Ana Arbor Yesterdays - A Grocery Deluxe (When Even A Nickel Was Money)
By Lela Duff
You may remember that my anonymous friend brought to a climax her description of Ann Arbor's old street railway system with the remark, “and the whole ride cost only a nickel!” This set her to thinking of the nickel itself, and she continued: “We also paid only five cents for a loaf of bread, and five cents for a quart of milk—which was delivered each morning at the back door, and poured from the high tin milk can into a quart measure, carried on a hook on the side, and thence into the householder’s crock or bowl set out for the purpose.” No need to pay extra for a bottle or carton or tax!
A group of us recently got to chattering about the treats we used to buy for a nickel: an ice-cream soda or sundae or cone (it seemed a shocking extravagance when the Banana Split was introduced at a dime); or, at the bake-shop after school, a half dozen fried-cakes or cookies; or at the candy counter of the grocery a nice little bag of horehound sticks, hard peppermints or pink wintergreens, or the slightly more expensive small chocolate creams in the shape of a rounded-off cone. And I believe a small packet of “Sen-Sen” cost only a penny.
The early movies, you remember, were called “nickelodians,” and you didn’t need to munch popcorn to enhance “The Perils of Pauline.” Without benefit of sound track, the exciting or sentimental activities on the screen were cues for proper tunes rattled away on the piano by someone you knew, who as a neighbor youngster had practiced more faithfully than the rest of you.
The mention of popcorn got us going on peanuts, and someone contributed, “Do you remember the big bag of peanuts you got for a nickel at Dean’s grocery, still warm, and the tantalizing smell of roasting peanuts and coffee that issued from the front door?”
This remark opened up the whole subject of the change in grocery stores that we older people have witnessed. “The grocer used to come right up to the back door,” my anonymous friend broke in, “and took the day’s order, suggesting items the housewife might have forgotten. Groceries and meats were delivered, twice a day if necessary, in the closed wagon drawn by one horse, and later by Merchants’ Delivery.” Of course Dean & Co., a high class retail and wholesale store, had its beginnings further back then anyone now living can remember. It was first set up during Civil War days and continued in its wholesale phase until after World War I. Its first building may even have been, like Bach & Abel’s, a wooden one with small-paned front windows and doorway shaded by a wide roof extending over the plank sidewalk as far as the row of hitching posts. By the time my friends can remember it, however, it was more pretentiously housed in the middle of the block of brick stores on the west side of Main St. between Liberty and Washington.
In the first Ann Arbor directory it was listed as a china store, and its choicest sets of delicate flowered table ware were bought in New York from M. Haviland himself.
In later years the china was displayed along the wall on the right in front of large mirrors, while an oval counter
in the middle of the store formed the gradual transition to the more practical supplies for everyday living. This was the the first store in Ann Arbor, I am told, to have a toy department, and Christmas tree ornaments further brightened the spirit of the place in December. At that time of year, too, big wooden boxes or pails of colorful hard candies were a featured display on the oval counter.
I was surprised to hear that for a time certain stores like Dean’s and Bach & Abel’s were issued special pennies by the U.S. Mint with the name of the firm added to the regular inscription. I wonder how many of my readers have such pennies hoarded away among their keepsakes.
The reason for the delicious aroma of this particular store was that Mr. Sedgwick Dean was a connoisseur of fine coffee, went to New York regularly to choose just the perfect coffee beans, and roasted them in a very special contraption in the basement of his store. He also knew exactly where and when to buy the most desirable peanuts and processed them with equal care.
This glamorous store was no cracker-barrel-and-pot-bellied stove gathering place, although in cold weather the customers might gravitate toward the splendid marble-topped register that dispensed warmth from the wood-burning basement furnace. Another feature was that back of the long central counter was a raised bookkeeper’s cage equipped with mirrors from which an alert watch could be kept against shop-lifting.
There were no meats, no baked goods, except crackers, of course, and no greengroceries or fruits except oranges, lemons, and bananas. People were supposed to raise their own Michigan vegetables and fruits. There were always several types of cheeses under their glass bells. The store also handled cigars and pipe and chewing tobacco but never cigarets, of which its owner had a low opinion. Canned goods came in slowly, though raisins and prunes were always in bulk supply.
A decorative effect was furnished by the row of large tin tea boxes painted in subdued colors with pictures and designs suggestive of the Orient. Flour, oatmeal and cornmeal, sugar, molasses, vinegar, etc., were lined up in barrels, from which the desired quantities were scooped out or drawn. At the races at the county fair, the prize for the winning horse was likely to be a barrel of flour or sugar from Dean’s.
The company had their own horses and delivery wagons of course, but Mr. Dean used to become a bit irked when, in the early days of telephones, a housewife would call up and ask that an order of pepper be sent out.
When automobiles were coming into use, Dean and Co. soon installed a gas pump on their front sidewalk, but very early motorists remember the clerk’s bringing out the gasoline in a 5-gallon can to fill up the tank. (It used to sell for 11 cents a gallon, tax free.)
This gentleman-grocer lived in a pleasant big square frame house with decorative mill work around the eaves. It is still standing, next to the parking lot at Packard and S. Main.