LinkConnector Validation

A Genealogist In The Archives

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Local Mercantile.....Did Your Ancestor Go Shopping And Leave A Paper Trail?

Christmas is almost upon us and as we all start bustling around putting up Christmas decorations, planning the Christmas meal and most of all shopping for Christmas presents, let's think about our ancestors and their shopping habits and what records we can find that help tell that story.

Until the advent of the "superstore", the mall or any larger retail store, there were the Mom and Pop stores that were in almost every community. These stores carried everything a person could ever need to live their daily lives. These stores prided themselves on the variety of products they stocked on their shelves. And a lot of them kept very good records, ledgers of accounts and other accounting records.

Invoice for Parker's & Richardson Store in Erin, Tennessee for the purchase of goods, located in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

Here in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives we have several store ledgers that list the accounts of local persons who kept a tab of purchases and then would come in at some point and pay that tab. The store owner would keep up with these accounts in simple ledgers. To the store owner these ledgers are how they kept up with what was owed to them. To the genealogy researcher, these ledgers can be a gold mine of information.

Houston County, Tennessee Store Ledger ( unknown store) account tab for F.L. Goodspeed, located in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

Information that can be found in these ledgers is varied but most of the time it will include the shoppers name, what they bought, how much the item cost and the date if was bought and then there would be a running tab with a total. When the shopper paid their bill that would be marked in the ledger with an amount and the date it was paid. Just this small amount of information can tell you a lot about your ancestor's daily life. Looking at the store ledger page pictured above for F.L. Goodspeed you can see that some of the items he bought were, 1/2 gallon of molasses, 1 pound of coffee, etc.

When trying to locate these types of records in an archive, historical society/genealogical society collection or at a library with genealogical records, the genealogy researcher will usually find them in the Manuscript Collection or the Special Collections part of the archive. For instance, in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives we have a collection entitled "Parker & Richardson Merchandise Store Records Collection". This collection includes various receipts, invoices, customer correspondence and ledger books detailing the customer's accounts like this document below.

Parker & Richardson Merchandise Store Letterhead, located in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

So, while your out shopping this holiday season, think about your ancestors and the Mom and Pop stores they would shop at in their communities, maybe they left a paper trail!

As always, remember, "It's Not All Online, Visit An Archive".


  1. Your blogs are great motivation to visit archives! Just wish I didn't live thousands of miles away from U.S. archives. However, I am making use of my time overseas to look for archives pertinent to my European ancestors.

  2. Thank You Kendra! As an archivist I know what treasures can be found in all of our archives. So glad to hear that you are checking our archives in Europe, some of us won't ever get that chance!