Abstract: "I would not be without this machine": The Cash Register in the Corner Grocery Store, 1880–1910

Susan V. Spellman


Focusing on the cash register, I examine neighborhood grocers as consumers and users of retail technology. Introduced in 1879, the cash register came to define both critics' and storekeepers' notions of what constituted modern retailing methods by the turn of the twentieth century. In adopting and adapting the register to everyday trade practices, I argue, small businessmen demonstrated their innovativeness and ingenuity, playing a crucial, albeit unacknowledged, role in the development of American commercial enterprise. In this way, I propose new criteria for evaluating these early tradesmen that move beyond financial indicators as a mark of comparison with twentieth-century chain stores, to consider corner grocers on their own terms. Using testimonial letters, trade literature, accounting ledgers, advertising, and photographic evidence, I suggest that our reticence to evaluate nineteenth-century retail firms as adopters of modern technology has enabled us to perpetuate the myth of the backward storekeeper, more inclined to lounge by his potbellied stove than to keep up with current business trends.