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A California Gold Rush Store Sold Everything in General

Rochelle's interest in California history was rekindled when she began leading tours at a local museum in an 1850s gold rush town.

Old General Store

The Gagliardo Store building in Hornitos, CA.  Brick walls are 18 inches thick. Iron doors are for security and fire prevention.

The Gagliardo Store building in Hornitos, CA. Brick walls are 18 inches thick. Iron doors are for security and fire prevention.

The First Business in a Gold Rush Town

The Gagliardo General Store building still stands in the old mining town of Hornitos, California, but most of the original fixtures, shelves, counters and display cases along with much old merchandise has gone into an exhibit at the Mariposa Museum and History Center in the nearby town of Mariposa.

As gold-seekers pitched their tents alongside a promising creek, some of the tents turned into makeshift drinking establishments and card game parlors. The entrepeneurs who set up such an enterprise soon learned that collecing gold from the miners in exchange for goods and services was often easier than first-person prospecting and panning.

As one of the first real places of business in a gold rush town, the general store was an old-fashioned version of Walmart. It sold just about everything IN GENERAL and almost everything imaginable, in the 1850s and later.

Potions and Pills

Photo by Linda Gast

Photo by Linda Gast

Everything You Need and Almost Everything You Want

General stores were not clothing stores, though you might buy shirts and hats and corsets there.

They were not grocery stores, though you could get, beans, cheese, coffee and even oysters in a tin. They weren't hardware stores, but you would find garden tools, carpentry tools and kitchen tools as well as wire, chains, lanterns and chamber pots.

They also sold eyeglasses, looking glasses, magnifying glasses, bear traps, barrel taps, hats and caps, hair restorers, apple corers, doorknobs, watch fobs, soap, rope, blue jeans, jelly beans, chair cushions, sewing notions, skin lotions, curative potions, shirt collars, horse collars and hair curlers.

Often, since it was often the only store in town, people knew exactly where to shop.

Wrapping paper and string dispenser. Photo by Linda Gast.

Wrapping paper and string dispenser. Photo by Linda Gast.

Just Be Patient

In fact, if the store didn't have what you were looking for - and if you could wait a few weeks - the storekeeper could probably order it for you.

When you purchased items, perhaps with a pinch of gold, no one asked if you wanted paper or plastic. People brought their own shopping baskets, or else had their purchase wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string, even if it wasn't one of their favorite things.

Early in the California Gold Rush a few smart people figured out that selling supplies, provisions and tools to the argonauts could be very profitable, as well as being easier than trying to find gold in other ways.

Shipping charges on most wares were high, but merchants would often mark up prices for a very good profit. If you were living in Gold country you could count on prices being high. It was the perfect illustration of the supply and demand principle.

Miss Jenny Gagliardo, who took over running of her family's business in Hornitos in 1920, seemed to have a different philosophy.

She kept meticulous records, but was likely to forgive an overdue payment when people really needed a little help in paying for groceries. Food and other products were a little easier to get by the time Jenny owned the store, but most items still were shipped from long distances.

 Miss Jenny lived next door to her store and was there each day. Photo by Linda Gast

Miss Jenny lived next door to her store and was there each day. Photo by Linda Gast

Running a general store was hard work, but at least it didn't require freezing your extremities in a rushing creek fed by frigid snow melt. Merchants were able to acquire their gold dust in a way which didn't involve squatting in an ice cold creek for hours, while moving hundreds of pounds of wet gravel and sand in hope of finding a tiny flake of gold.

Chipping away rocks in a dark damp tunnel was also fatiguing and dangerous work where a man could get crushed by a cave-in or blown up by dynamite. All things considered, shop-keeping was a relatively easy and smart way to make a living and stay alive.

Honest and reasonable sellers could make a good living by providing necessities.

Miss Jenny, started working in the family business when she was a young teenager and was behind the counter of the Gagliardo Store in Hornitos for about 75 of its 100 years in business. She was in her 90's when she passed on in 1960.

She preserved some reminders of the past, probably inadvertently, by shoving unsold merchandise to the back shelves of the store and refusing to sell the old stuff -- even to collectors who inquired.

Photo by Linda Gast

Photo by Linda Gast

Unique Merchandise

The inventory of a gold rush story varied a little from the things we buy today, some of the items seem to be specific to the era before electric power or indoor plumbing.

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Candle mold: Some say that Irish miners figured out how to tune it in such a way that it was possible to play a melancholy rendition of Danny Boy by blowing in the pipes. (Okay, that's a lie, even though it looks almost plausible.) Most people used it for candle making, six at a time.

Candle holder: When is a candle holder more than a candle holder? Underground in tunnels, the miner's candlestick could be jammed between timbers, wedged into rocky crevices, hung on a ledge, or set on a flat surface.

The candles gave light, but they were also a time telling device. Miners would not take an expensive pocket watch into the mine tunnels where it might get damaged by gritty dust. A candle burned at a relatively even rate and indicated the passage of time by the remaining height of the burning taper.

When the candle burned down to a certain level it was time to stop for lunch, and time to replace the candle. It also was in an indicator or air quality, since candle flames (and miners) tend to fade with a lack of oxygen.

Room for Five Mice.

This is similar to the museum mouse trap-- but it has room for five.

This is similar to the museum mouse trap-- but it has room for five.

Rat and mouse traps: People did not want mice or rats in their houses and barns, but there were were no rat traps in the mines.

Would you want to spend your work day with a bunch of rats? Maybe you already do? The Miners did, and even brought extra bits of bread cheese or sausage to share with the sneaky rodents at lunch break.

The sensitive tiny toes and whiskers of rats could detect the slightest tremor, of impending earthquake or cave-in. When the rats made a bee-line for the exit, miners were close behind.

The four customer mouse trap: This model has room for a mouse family of four and though it might trap the tiny rodents, it does not look particularly lethal. Perhaps it was a "catch and release" model. In any case it's sort of hard to imagine that a fourth mouse, after seeing all the tails and mouse behinds protruding from three sides of the device, would decide to stick his head in the fourth hole.

The "Thunder Pot"

A "chamber pot" This item might be hidden under the bed in the bedchamber. The elegant porcelain chamber pot in the Mariposa Museum seems much too pretty to be hidden, but apparently it is not terribly rare.

Several visitors have mentioned seeing one like it before, but museum guides are usually too polite to inquire about the extent of anyone's familiarity with the item.

Children find this pot particularly fascinating when the real meaning of "no indoor plumbing" dawns on them. Bathroom humor has great appeal to ten year olds. It is a good chance to remind the youngsters that taking out the trash is not such a terrible chore. A hundred years ago they would have been taking out the chamber pot.

The fruit and leaf motif on the top has not been unequivocally identified. The leaves look like grape leaves, but the fruit? A fig? An under-ripe gourd? An exotic or extinct pear? A prune?

Travel Bloomers

Travel bloomers have a secret.

Travel bloomers have a secret.

Convenient ladies undergarment: for lady travelers with a central opening were designed for necessary comfort stops on the trail. They were devised with modestly in mind and to circumvent the need for undressing.

If there were no convenient trees and bushes, voluminous long skirts and petticoats provided a tent of privacy.

Casket liner:There is a casket liner with a full warranty' This is something of a puzzle. Is it a "lifetime" warranty? And if it is, does it expire immediately before use? Did anyone ever check on how the liner was holding up? Did they get any endorsements from satisfied customers?

Brightly colored silk hose were probably not worn by respectable ladies. However, with the long skirts and petticoats, who would know? Was this the original " Victorian's Secret"?

Carbide lamps: These were brighter than candles. Add a little water to the carbide powder in a lamp attached to a miner's cap, and it produces acetylene gas.

A very small flame, backed by a polished reflector gave a brighter light than candles provided, though candles continued to be used for their other aforementioned advantages.

Early automobiles used similar lamps, slightly larger, for headlights.

photo by Linda Gast.

photo by Linda Gast.

Prince Albert is in The Can

Tobacco : Many brands and several forms of tobacco were stocked by the store. Most of it was in dried "plugs" or twists that could be chewed though it could also be chopped finely and smoked in a pipe.

Coffee: The impressive red coffee grinder with the curved spokes on the wheel, and its elegant decals has a great deal more charm than those found in today's supermarket which are operated by the touch of a button.

Turning the crank to operate the grinding mechanism provides the operator with a much more interactive and elemental experience with the aromatic beans.

Things in Bulk Bins.

Photo by Linda Gast

Cheese: The cheese cutter could also be a fingernail trimmer if you were not careful. Before cheese was packaged in difficult to open plastic bags it was possible to buy a wedge of Edam or Gouda or Colby sliced off of an enormous round and wrapped in plain brown paper and tied up with string.

No one worried that it had been breathed upon by other customers, but this was before germs were discovered. Or perhaps before people lost their immunity to cheese germs.

School supplies:
Students needed a slate book made of stiff sheets of cardboard covered with a mineral coating. The pages could be marked with letters, math lessons, and other schoolwork to be checked by the teacher. It was then erased and used many times, saving tons of paper.

Straight-Last Shoes: Shoes for the right and left foot were identical in shape in the U.S. before 1860. They needed to be "broken in" by by marking one shoe and making sure that it was always placed on the same foot.

Continually wearing them, perhaps walking through the creek now and then, helped them to gradually become more comfortable and helped them to conform to actual foot shapes.

During the war between the states, the military was unable to provide enough shoes manufactured in the USA for the troops. Boots were imported from places like England and France where they were doing an interesting thing -- making designated right and left shoes.

No one wanted to go back to the old style after trying the comfy foreign footwear.

Much of the unsold merchandise saved by Miss Jenny, and donated to the museum, dates back to the early 1900s and earlier. Some of it seems to show that the people of Hornitos suddenly came to their senses and stopped buying corsets and stiff shirt collars. Lots of these particular items were left unsold.


Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on August 26, 2012:

Thanks for the comment, carol7777. The stores can be a good reflection of what life was like in past years. These days, I think we sometimes have too many choices.

carol stanley from Arizona on August 26, 2012:

I love little towns with general stores. It is like going back in history. However many are updated with high prices etc. thanks for the photos and sharing.

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on October 13, 2011:

Thanks, CG. Glad you liked it.

Certified Gold on October 13, 2011:

Very nice store! Nice Pictures! Thanks for sharing your hub with us Rochelle! Have a Nice Day!

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on July 06, 2011:

Thank you, john000. I have a few more hubs on the theme. Glad you enjoyed it.

John R Wilsdon from Superior, Arizona on July 06, 2011:

It was such a joy to read this hub! I am an amateur prospector and have visited Sutter Creek, Mariposa, Columbia, and you get the idea. To look at the gold rush through the eyes of a general store owner (more or less) was a great idea. Great hub!

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on June 19, 2010:

Thank you Wayne Brown-- I appreciate your kind comments.

Wayne Brown from Texas on June 19, 2010:

Thanks Rochelle...this was very interesting, well-written, and I learned a lot too! WB

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on June 17, 2010:

About what? Did I miss something?

lila hastings on April 29, 2010:

just kidding

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on March 25, 2010:

Thanks oliversmum.

I was at the museum this morning giving a tour of these things. It was the first time in quite awhile-- but everything was pretty much the same. I have another hub on "a silly person's guide to a gold rush museum" that has a little more in a similar vein.

Thanks for your kind and enthusiastic comment. I love it.

oliversmum from australia on March 25, 2010:

Rochelle Frank. Hi. What an incredible story of times gone by. How hard these folks had to work, and under what conditions that work was carried out. The store holders seem to have had a lot of compassion and went out of their way to get what their customers asked for. The photos are beautiful.I am going to read this story again soon, It is just to wonderful to read once. Thank you. :) :)

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on August 29, 2009:

You are exactly right, Wild eyed one. The people who did find gold-- and were patient, had access to an amazing amount of stuff. They did have to pay a price, which probably make them more awesome among their peers.

The freight wagons carried everyday necessities as well as the luxuries, but their heaviest cargo was cast iron replacement parts and 'stamps' for the ore crushing mills.

Hope you will read my hub about Gold Rush Medicines (Dose of Deception).

I appreciate your comment.

WildEyes on August 29, 2009:

Ah, Rochelle. Thank you so much for this stroll down memory lane. :)

What a happening little place it must have been, and to be able to carry so much stock in such an isolated place!! Traffic way back when wasn't like what we know now, so it likely took those snazzy stockings months to travel from the factory to the shelf.

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on August 20, 2009:

Yes, some of those commode cabinets were very attractive. I have seen one that looks like a Victorian style stool with large leather-bound books sitting on it. The "books" were a hinged lid which hid the chamber pot compartment.

johnmossy from IRELAND on August 20, 2009:

Very interesting.

In those days the wealthy people kept the chamberpot in a bedside cabinet that matched the other furniture.

I have an endless store of useless information.

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on August 09, 2009:

Thanks, Kiwi. Actually they have changed, but at least they are preserved for us to get a glimpse of the past, in places like this.

kiwi91 from USA on August 09, 2009:

This is really interesting! There are still a few of these types of stores scattered across Wyoming and Utah, but they don't have quite the selection you've described here. It's fun to see some things haven't changed entirely.

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on June 07, 2009:

Thank you for looking in, Zollstock. ( Don't look in the pot.)

Zollstock from Germany originally, now loving the Pacific NW on June 07, 2009:

What fascinating tidbits of history! My grandfather used a chamber pot when I was growing up (on the other side of the Atlantic) – although I was riveted, I knew to stay away from that outdated household item. And has anyone told you lately that you have a delightful sense of humor?

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on June 05, 2009:

Thanks, so much Debris, from someone who is relatively old. (Older tha most of my relatives.)

Dennis Ebris from Florida on June 05, 2009:


Wow is all I have to say to this hub. I'm a relatively young person and adore history, and the "simpler" times of society. I really enjoyed reading about the way things used to be. Thank you for this little gem. I have bookmarked it so that I might be able to look back and read it again!


LondonGirl from London on June 02, 2009:

thanks, off to look now

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on June 01, 2009:

Thank you, LondonGirl. I have done a couple, already. There 's one called something like "A Silly Person's Guide Guide to a Gold Rush Museum". I also have one inspired by the patent medicines  of the Gold Rush era, and one about the Chinese Walls. If you search my profile with  "gold rush" you will probably find them. 

I am thinking of doing others, thanks for asking.

LondonGirl from London on June 01, 2009:

This article is amazing - absolutely fascinating, thank you! Are you going to do more about other parts of the museum, too?

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on May 29, 2009:

The whole museum is intteresting, this is just a part of it.

johnb0127 from TX on May 29, 2009:

This seems like an interesting store! I want to visit there now! Thanks for the insight

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on May 27, 2009:

The museum where I volunteer is an amazing place- each and every humble item seems to have a personal story. Thanks, Melody.

Melody Lagrimas from Philippines on May 27, 2009:

Very interesting...Thanks for this enjoyable hub.

Rochelle Frank (author) from California Gold Country on May 27, 2009:

Thank you , Patty. Those straight last shoes don't look very comfortable. Also thanks for the plug in the forum.

Patty Inglish MS from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on May 27, 2009:

I thoroughly enjoyed this Hub and did not know about the straight shoes. Now we know what "breaking in shoes" really means.

Great photos for this text as well! Thanks so much.

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