The story told by an old account book

Posted by | April 13, 2016

“It is really surprising how much old account books can tell about people and the times. Changes in attitudes, customs, dress, and even the thinking of the people in a given community can be plainly detected and charted. For example, my father’s old account books, for the period April 1904 through January 1923, tell me there was but little money around, barter was the usual way to procure everyday necessities, and most of the people did their trading with the local merchant. There wasn’t any running into town to pick-up an item or two needed at the moment.

“With the prevailing roads and means of conveyance, going to town was an all-day exhausting task for man and beast. No credit cards during that period, much of the business with local merchants was on credit, but credit was a far cry from the credit of today. Credit in those days was payment when the crops were sold, and without interest and carrying charges.

“My father’s old account books tell me who in the community bought on credit. That is, who made arrangements in early spring to be “‘run” for the crop year. They also tell me who paid their accounts well (“were good pay”), who paid their accounts reluctantly and had to be prodded (“were poor pay”), and who did not pay at all (“were bad pay”). Naturally the “‘bad pay” were refused the next time around—the next crop year.

“These old account books tell me the various items people bought and the quantities bought along with the prices paid for each item. Prices have gone up considerably.

“They tell me who paid in cash for everyday necessities (mostly groceries) and who traded eggs, hams, side-meat, chickens, beeswax, corn, and even huckleberries (in season) for them. Barter was the usual way for obtaining flour, sugar, pepper, salt, molasses, coffee, snuff, and tobacco until about 1918, when money became more plentiful and the “due bill” business almost disappeared.

“Those old account books reveal the kind of clothing the women wore and the kind of shoes (mostly “Brogans”) the men wore; who sported supporters, “galluses” to hold up their “Sunday pants,” and sleeve holders to keep their cuffs in place, also on Sunday (bib overalls was the week-day wear for men); which women bought the calicos, the ginghams, the silks, and the satins; who wore frilled and beribboned shirtwaists; and–sort of on the secret side-“whalebone” corsets.

Mast General Store, Blowing Rock NCMast General Store in Valle Crucis, NC was founded in 1883, and still retains the old ‘general store’ atmosphere to this day.

“Women wore “side combs and back combs” in their hair and beaded pins, ten or twelve inches long, in their hats; men wore celluloid collars. Men’s work shins were made from “‘shinning” and “shantung” and sheets were made from “yellow cotton.” Little boys, like little girls, wore dresses until school age.

“A woman would not wear a shoe larger than size five-and-one-half, therefore many dainty toes got squeezed and corns grew rampant while “high-top button” shoes, with extra sharp toes, were in fashion.

“Hats were cheap, but that didn’t make much difference with the women because country women wore home-made bonnets, except to church. Bonnets were fine for the “fair sex.” They kept the sun off, completely. That is why so many novels, in past years, referred to women with “au lait” complexions.

“They tell which men “chawed Red Apple and Brown’s Mule” and who smoked “Duke’s Mixture or Green Frog” and which women used snuff-“Railroad Mills,” sweet or strong, “weighed-out” from a “‘bladder.” A further revelation, among the men, was who bought whiskey, until the advent of the 18th Amendment placed it in the secret class.

“My father’s country store was a typical country store. In present day language the term for it would be, “he sold everything from toothpicks to tractors.” The prices for which most items were sold today’s young people would call ridiculous, but they were high for those who had little or no money.

“Some of the family names have gone. Some of the habits and customs have gone, and most of the business establishments my father dealt with have gone. But their story is still there in those old, tattered and worn, and most revealing accounts books.”

Source: The State / Down Home in North Carolina, “Story Told by an Old Account Book,” by R. Carl Freeman, April 1976, Vol 13, No 11, p. 31-33; edited for this blog post
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