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01 December 2012 @ 11:59 am
Playing detective in the past!  
As part of my Archeological Lab Methods class, we students have to put together a museum display utilizing the artifacts and research we've done throughout the semester. As a class, we decided to divide the work up by artifact type - glass, ceramic, metal, and so on. I ended up in the documentary group, so my assignment has been to look at the ledgers from the site's general store and analyze purchasing patterns.

It's been fascinating. This was a small town in the Sierra Nevada, not a center of wealth. Most of the families don't buy much beyond basic household necessities like flour, sugar, coffee, eggs, and suchlike. But every once in a while there's an entry for someone who can buys a lot of exotic goods, like coconuts or fresh meat on a weekly basis or seafood shipped in from the California coast. You know instantly that this is one of the monied residents, perhaps a business owner or a politician, but someone with money to spare.

Based on the shop entries of one individual, I think I can trace his courtship of a local woman. For a long time, he had very simple purchases - basically food staples and the occasional bit of hardware or clothing. Then, he suddenly starts buying a box of chocolate every week. There starts to be a little more variety in his purchases. One week he buys some hair tonic; a month later he purchases a bottle of cologne. After about a year's worth of entries, one starts seeing bolts of fabric appear in his ledgers (instead of prefabricated clothing) and many more food ingredients. I suspect someone got hitched and now has a wife making meals for him every day.

Some of the entries are sadder. There's one family ledger that I strongly suspect must have been the town drunk. Nearly every entry contains whiskey - for a while, it looks like he was buying three bottles of whiskey each week! The only other reliable staples are beans and bacon. Sounds disgusting for months on end, no? But then there's a brief period of time where I think he attempted to sober up. He stops buying whiskey each week. He buys things like flour, butter, and fruit. For a month or two, he's clean. But slowly, the whiskey bottles start working their way back into the ledger entries, while the food reverts back to beans and bacon. It's a little depressing.

Seanie was really surprised that I could get so absorbed in what is basically a book of store receipts, but it's so very interesting! Each entry is like a puzzle, and even if I don't always know exactly what I'm looking at, it's fun to try and reconstruct past lifestyles from these pages.
 
 
 
helens_daughterhelens_daughter on December 27th, 2012 08:52 pm (UTC)
I think it's fascinating what one can learn from grocery lists like that.