Inside General Stores of Ontario: A Step Back in Time

May 2, 2019 | Raya

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Old general store and people outside  background turned to white
North of Village of Malvern (now Scarborough), circa 1880. Toronto Star Photograph Archive.

It's 1886. You need flour to bake a loaf of bread to go with the beef stew you're serving for dinner. Where do you go? More than likely, the general store.

General stores were the place to go if you lived in a small town, village or on a nearby farm. You would either walk or take your horse and buggy to the store, greeting friends and acquaintances along the way.


Photographs: Storefronts

T. G  Tipling's Grocery

Lang and Beer's Dry Goods and Millinery Store

Carr bros and co general merchants



As you enter the store the shopkeeper greets you by name. Glancing around,  your eyes settle on the many large barrels and boxes containing a variety of foods near the front door.

You find the barrel of superfine wheat flour that you need. The shopkeeper comes over to scoop out the amount you request, places it on wrapping paper, weighs it on his scale and wraps it with string. The cost is four and a half cents per pound. 

Events just like this played out every day in small towns across Ontario. 


Photographs: Inside the Stores

Interior J. A. Partington's Grocery Store

J. N. Pickett, General Merchant

Medical Hall-W. D. Coate, Proprietor



Shelves were always packed with goods: coffee beans, teas, spices, baking powder and canned goods. Dried legumes could be found in bushel baskets while pickles and crackers were sold from barrels. Beer, whiskey, molasses and vinegar were dispensed through spigots from barrels.

Crackers and other necessities such as medicines, toiletries, hats, farm supplies and bolts of cloth could also be purchased. If you needed a pair of boots or shoes, the general store would stock them or order them for you.

Surplus items would be kept in the basement and, if the shopkeeper and his family didn't live above the store, that area would also be used for storage.


Ephemera: Advertisements

Postcard with bird on branch and text that reads Great Dominion Tea Co 228 Yonge Street Toronto Ontariojpg

Yeast advertisement with a woman and packaging as well as building with text that reads Warner's Safe Yeast Building

Illustrated card of winter scene with text advertising e w webster fine boots and shoes  41 munroe st  Lynn



The first general stores of the early 19th century were poorly lit, with front windows providing most of the light. Floors were covered with sawdust to absorb mud, molasses and tobacco juice.

Counters ran along both sides of the store and were piled high with every product imaginable. The shelves were divided according to the type of merchandise. Many items purchased in bulk needed to be weighed.

With the advent of mass production in the late 19th century and the use of railroads beginning in the 1840s to transport goods, the general store began to stock more luxuries such as lace from Brussels, ribbon from Paris and specialty foods transported in refrigerated boxcars. 

Painting of Howland and Elliott General Store and Post Office with two hikers and dog standing outside

The shopkeeper played numerous roles in the community. He was often asked to give advice on marriage and was sometimes appointed justice of the peace. Some were also fire chiefs and post masters. They would often read and write letters for illiterate customers, interpret the news and give advice.

Many shopkeepers even hosted checker games in their stores. With the advent of radio in the 1920s, they provided access to sporting events. The general store was also the place where gossip was exchanged — if there were a death, birth or marriage, the shopkeeper was the first to hear it.

The 19th and early 20th centuries were the golden age of the general store. With urbanization and the rise of the department store mail-order catalogue, the general store began to disappear. Only a handful remain today. So, on your next trip through small-town Ontario perhaps stop in at the general store and take a step back in time.



Explore more images of general stores across Ontario using Toronto Public Library's website, Digital Archive Ontario.