My Life at the Jones Grocery, by Gerald Van Pool

Above, the Jones Grocery Store at 7-9 N. Main Street as seen in an Oct. 1, 1955 photograph from the Janesville Gazette, thirty years --and at a different location on the same street--after Gerald Pool worked there. The grocery store is behind the light pole and the car.

Above, Gerald Van Pool's Senior Class Picture from the 1923 Janesville High School Yearbook

Below is an excerpt from Gerald M. Van Pool’s wonderful memoir, I Remember Janesville, published in 1977. Born and bred in Janesville, Van Pool became a teacher and ultimately, a member of the Washington, D.C. staff of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

This excerpt tells of Van Pool's experience working at a local grocery store during his senior year in high school (1922-1923). It is illustrated with photos of Janesville grocery stores roughly from the period of time he describes.

My Life at the Jones Grocery, by Gerald M. Van Pool

I never said that John H. Jones (The Grocer) should have been named Ebenezer Scrooge, although…these two gentlemen had much in common. John H. Jones…was a hard man with a dollar as I found out when I worked in his grocery at 36 S. Main Street, Janesville, Wisconsin.

Pay and Hours: I worked at this store while I was in high school (in the early 1920s), getting there at 7:00 to open up and wait on early morning customers. They were usually men on their way to work and who wanted smokes, chewing tobacco, or something for their noon lunch. I worked for about an hour, then went to school, returned at the end of the school day, and worked until about 6:30 p.m. I also worked on Saturday from 7:00 a.m. until almost 11:00 p.m. and for some 30 hours of work, I received the princely sum of $5.00, which meant that I earned about 18 cents an hour, well below the minimum wage of 30 cents an hour required by the Wisconsin Child Labor Law. During the summer, I worked anywhere from 50 to 60 hours a week, a violation of the number of hours which a minor could work in one week. Yet, I was considered one of the lucky boys in school. I had a job that gave me spending money, bought some of my school materials, and even some clothes…

Physical Set-Up of the Store: The John H. Jones Grocery was located at 36 S. Main St.; it was rather narrow but quite deep, with two front windows, one at each side of the front door with a long aisle leading from the front door to the back of the store and storeroom. Up front on the right was a counter filled with glass jars and back of them the wall shelves were loaded with even more jars. Some of these goods were ordinary, but a few puzzled me: pickled walnuts, smoked oysters, capers, and other exotic items. Further back, still on the right, was another counter which held two or three wheels of cheese, the ice box, a screened room for sacks of flour, and lastly the back room.

Above, early 1900s photo of unidentified Janesville grocery store interior

On the left of the entrance were the glass-covered candy and tobacco counters; two counters for waiting on trade and for putting up orders; the bakery goods case; coffee mill; shelves of soaps and cleansers; walk-in safe; desk; toilet, and cold water sink. Along the front counters were boxes of lemons, oranges, grapefruit, and apples all tilted so that customers could see what was for sale. A stalk of bananas always hung in the window with a curved banana knife imbedded in the stalk.

The Back Room: The back room was a cheerless place; it was dark and cold, loaded with stock and canned goods, a big tank of kerosene, a bin of potatoes, barrel of soap chips, barrel of vinegar, bales of wrapping paper and bags—anything for which room could not be found elsewhere. It opened out into an alley about 8-10 feet below the back door and sometimes when we had too much junk, we just opened the back door and dumped the excess out into the alley. I don’t know what happened to it but it always seemed to disappear.

Stock: For the most part we carried only first class goods at high prices. As a result, we had what might be called “The Carriage Trade.” Many customers lived on The Hill and were willing to pay higher prices to get outstanding quality and service. Delivering one yeast cake to a Hill customer was the kind of service our customers expected, received, and paid for.

Housekeeping - Clean up: Cleaning up was a never-ending job; this meant taking jars or cans off the shelves and dusting them with a feather duster, which simply rearranged the dust. As all parts of the store were in constant use, things were bound to get upset and in need of constant straightening and rearranging. We were all warned to watch carefully to make sure than any cans or jars with a suspicious bulge were removed and discarded; a bulge meant that the contents had started to spoil and were unfit to sell.

Potatoes were usually bought from local farmers and stored in large bins in the back room and cellar. They kept well for a long time as both places were cool but toward spring it was necessary for someone (who else but me?) to climb into a bin and hand-sort the remaining potatoes looking for rotten ones. And there were plenty! I hated this job, partly because of the smell, but also because in sorting, my hand sometimes went deep into a rotten mess and so I had to stop and wash my hands and get rid of the foul matter.

Bulk Goods: Much of our merchandise was sold in bulk as there were not nearly as many packaged goods as are available now. When filling an order, the clerk (who might have just filled a can of kerosene) reached into the box with his bare hands and put the cookies in a bag. Usual result – kerosene flavored cookies. Some peanut butter came in a wooden tub and was scooped out with a wooden spoon and put in a little wooden (or cardboard) container. Lard was handled the same way. Dill pickles were fished out of a huge barrel with wooden tongs; oysters were kept in a metal container in the ice box or, in winter, on a rack outside the store. Packaged coffee was common even then but our best selling brand was simply bulk coffee at 35 cents a pound. Coffee beans came in a huge burlap sack and at regular intervals we had to grind up several pounds of these beans and put the ground coffee in 1-lb. bags.

Christmas Candy; Tobacco: At Christmas, we always ordered several wooden pails of Christmas candy –mostly hard candies with a small design in the center. The open pails were displayed prominently in front of the counters along with oranges and apples so that a customer had to pass it and we hoped would be tempted to buy. All kinds of tobacco were kept in stock: cigars, cigarettes (15 cents and two for a quarter), chewing tobacco, cigar clippings, pipe tobacco, snuff—everything. I did not smoke but was often asked to recommend a good cigar. Mr. Jones told me to recommend the Cremo, a good 5 cent cigar. It may have seemed odd for a teenage non-smoker to tell a confirmed smoker what cigar he ought to smoke but it appeared that the recommendation was a good one as many came back for more, sometimes buying a box.

Farm Trade: We had a large farm trade. Farmers usually came to town on a Saturday afternoon or early evening, and left a case of eggs and the week’s orders for us to fill while they went out on the town. In those days, Saturday night was the big night of the week with all stores open and hundreds of people in town; many of my own friends made it a point to visit me for a few minutes and perhaps buy a bag of candy. Farmers always had many errands to take care of and often did not return to the store until 10 or 11 o’clock. Every one of us had to stay until every customer had left and all orders were picked up.

Duties of a Grocery Clerk: In the winter, a fire had to be built in the large stove at the back of the store, the only source of heat in the whole place. Certain merchandise could be displayed outside: a barrel of brooms or snow shovels, a cask of oysters, a bundle of dried fish, and at Christmas, a few trees and wreaths.

L.C. Brownell's Grocery Store at 40 S. Main St.

Clerks were expected to wait on customers; prepare orders for delivery; keep shelves filled; grind coffee; sack up sugar, potatoes, and coffee; clean and dust; pick out spoiled fruit and vegetables; candle eggs [to make sure they weren’t rotten]; maintain inventory; deliver goods to nearby restaurants, cars, or homes; call homes to see if anything was needed; help to tap a barrel of vinegar; clean the windows; occasionally arrange a display; and bring in merchandise from the front walk.

Waiting on Customers: The practice of providing a customer with a movable basket and letting her wander all over the store as is common in today’s supermarkets was still a long way off. In our stores, the customer came up to the counter and was greeted by a clerk who asked her what she needed. She told him and he went to get it, put it on the counter, and asked what was next on the list. Many times, we wished that a customer would just give us the list and let us collect the items by ourselves. Finally all the goods were on the counter and then the clerk had to total up the purchases to see how much was owed. The order was then placed in a bag or box, depending on its size; some customers carried the entire order home; others left it for later delivery; a few asked that it be carried out to the car. Many times I have walked a whole block carrying a large box of groceries and with a sack of flour on my shoulder. No tip was ever offered and none was expected.

After I have written so much, complaining about long hours and low pay, it may seem odd for me to report that I actually enjoyed the work -- in fact, I liked it so much that I even discussed with John Jones's son, Harold, the possibility of my staying in Janesville so that, eventually, he and I might go into the grocery busines together. But in 1923, my good sense and better judgment prevailed and in September, as scheduled, I left Janesville to enter the University of Wisconsin.

--LG, who re-arranged some of the material in this excerpt.


  1. I've found this article wonderfully helpful for a novel I'm writing. It takes place in 1918 and some of the plot involves a small grocery store. Thanks so much for posting this valuable information.

  2. John Jones was my great great grandfather. Thanks for posting.