Missisquoi’s Mercantile Past: As Seen through Consumer Goods and Ledgers at the Missisquoi Museum

Items from Hodge's General Store, Stanbridge East, c.1930s-1940s. 
It is often assumed that our ancestors lived a very restricted life with few luxury goods. The Missisquoi ledgers confirm that customers bought apples, potatoes and turnips, rum, gun powder and tallow; but they could also buy velvet, expensive green tea and spices, port wine and brandy, a large variety of cloth including silk, scholarly books, window panes and even chocolate. (Missisquoi Historical Society Collections) Women's accessories from Hodge's Store, c.1930s-1940s. 
What is typical of the 19th century ledgers is that only men's names were listed in account books as purchasers. However, if one examines the accounts, there is evidence to suggest that the shopper may have been a woman or at least behind her husband placing items on the counter. Pairs of gloves, combs, yards of fabric and hair pins were some of the entries under men's names, which suggest a female presence. (Missisquoi Historical Society Collecti Men's accessories from Hodge's Store, c.1930s-1940s.
According to The Bedford Times of 1879, in the Joseph Landsberg store, located in Frelighsburg between 1871 and 1881, "gentlemen's attire and accessories" were located on the second floor, along with carpets, oilcloths and wallpaper. (Missisquoi Historical Society Collections) Men's collars and shirt cuffs from Hodge's Store, c.1920s-1940s. 
(Missisquoi Historical Society Collections) Sewing thread from the Hodge's Store, c.1930s-1940s.
In many of the early stores, counters were devoted exclusively to women and included small wares such as sewing threads and lace, as well as dress goods such as buttons, dress pins and bolts of fabric. Household linens often included the finest damasks, piano covers, linen table cloths and flannels imported from Ireland and Scotland. (Missisquoi Historical Society Collections) Condiments from Hodge's Store, c.1930s-1940s.
In Hodge's Store, built in 1841 and located in Stanbridge East, the shelves have bowed under the weight of the wide variety of products that have been displayed on them for over 160 years. (Missisquoi Historical Society Collections) The account books from Hodge's Store prior to the 1930s detail store transactions that included purchases of agricultural tools, spices, cattle liniments, oil lanterns, perfumes, food stuffs, and haberdashery. There are even sales on record of alcohol and medications including opium. (Missisquoi Historical Society Collections) Cash register, Hodge's Store. 
The hand-written sign on the register states: "In God we trust; in all other cash." Paying one's debt in the stores of Missisquoi Bay could be settled in a number of ways. Promissory notes were popular with the wealthier citizens but most people utilized the barter system and paid with an exchange of goods or by committing themselves to labour. Items exchanged for goods purchased were all carefully recorded and had a specific cash value. Beef and pork, milk and cheese Box of dried and salted cod from Hodge's Store.
It was not unusual for customers to barter cod fish, mackerel, eggs and butter for store items such as cloth, chocolate, rum and gin. (Missisquoi Historical Society Collections) Account Book, William Stanton, Philipsburg, 1811-1813.
Occasionally, merchants used their ledgers as diaries, recording events in the community, or as personal agendas. William Stanton, for example, stopped his business transactions to record what must have been a frightening event in the lives of the citizens of Philipsburg. A notation in Stanton's book provides the following brief description of the War of 1812 in Missisquoi: "Sunday morning October 12th 1813. When the Americans came to Missisquoi Ba Ledger, Philip Luke, Missisquoi Bay, 1786-1838.
This small and unassuming ledger provides a glimpse of the lives of the earliest settlers of Missisquoi County. (Missisquoi Historical Society Collections) A page from the Luke Ledger, 1832.
For most young women in early Missisquoi County, the teen years marked the end of their formal education and an entrance into the working world. Many young women were hired as domestics for neighbouring families, performing such chores as laundry, sewing, cooking, cleaning and child care. Not unlike the youth of today, some young women chose to spend their earnings on the latest fashions. Betsey Rhinehart and Hannah Kreller, for example, both worked as domestics for Phili A page from the Luke Ledger, 1832. 
"Flavia" appeared in the Luke Ledger in 1832 by only her first name. She was most likely a black woman in the services of Mr. Luke. One can assume she was from the black community by the fact that her name was a typical "slave name" of the period. She was also not listed with a surname as white women were throughout the ledger. The difficulty of her labour is another indication. Whereas white women worked in the domestic sphere, black women tended to work in the A page from the Luke Ledger, 1783. 
Captain Philip Luke kept a record of the laundry that a Mrs. Brunner washed from the Loyalist army barracks at "Missiskoui Bay" in 1783. (Missisquoi Historical Society Collections) A page from the Luke Ledger, 1792. 
The vast array of goods available at the Philip Luke store can be seen in the account of Ernest Cismore. In 1792, Cismore purchased goods ranging from cloth, buttons and mittens to nails, salt and tobacco. He was even able to buy a pair of "Inden shoes" or moccasins. Ernest Cismore paid for his goods with his labour. (Missisquoi Historical Society Collections)

Business account books or ledgers from the 19th and early twentieth centuries are a valuable resource for the study of rural history. Historians have used account books to reveal their subjects’ community through the markets they operated in, the people they dealt with, and the goods they produced and consumed. The time that went into creating these ledgers reveals the importance of the daily relationships they recorded.

The accuracy of the ledgers and the success of the early stores depended entirely on the probity of the merchant who operated the business and whose steady hand recorded the daily hustle and bustle in his store. That attention to detail in many of the Missisquoi County ledgers now offers the researcher a unique picture of the social life and the exchanges of commodities in this newly populated area of the Eastern Townships.

The stores that succeeded in business in Missisquoi tended to be headed by men who were seen as honest leaders of the community. Their general stores served not only as places to purchase goods but also as banks and places to conduct business and settle disputes. In addition, and in particular to the Philip Luke and Philip Ruiter establishments, storekeepers also found urban markets for their customers’ surplus produce and acted as intermediaries between the urban markets of St. John’s and Montreal and the citizens of Missisquoi Bay. Both Luke and Ruiter operated boats to transport goods to the larger markets.

It was imperative then that the store owner was a person of integrity, since he was dealing with goods, services and money belonging to his neighbours.

larger_Ledger.11_0.jpgThe ledgers of Philip Ruiter and Philip Luke, from the early community known as “Missiskoui Bay” (Philipsburg), bring to light the relative prosperity and indebtedness of the community and the careful manner in which each man conducted his business. Some customers made frequent purchases and yet never paid directly, choosing instead to settle accounts sporadically throughout the year. Others always paid their bills in cash at the time of purchase, and still others carried over their debts month after month and hoped for better times. Keeping track of the transactions required a merchant to be skilled in accounting and organized in his daily transactions.

The ledgers of Missisquoi County illustrate how people paid their bills and received remuneration for their labour, as well as their level of indebtedness to a store, the frequency of their purchases, and their shopping patterns. A customer’s good relationship with the store owner was necessary for basic survival in this new region of settlement. If one was in good standing, then the store owner was apt to be more lenient in demanding the payment of debts and more inclined to accept payment in kind or in labour rather than insist upon payment in currency.

Similarly, if a store owner had a reputation for being fair and for offering quality merchandise at fair market value, he was likely to prosper in business. As revealed in their ledgers, both Philip Ruiter and Philip Luke left behind a legacy of their good and honest work.

This exhibit presents an overview of the important early store ledgers that are now in the possession of the Missisquoi Historical Society, as well as some of the many types of consumer goods that would have been purchased in Missisquoi County -- at establishments such as Hodge’s General Store, in Stanbridge East, which is now a part of the Missisquoi Museum.

The Philip Ruiter Ledgers (courtesy of Phyllis Montgomery & Robert Galbraith); The Philip Luke Ledger, Missisquoi Historical Society Collection; G. H. Montgomery, “Missisquoi Bay” (Philipsburg, Que. 1950).

Heather Darch