom charged interest; both routinely hired family members and forgave debts owed by relatives; and both relied on the support of a community of their peers. As the century wore on, Lamoreaux notes, these similarities decreased.
Two recent studies of New York also address the market-versus-community paradigm. Martin Bruegel’s Farm, Shop, Landing: The Rise of a Market Society in the Hudson Valley, 1780–1860 eschews the notion (implicit in Rothenberg’s work) of the market as an inexorable force and focuses on the strategies that often struggling farmers used to provide for their families. Bruegel concludes that Hudson Valley farmers “straddled two worlds that historians and ethnologists have often tended to view as incompatible.” As part of their striving for competency, these farmers worked at crafts and participated in community networks of exchange; they also sent products to distant markets in order to obtain cash and goods they could not produce or obtain locally. Rather than seeing confrontation between farmers and storekeepers, Bruegel finds mutuality of interest; two “logics of exchange” came together at the country store. Thomas S. Wermuth agrees that, in the Hudson River valley, “long-distance and local exchange networks were not mutually exclusive.” Wermuth finds that, even by the mid-nineteenth century, the economy was “transitional . . . not yet wholly capitalistic nor truly communal. Kin, community, and neighborhood networks still exerted power . . . but did so within the framework of a market economy that had existed since the earliest days of settlement.”
A few years ago, Joyce Appleby summed up historians’ “vexed” efforts to describe America’s economic development and called for scholars to redirect their attention to the economic agency of ordinary people. Hal Barron concurs. What, he asks Clark, were the relationships between storekeepers and customers, outside of business deals? What did longer trips to market signify to Rothenberg’s farmers? Reconstructing Rex’s network puts individual economic actors back in the picture and fills in the gap identified by Appleby and Barron.
Related to the developing market economy is the idea of a “consumer revolution”—a rise in consumption parallel to the “Industrial Revolution” that produced an increased quantity of goods. Store records provide an ideal opportunity to probe consumer habits, as Ann Smart Martin, Elizabeth Perkins, and others have demonstrated. In fact, after studying a Kentucky storekeeper’s books, Perkins concluded that “consumption and community grew up together in the backcountry.” The present study provides insight into consumption and production among the Pennsylvania Germans, the largest European ethnic minority in early America, and suggests that, with a few exceptions, ethnicity was not a driving factor when it came to choosing consumer goods. Recent studies suggest that factors such as gentility and status, rather than the desire to appear more fashionably English, moved Pennsylvania Germans in their consumer choices, and this was true of Rex’s customers in Schaefferstown.
One issue related to consumption that needs to be better understood is how goods reached early America’s consumers. Again, Rex’s papers help to answer this question by presenting detailed evidence of wagonloads of goods that he hauled between Schaefferstown and Philadelphia. Moreover, his method of moving the goods—hiring local farmers, craftsmen, and laborers to drive the wagons—provides new insight into labor and transportation in this period. Rex’s regular shipments to and from the city also reveal that, contrary to some assertions, the weight of the load and the distance to market were not barriers to trade. Rex’s trade in the city demonstrates that he patronized many different merchants and stores to get the right mix of products, but that he also maintained a close relationship with select wet and dry goods dealers who served as his agents.
Even as they adopted new fashions and customs, Pennsylvania Germans (in Schaefferstown and elsewhere) did not forsake their ethnic heritage. In fact, they retained their language and other distinctive traits well into the twentieth century. This folk culture is particularly evident in examples of Pennsylvania German decorative arts; today these are sought actively by collectors and bring prices that would astonish their makers. Because Pennsylvania Germans retained their language and culture (even as they embraced consumer goods and American notions of liberty), the services of storekeepers, ministers, and other educated people were particularly useful in helping them deal with an English-speaking majority. Scholars label those who served this function “culture brokers,” a term that fits Rex particularly well. As a third-generation Pennsylvania German who was raised in the Chestnut Hill area of Germantown (where English and German influence commingled early on), Rex was fluent in both languages, and he was at home in both the Pennsylvania German community in Schaefferstown and the English-speaking commercial and legal worlds.
Rex’s papers also provide insight into an aspect of Pennsylvania German society that remains largely unexplored—the role of its women—by demonstrating their economic contributions as producers and consumers. As was true in other regions of early America, male customers outnumbered females at the Rex store. But, although they may have shopped less frequently than men, Schaefferstown-area women contributed to the household and regional economy by producing and selling goods—especially butter—at the store. While women made the butter, the male head of the household received the store credit in his name; still, all members of the household benefited from the consumer products the family purchased with butter sales.
The second segment of Rex’s network was a small group of Pennsylvania ironmasters and their workers. The ironmasters regularly purchased large quantities of meat and other necessities for their employees, and the workers used Rex’s store as an auxiliary company store. This interdependence between ironmasters and storekeeper and the level of purchases made by the workers suggest that the usual understanding of the iron plantations as self-contained and isolated is inaccurate. There have been many studies of the technological, social, and economic aspects of the Pennsylvania iron industry, but locating the workers’ place in Rex’s network shows the iron community in a different, more personal light, by highlighting their individual economic activities and choices.
If the rural mid-Atlantic has been neglected by scholars, there is no shortage of works on Philadelphia, the most distant part of Rex’s network. Although it focuses on a slightly earlier period, the most useful of these works, relative to the country-city trade, is Thomas M. Doerflinger, A Vigorous Spirit of Enterprise: Merchants and Economic Development in Revolutionary America. The Rex study builds on and adds to Doerflinger’s analysis. Rex’s trade in the city clearly demonstrates the mutuality of transactions between country storekeepers and city merchants that Doerflinger mentions, and it reveals something new: a storekeeper-agent relationship not previously identified in literature on domestic trade.
There also have been numerous studies of the career path of city merchants and wealthy businessmen, but there are fewer comparable studies of country storekeepers. The pattern of New England storekeepers establishing factories is also well known. Some storekeepers, however, increased agricultural production and home manufactures rather than establishing factories. Rex followed this model; he spent his post-storekeeping years managing tenants on his farms, selling the grain they raised, lending money at interest, and working as a justice of the peace. By investing in farming, Rex and others engaged in a form of capitalistic enterprise that, as Joyce Appleby notes, has largely escaped the scrutiny of historians who study this period.
The sources for this study truly constitute an embarrassment of riches. The Rex family was active in storekeeping and other businesses in Schaefferstown for nearly a century, and they preserved a collection of business, personal, and legal papers that spans two centuries. The volume of papers from Samuel Rex’s business alone is impressive. Some forty-four of his estimated forty-eight daybooks survive, along with three ledgers, two receipt books, an 1807 store inventory, his estate records, and letters, bills, and receipts from more than one hundred Philadelphia merchants. Legal documents that Rex wrote for his clients offer further insight into and context for his business, as do the account books of his brother and nephews who followed him in storekeeping.
Rex ran his store from December 1790 to May 1807, but I have chosen three periods for close analysis: 1791, his first full year as a storekeeper; 1798, a midpoint in his career and the year that the federal government mandated that all buildings be assessed for the direct tax; and May 1806 to May 1807, Rex’s final year in business. Since a primary objective was to understand how local customers used the store for commodity exchanges, I analyzed the credits in store books to determine the means his customers used to pay for goods and services and the commodities they sold at the store. I entered credits from Rex’s daybooks for the three key years and from his ledger 5 (1798 to 1806) into databases, and I constructed linked databases of property owners and their holdings in 1798 to determine how customers’ occupations and relative wealth related to their store credits. I also analyzed Rex’s purchases in the city, drawing on Philadelphia merchants’ bills and receipts from 1790 to 1801. Because bills and receipts for the years after 1801 apparently have not survived, I relied on Rex’s receipt book for expenditures in Philadelphia after 1801. The receipt book entries are not itemized, so I could not quantify these purchases, but I was able to determine the amount that he spent at each business, and I could usually discern the general category of goods these merchants sold by consulting Philadelphia city directories.
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