Editor’s note: Enjoy this article that was originally published in the Bulletin of the Historical Society of Cecil County in April 1994.
CECILTON — In January 1958, a well-proportioned brick colonial building located on the southwest corner of Augustine Herman Highway (Route 213) and Main Street in Cecilton was demolished. Locals had judged from the building’s exterior that it was probably built between 1769 and 1780. It was said that the interior was not elaborate, but that it had been pleasant and typical of the area. The structure, originally a residence, also saw use as a post office, pool room, and as Mr. Nowland’s store. Since demolition, the lot has been occupied by a Texaco filling station.
Between 1842 and 1850, this building served as Nowland’s Store. This is substantiated by a singular piece of wire that was found under the eaves at the time or razing. Holding approximately 500 orders, the wire spindle affords us a “window in time” through which we can glimpse a view of the shopping habits of some Cecil County residents.
The orders were written on conventional note paper, parts of envelopes, thin blue paper of the period, and bits and pieces found around the house. A few pages were decorated with fine embossing. Many retained the remnants of sealing wax. Presumably, after being filled, written requests were put on the wire.
The notes were addressed to “Dear Mr.” or “Dear Col.” for Alfred C. Nowland — often spelled Noland by unknowing, but not necessarily untutored, patrons. Other vagaries of spelling are sprinkled about the correspondence. Notes were addressed to him at two locations. The majority dealt with store at Cecilton, but some were addressed to Elkton, pointing to the possibility that Mr. Nowland operated stores at both of these locations.
Mr. Nowland served the community in many ways other than as a storekeeper. Activities included services as a mini-bank, as is evidenced by notes requesting he please give the messenger a given small sum (usually up to $5) or “let the bearer have a specified amount of merchandise.”
Mr. Nowland was expected to sell locally produced items and redeem their estimated worth in goods. Two days before Christmas a patroness sent what, in her opinion, was a “particularly fine old ham” to Mr. Nowland. In return she requested a sugarloaf. Practicing quality control 1800s style, Mr. Nowland wrote the ham was returned, “having been previously eaten by mice.”
Occasionally he was asked to shop at another store for his patron if he personally could not supply a desired item. M.C. Lusby wrote, “Please send 1 quart of his best vinegar — if he has not any please get it from one of the other stores.”
The store also served as a repository. Mr. Bouchelle stopped by the store, then carried the message back to his cousin Ben Sluyter, of Bohemia River, that Thomas Boulden dropped off some grain for pickup at Nowlands.
Mr. Nowland was supposed to be a generous man, as indicated by a note from a patron written Sept. 10, 1850, requesting 10 yards of carpet binding. Mr. Nowland was told he ought to let the customer “have it for 3 cents a yard, as they had to hem so much.”
Charge accounts and credit ratings were established on a personal basis. Probably the most distinguished patrons were Louis McLane (1786-1857) of Bohemia, known as a diplomat, business executive, and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury; Commodore Jacob Jones (1768-1850), naval hero of the War of 1812 who owed The Anchorage, and Thomas Marsh Foreman (Bryan) of Rose Hill, who was grandson of the Revolutionary War Gen. Thomas Marsh Forman. The general willed the farms to his grandson on the condition that he drop the name Bryan.
The “spindle orders” all date from before the Civil War, when slaves and servants were often sent to do the shopping. Many of the orders read, “please let Ritty (or another name) have” and they were signed by the slave owner. Occasionally the overseer or manager would sign the order adding as in case of Thomas Craddock of The Anchorage, who wrote “charge to the Commodore.”
As is often the case today, our 1800s shoppers sometimes had to curtail their shopping lists. One particular list grew so long that the patroness wrote that she had to stop, for her slave couldn’t possibly get it all home on horseback.
Clothing was often the object of transaction. Shoes and boots, the latter of which often stipulated of the laces variety, were in demand. Coarse boots, perhaps for house servants or hands, were ordered with the request that the boots “come well up to the ankle”
Gloves of white cotton were in good supply. Black silk gloves were asked for along with other funeral appointments such as mourning calico or shrouding material. Caps were in style and in one case “were not to cost more than $1,” but there was rarely such a price stipulation on the orders for “pantaloons.”
Often requested foodstuffs were lemon and peppermint extract, spices, brown sugar, sugarloaf, coffee in both the cheap and good varieties, as well as green and black tea. Bacon was often ordered for families, but “middlings” were usually supplied to servants. Soda or water crackers seemed to have been a great favorite of the populace.
In the fall, saltpeter was ordered in larger quantities because of hog butchering. Gum Arabic, used for the preparation of pills, served as an emulsion and general thickener. Other items of interest include sheep shears, shovels, tongs, oil for lamps, mouse traps, rosin, butcher knives, wash tubs, starch, nails, indigo, camphor, rope, candle molds, milk pans, washboards, paints, soap, candles, cloth, buttons, letter paper, and feathers.
Requested and apparently supplied were farm needs such as leather horse collars, halters, lines and curry combs. Supplies for ammunition were ordered frequently. On at least one occasion there was a stipulation that the caps be fluted. Powder was obtained by the pound bag as was the shot. The sizes 2, 3 or 4 were specified.
It is fine to be able to “shop until we drop” at a climate-controlled mall, but it is doubtful that we will ever see the personal service and generosity that was afforded to the Cecil County residents of this former period by Mr. Nowland.
Thank you to volunteer Jo Ann Gardner for sharing this article.