It seems we are all pre-occupied with the subject of groceries lately – how we’re going to get them, which store has what, which items are hard to find at the moment. The current shopping situation is an alien one to us in our modern world of on-line ordering and nearly instant delivery. The stress of not being able to get something we need or want at a moment’s notice causes us anxiety, makes us worry about future procurement and how we’ll find what we need. However, this new reality wouldn’t be at all unusual to those who lived here in Fredericksburg in the 18th century. In fact, it was their daily way of life, and in some ways, a form of entertainment and a social outlet.
Shelves at a store in Ohio emptied of bottled water on March 15, 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Dan Keck / Wikipedia
To get into the mind-set of someone like Betty Lewis, who was shopping for her own immediate family, a household staff of enslaved labor, and probably her aging mother, as well, we must take a look at how shopping has evolved in America. Much of what we do today has its roots in the colonial period. In the early 18th century, shops were few and far between. In fact, the concept of a free-standing building purpose-built to be a shop didn’t really exist. The first places where locals could find various goods for sale were really private homes. These makeshift shops might be a single room in a house, or goods for sale might be found in various storage spaces throughout the house. Customers, usually neighbors and acquaintances, might come in on social calls and peruse the goods while taking tea and visiting.
Without formal supply chains or reliable access to any one kind of good, early merchants did not specialize in anything, but rather sold whatever they happened to come across. Their customers rarely arrived with a list, but rather decided what would be useful to them once they saw what was available. And what was available could really run the gamut.
The contents of one such in-home shop in rural Virginia in 1728 was described by an inventory taker as being arranged between a small storage building on the property and “in the dwelling” itself. A shelf in the storage building held hose, hats and fabric, while underneath it on the floor were books, shoes, various tools, beads and spectacles. A single crate on the floor held stoneware, glassware, and pewter vessels, as well as needles, combs, sugar and more books. In the house, the inventory listed more hose, gloves, 2 boxes of smoking pipes, chaffing dishes, chamber pots and punch bowls. Not only is there no real theme to the goods for sale, they appear to be heaped together in a jumble, leaving the customer to dig through it all.
As the 1700s progressed, colonial American shops became more formal affairs with their own dedicated buildings, purpose-built as commercial structures, often sporting identifiable features like large display windows in front, and a large counter inside, separating customers from the merchant and more expensive goods. While the wide, and sometimes bizarre, variety of goods available did not decrease, their arrangement on shelves and tables began to have a bit more thought behind it. It was the first inkling of visual display and marketing in America, and as the number of shops increased, it was more and more necessary to attract customers.
The contents of a free-standing shop in 1801 Virginia was inventoried for tax purposes and shows quite a transition. One entire wall of the shop was covered with shelving and cubby holes. The cubbies held buttons separated by size, 124 types of “paper”, razors, knives and forks (each wrapped in individual paper packages) and ribbons. The shelves held fabrics by the yard and books. A series of three trunks arranged under the shelving held glassware, while creamware was housed in 3 crates. Barrels of dry goods that needed to be measured and weighed sat at the end of the counter, where a set of scales was at the ready. This shop was clearly a general mercantile, offering a bit of everything, but by the end of the 18th century, shopkeepers did tend to specialize. One might be known for fabrics, while another sold furniture, and another was more of a grocer. Even so, almost every establishment always had an assortment of odds and ends for sale, and so a customer might come away with fabric and lace for a new dress, and a bottle of castor oil, since it was available.
So this was the shopping world that Betty Lewis operated in. Many of her receipts and accounts with local Fredericksburg shops still survive in the Kenmore manuscript collection, as do a few shop accounts from the Lewis store. They show that Fredericksburg was typical of the 18th century evolution in shopping. For instance, William Potter’s account at the Lewis store for the year 1744 (before Fielding Lewis took over the operation from his father) shows that the Lewises were offering the “jumble” approach to goods for sale. Potter purchased hanks of silk, buttons, yard goods, pipes, sewing notions, butter, a trunk, rum, soap, wig curlers, and finally, bacon.
By 1766, Fielding had obviously expanded his mercantile operation to carry a more streamlined assortment of housewares, many of which reflected his ability to procure high end products from England through his trade ships. James Winn’s account with the Lewis store in that year shows purchases of a set of 10 glass tumblers, creamware plates, soup spoons, brass sconces and amazingly, a “turkey stript” which is not a reference to poultry but more likely to a striped Turkish rug, which would have been an exceedingly hard thing to find in 18th century Virginia. While the Lewis store seemed to be catering to its urban clientele, they were also carrying that ubiquitous assortment of odds and ends that changed week to week. On the same day that Winn purchased his striped Turkish rug, he also bought a ladies’ hat and 12 pounds of coffee.
An excerpt of James Winn’s account with Fielding Lewis, showing his purchase of “turkey stript”
The surviving accounts also show that Betty was a shopper of her time, picking up a thing or two on every outing, debating what would be useful to her, and what might come in handy down the road when it was no longer available in the shops. By the end of the 18th century, Callender & Henderson was the primary general mercantile store in Fredericksburg, while Andrew Parks ran a shop selling luxury goods and housewares. Betty Lewis did business with both. From October of 1796 through January of 1797, Betty purchased sugar cones, a purple shawl, and quite a few pieces of nice fabric from Mr. Parks, as well as “1 wire sifter” which was noted on the account to be from Baltimore, as all good wire sifters should be. Betty’s purchases with Callender & Henderson in 1794 ranged from snuff to limes, turpentine to mustard, grammar lesson books to molasses. An account with the same store in 1796 showed what items Betty purchased on each shopping trip. On January 5, she procured both a pair of shoes and Spanish Brown pigment for paint. On May 26, she came away with a cask of cut nails and molasses. And on June 27, Betty had a banner day at the shops, purchasing a dozen buttons and 2 barrels of pickled herring.
An excerpt of Betty Lewis’s account with Callender & Henderson, showing a range of purchases in 1796.
Back here in our modern world, suddenly feeling very reminiscent of the 18th century, I myself recently bought eggs from the barber shop, toilet paper from a local restaurant and yogurt from the butcher. All odd sources to our minds, but Betty Lewis wouldn’t have batted an eye. You buy what you can find where you can find it, and if you can’t get what you need, change the plan. Did Betty go out on June 27, 1796 with the intention of buying two barrels of pickled herring? I highly doubt it, but I’m willing to bet that the Lewis household had fish for dinner that night, even though the menu may have originally called for game hens.
 Hodge, Christina J. Consumerism and the Emergence of the Middle Class in Colonial America. Cambridge University Press, 2014; pp. 122.
 Martin, Ann Smart. “Commercial Space as Consumption Arena: Retail Stores in Early Virginia.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, vol. 8, 2000, pp. 204. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3514414. Accessed 16 Apr. 2020.
 Hodge, pp. 130.
 William Potter in Account with John Lewis, 1744. Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 102.
 Betty Lewis in Account with Andrew Parks, October, 1796 – January, 1797. Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 426.
 Betty Lewis in Account with David Henderson, 1794. Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 716.
 Betty Lewis in Account with David Henderson, 1796. Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 856.