The country store was an important crossroads in nineteenth-century rural communities. In the decades after the War for Independence, commercial activity increased in the hinterlands as rural residents brought their farm produce to local storekeepers to exchange for commodities (such as rum) that were not produced locally. With cash scarce, much of the trade was conducted by barter and recorded in the merchant’s account books or “daybooks,” and traveling peddlers extended market activity beyond the reach of village stores. It was in this commercializing environment that Phineas Taylor Barnum honed his entrepreneurial skills. Barnum, born in Bethel, Connecticut, in 1810, eventually took his skills to New York City where he achieved fame as a cultural impresario and museum owner. He wrote several autobiographies that became key documents in the substantial nineteenth-century advice literature on how to achieve fame and fortune; this excerpt is drawn from The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written By Himself (1855) where he described his early days in greatest detail.
My aversion to hand-work, on the farm or otherwise, continued to be manifested in various ways, all of which was generally set down to the score of laziness. I believe, indeed, I had the reputation of being the laziest boy in town, probably because I was always busy at head-work to evade the sentence of gaining bread by the sweat of the brow. In sheer despair of making any thing better of me, my father concluded to try me as a merchant. He had previously erected a suitable building in Bethel, and taking Mr. Hiram Weed as a partner, they purchased a stock of dry goods, groceries, hardware, and a thousand other “ notions;” and I was duly installed as clerk in a country store.
Like many greenhorns before me, this was the height of my ambition. I felt that it was a great condescension on my part to enter into conversation with the common boys who had to work for a living. I strutted behind the counter with a pen back of my car, was wonderfully polite to ladies, assumed a wise look when entering charges upon the day-book, was astonishingly active in waiting upon customers, whether in weighing tenpenny nails, starch, indigo, or saleratus, or drawing New-England rum or West India molasses.
Ours was a cash, credit and barter store; and I drove many a sharp trade with old women who paid for their purchases in butter, eggs, beeswax, feathers, and rags, and with men who exchanged for our commodities, hats, axe-helves, oats, corn, buckwheat, hickory-nuts, and other commodities. It was something of a drawback upon my dignity that I was compelled to sweep the store, take down the window-shutters, and make the fire; nevertheless the thought of being a “merchant” fully compensated me for all such menial duties.
My propensities for money-making continued active as ever, and 1 asked and obtained the privilege of purchasing candies on my own account, to sell to the juvenile portion of our customers. I received a small salary for my services, (my father as usual stipulating that I should clothe myself,) and I intended to be faithful to my employers; but I have found, all through life, that wherever there are conflicting interests, men are very apt to think of self first, and so I fear it was with me,—for I well remember spending much time in urging indulgent mothers to buy candies for their darling children, when other customers were waiting to be served with more substantial articles of merchandise.
A country store in the evening, or upon a wet day, is a miserably dull place, so far as trade is concerned. Upon such occasions therefore I had little to do, and I will explain why the time did not hang unpleasantly upon my hands.
In nearly every New-England village, at the time of which I write, there could be found from six to twenty social, jolly, story-telling, joke-playing wags and wits, regular originals, who would get together at the tavern or store, and spend their evenings and stormy afternoons in relating anecdotes, describing their various adventures, playing off practical jokes upon each other, and engaging in every project out of which a little fun could be extracted by village wits whose ideas were usually sharpened at brief intervals by a “ treat,” otherwise known as a glass of Santa Cruz rum, old Holland gin, or Jamaica spirits.
Bethel was not an exception to this state of things. In fact no place of its size could boast more original geniuses in the way of joking and story-telling than my native village. As before stated, my grandfather, Phineas Taylor, was one of the sort. His near neighbor, Benjamin Hoyt, or “Esquire Hoyt,” as he was called, on account of being a justice of the peace, was one of the most inveterate story-tellers I ever knew. He could relate an anecdote with better effect than any man I have ever seen. He would generally profess to know all the parties in the story which he related, and however comic it might be, he would preserve the most rigid seriousness of countenance until its denouement, when he would break forth into a hearty haw! haw! which of itself would throw his hearers into convulsions of laughter.
Luckily or unluckily, our store was the resort of all these wits, and many is the day and evening that I have hung with delight upon their stories, and many the night that I have kept the store open until eleven o’clock, in order to listen to the last anecdotes of the two jokers who had remained long after their companions had gone to rest.
Inheriting a vital love of fun and an aptness for practical jokes, all that was said and done by these village wags was not only watched with the most intense pleasure by myself, but was also noted upon the tablets of a most retentive memory, whence I can now extract them without losing scarcely a word....
“What is the price of razor strops?” inquired my grandfather of a peddler, whose wagon, loaded with Yankee notions, stood in front of our store.
“A dollar each for Pomeroy’s strops,” responded the itinerant merchant.
“A dollar apiece!” exclaimed my grandfather; “they 'll be sold for half the money before the year is out.”
“If one of Pomeroy’s strops is sold for fifty cents within a year, I’ll make you a present of one,” replied the peddler.
“I’ll purchase one on those conditions. Now, Ben, I call you to witness the contract,” said my grandfather, addressing himself to Esquire Hoyt.
“All right,” responded Ben.
“Yes,” said the peddler, “I’ll do as I say, and there’s no back-out to me.”
My grandfather took the strop, and put it in his side coat pocket. Presently drawing it out, and turning to Esquire Hoyt, he said, “ Ben, I don’t much like this strop now I have bought it. How much will you give for it?”
“Well, I guess, seeing it’s you, I 'll give fifty cents,” drawled the Squire, with a wicked twinkle in his eye, which said that the strop and the peddler were both incontinently sold.
“You can take it. I guess I’ll get along with my old one a spell longer,”said my grandfather, giving the peddler a knowing look.
The strop changed hands, and the peddler exclaimed, “I acknowledge, gentlemen; what’s to pay?”
“Treat the company, and confess you are taken in, or else give me a strop,”replied my grandfather.
“I never will confess nor treat,” said the peddler, “but I’ll give you a strop for your wit;” and suiting the action to the word, he handed a second strop to his customer. A hearty laugh ensued, in which the peddler joined.
“ Some pretty sharp fellows here in Bethel,” said a bystander, addressing the peddler.
“ Tolerable, but nothing to brag of,” replied the peddler; “I have made seventy-five cents by the operation. ”
“ How is that?” was the inquiry.
“I have received a dollar for two strops which cost me only twelve and a half cents each,” replied the peddler; “but having heard of the cute tricks of the Bethel chaps, I thought I would look out for them and fix my prices accordingly. I generally sell these strops at twenty-five cents each, but gentlemen, if you want any more at fifty cents apiece, I shall be happy to supply your whole village.”
Our neighbors laughed out of the other side of their mouths, but no more strops were purchased....
There is something to be learned even in a country store. We are apt to believe that sharp trades, especially dishonest tricks and unprincipled deceptions, are confined entirely to the city, and that the unsophisticated men and women of the country do every thing “on the square.” I believe this to be measurably true, but know that there are many exceptions to this rule. Many is the time I cut open bundles of rags, brought to the store by country women in exchange for goods, and declared to be all linen and cotton, that contained quantities of worthless woollen trash in the interior, and sometimes stones, gravel, ashes, etc. And sometimes, too, have I (contrary to our usual practice) measured the load of oats, com or rye which our farmer-customer assured us contained n specified number of bushels, perhaps sixty, and found it four or five bushels short. Of course the astonished woman would impute the rag-swindle to a servant or neighbor who had made it up without her knowledge, and the man would charge carelessness upon his “help” who measured the grain, and by mistake“made a wrong count.” These were exceptions to the general rule of honesty, but they occurred with sufficient frequency to make us watchful of our customers, and to teach me the truth of the adage, "There’s cheating in all trades but ours."
Source: P.T. Barnum, The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself (New York, Redfield, 1855), 28–40.