Within the archives of Oberlin College, in their miscellaneous local business records, is a leather-bound ledger volume. It is large, more than fifteen inches long and twelve inches across when opened. And at a whopping 517 pages, it is packed with information. This object (and two smaller accompanying pieces) is all that remains of a dry goods store that operated in Wellington in the late 1830s and early 1840s, called Foote & Locke.
There is very little extant documentation from this period in Wellington’s history. Settlement had happened so recently–just twenty years before–that the urge to document the village’s past had not yet seized its residents. Publication of The Lorain County News and The Wellington Enterprise was decades in the future. I have never even seen a map of the community that dates before mid-century. So this ledger is a glorious window into everyday life, if we look carefully at its contents.
On their surface, those contents may seem fairly dry. The ledger is filled with line after line of individual purchases, from items as small as a single pencil to much larger-scale orders, like all the lumber necessary to construct a barn. But examining the pages closely reveals more subtle detail, which give color and texture to our imagining of what the town was truly like in its earliest years.
I spent three days this summer at the Oberlin College Archives, poring over the ledger. At first, I could see only lists of names, and all names I would have expected to find in this era: Adams, Clifford, DeWolfe, Herrick, Hamilton, Howk, Johns, Wadsworth and Wells, to name just a few. Foote & Locke were not the only dry goods merchants in Wellington; John Reed had moved his family to the village in 1835 and opened a store on the northwest corner of what is today Main Street and Herrick Avenue. It operated for at least twenty years, until Reed’s untimely drowning in the Black River in June 1855. John Reed is one prominent citizen whose name is therefore conspicuously absent from this, the records of his business competitors.
Henry Martin Bradley wrote in his 1907 autobiography that when his family emigrated to the village in 1835, “[W]e found the roads hardly passable because of the swamps and the clouds of mosquitoes which seemed to be waiting to greet us as new comers.” This shop ledger adds some nuance to that characterization. Foote & Locke were procuring resale goods from merchants in larger urban markets. A second, smaller volume lists at least five vendors from New York City–including Weed & Co., Trask & Marvin, and L.H. Bennet–as well as one from Albany. These bulk orders would have shipped via the Erie Canal, which opened in 1825, and arrived in Wellington within just a few weeks.
In the month of October 1837, residents purchased a diverse array of food items from Foote & Locke: tea, sugar and maple sugar, cinnamon, saleratus [sodium bicarbonate, a main ingredient of baking powder], alum, tobacco and snuff, beef, spice, raisins, butter, madder [a medicinal root], ginger, bushels of corn and onions, coffee, and eggs. Elsewhere in the ledger I found listings for purchases of pepper, cloves, rice, pork, oats, wine and port, bushels of dried apples and crab apples, bushels of beans, cheese, gallons of molasses, fish, nutmeg, jam, mutton, oil and tomatoes.
Tea was far and away more popular than coffee. Cheese was rarely mentioned, probably because many farmers had cheese-making operations at home. Perishable items were clearly seasonal, and in some instances it appears that the shop came into possession of a limited quantity of a particular item, perhaps in trade or accepted as payment from a customer. For example, fish appears in the volume only in May 1838, when a string of a dozen purchases are recorded over a period of days, then it vanishes from the inventory.
Prefabricated clothing and prepared foods were not yet available for sale. Instead, fabric purchases are among the most common in the ledger, so that clothes could be manufactured domestically. Even bread was not for sale; instead, the component ingredients for baked goods, such as saleratus and alum, were purchased regularly.
It was not only the essential materials for survival that were on offer at Foote & Locke. There are transactions for letter paper, pearl buttons, dress handkerchiefs, satinette [a cotton fabric finished to resemble satin], silk cravats, velvet, ivory combs, lace, looking glasses, strings of beads, cashmere, watch chains and even a “Geography Atlas” (pg. 201). One would need to do a careful comparative study of the prices of these items to get a sense of whether they were, in fact, luxury goods. But it is clear that even in its earliest days, Wellington’s residents had expectations of maintaining a similar standard of living to that which they had known in the eastern states of their birth. (Remember that many of the village’s earliest arrivals were coming from the rural counties of Massachusetts’ Berkshire region.)
We can also see evidence of townspeople buying the materials they required for their professions. John Case, the local tanner and cobbler, could be found purchasing supplemental pieces of leather and small cords. Dr. Daniel Johns stocked up on madder root, a medicinal plant. The Wadsworth brothers, Oliver and Jabez, bought fabrics, dishes, plated spoons and even “Champain Bottles,” presumably for use in their hotel (see above). Asa Hamilton, a carpenter and joiner, replaced tools such as hand saws. The only woman who shows up regularly in the ledger, Lucinda Smith, was presumably a dressmaker and/or milliner, based on her repeated orders for large quantities of fabrics and traditionally feminine-associated items including ornamental hair combs, pearl buttons, and lace (see below).
Smith is the exception to an otherwise overwhelmingly male list of names. When I first began to examine the ledger, I conjured a mental image of a shop peopled entirely with men. Then I began to notice entries that were written in this fashion: “Ephraim Herrick pr Evaline,” or “William Bradley per Lady [i.e. his wife].” I initially took this to mean that the man was making a purchase on behalf of his spouse or daughter at home. But I soon realized that I was completely backward in my thinking. “John Case per Girl” is very likely a servant running to the local shop to buy something on behalf of her employer, or more precisely, to charge something to his account. Suddenly my imaginary shop was filled with women and children–Evaline Herrick, Sarah Wilcox, Mehitable Fox Couch Howk and her daughter, all patronizing the store and having their transactions recorded under the family’s male “breadwinner.” Thirteen-year-old Henry Martin Bradley, or his older brother Charles, visited Foote & Locke, as well; there is at least one purchase of a ball of wicking [the cord of a candle] being charged to “William Bradley pr Son” (pg. 126).
Many of these purchases were paid for in trade, either in labor or material. The smaller invoice book that accompanies the ledger, which lists New York and Albany merchants from whom Foote & Locke were obtaining resale goods, also includes extensive accounts for grain, cheese, wheat and potash turned in to the store for credit by residents. (Henry Martin Bradley wrote at length in his autobiography about cutting and burning trees to extract lye and “black salts,” which he then exchanged in the village for flour and other groceries.) There are multiple entries that suggest one-off non-cash transactions, such as Isaac Humaston’s son buying fabric and lighting materials, marked “pay in sugar,” or David Pucket receiving a $0.25 credit “By Work on Wheelbarrows.” And residents including Gideon Adams, Sandford Humphrey and John Howk obtained substantial amounts of purchasing power in exchange for farm animals such as hogs or “1 English Cow” (pgs. 308-9, 381-2).
According to the federal censuses of 1830 and 1840, the population of Wellington climbed in ten years from 224 residents living in 47 households, to 781 residents living in 134 households. The town was expanding rapidly. It would be only ten years until a busy railroad line connected Wellington to the urban environments of Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and beyond. This set the stage for a late-century expansion in both population and economic prosperity fueled, in large part, by the exportation of cheese. But the explosive commercial successes of the 1870s and ’80s–which resulted in private fortunes and grand houses still standing on South Main and Courtland Streets today–were rooted in the backbreaking work of families carving farms out of forest, trading ashes and hogs for spools of thread and spelling books.