• History Revealed

The Corner Store

Updated: Jan 14, 2020

Most of the time, customers visited the stores in Alexandria or Colchester, Virginia, on a monthly or quarterly basis to pick up needed supplies. On the rare occasion, customers lived right around the corner and visited on an almost daily basis, as found in this week's #TranscriptionTuesday.


While we may not know much about Thomas Brownly from outside sources, we are able to learn much about he and his household by his visits to the Glassford Alexandria store from 1 October 1767 to 30 September 1768.


Thomas Brownly visited the Alexandria store 82 times, usually to just pick up an item or two.[1] His frequency of visits tells us he lived close enough to just pop in when he needed something, rather than saving up for one or two longer trips to the store and town.

The account for Thomas Brownly at the Alexandria store comprised two folios (52 and 191).  Because of so many visits, the author included several dates in a single row.
Thomas Brownly visited the Alexandria store 84 times between 13 October 1767 and 20 September 1768 (folios 52 and 191).

By looking at the debits/purchases Brownly made at the store, we know he was married and had at least one daughter who made purchases on his account; he also had at least one son as he purchased a pair of boys shoes on 9 November 1767. It's likely Brownly had several daughters has he purchased five pairs of women's shoes throughout the year, as well as 3 pairs of men's shoes. Two unrelated individuals also made purchases on Brownly's account - Wentworth Alding and H. Chew.[2] Alding appears to have worked for Brownly as Brownly paid off Alding's account at the Alexandria store in 1766 and Alding's purchases in this ledger were limited to 3 quarts of linseed oil, used in the manufacture of paint. Brownly's purchases do not reveal he owned any enslaved individuals.


Given Thomas Brownly's purchases of pork and flour by the barrel, we surmise he did not have access to agricultural products and likely purchased most of his food from the daily market in Alexandria. Sixty-two pounds of sugar was purchased at the store usually in six pound increments: unspecified, brown, and single refined (the most expensive and purchased right before the Christmas holidays). Although no rum was purchased prior to the Christmas holidays, someone from the household visited the store on 24 December 1767 and picked up a punch bowl - a necessity for celebrations during the twelve days of Christmas leading up to Epiphany (6 January).


In addition to tea spoons and a parcel of tea ware, the Brownly household purchased seven pounds of tea throughout the year: based on its price, around one and one half pounds of hysson or green tea and 5 and one half pounds of bohea tea. They also purchased two pounds of coffee in July 1768. The value of tea compared to coffee was significant. Coffee cost only one shilling six pence per pound, while even the lesser quality bohea tea cost 8 shillings per pound.


A small number of higher status items were purchased throughout the year - a cotton gown, scarlet cloak, leather mitts (three pairs, possibly two daughters?) and turned pumps. Several yards of decorative ribbons possibly used on clothing or hats or in the women's hair also shoe an interest in being fashionable. While not teetotalers, the Brownly's did not purchase much alcohol (only two-ish gallons of rum), but they did purchase five bottles of snuff. While plenty of snuff was sold at the Alexandria store, Brownly tied the reverend Townshend Dade for the most purchases made by a single individual.[3] Most individuals purchased the Weston, Arnold, or Kippen snuff in single bottles.

19 May 1768, Mrs Brownly purchased 4 ounces of blue at the Alexandria store (folio 191).

But what did Brownly do for a living? How did he support his household? Can that be determined from his account in the ledger? If we focus only on his purchases at the store, we get a few hints. One and one quarter pounds of blue were purchased through out the year; blue is used as a whitener of fabrics, usually during the laundering process. Given so much blue was purchased, we would suspect the women in Thomas Brownly's household of being laundresses.

7 July 1768, Thomas Brownly's daughter (name unknown) purchased 3 ounces of blue at the Alexandria store (folio 191).

Also purchased were needles, a variety of threads, and a large number of fabrics in small quantities (harden, linen, shalloon, sheeting, pomerania, osnaburg, dowlas, roll, check, holland, everlasting, and cotton) which may also point to a possible seamstressing side venture. The linseed oil purchased by Wentworth Alding indicates Brownly may have been a painter.


How did Thomas Brownly pay for his purchases? The credit side of his account confirms he did not move in agricultural products, but paid with services on behalf of the Alexandria store.

Thomas Brownly provided services to the Alexandria store in lieu of payment: washing, painting, sewing, etc. (folio 191).

At the end of the year, Henry Riddell (the store's manager) credited Brownly with painting the store's roof, trim, windows, and doors in red (thus the purchase of linseed oil); for washing the clothing of Henry Riddell, Colin Campbell (store assistant), and Sam (an enslaved man who was rented by the store from Mrs Mercy Chew); for making and mending Sam's shirts; and for making sheets, pillow cases, bags, and towels on behalf of the store. William Balmain also paid Brownly for mending and washing a pair of leather pants. Interestingly, it was likely the women in Brownly's household who did the lion's share of the work to earn the ability to make many of the purchases at this store.


While the debit side of an account is often the most interesting element of an account, the payments reveals us much more about an account holder's life. For Thomas Brownly's account, we learned he and his household's likely occupations, their social connections, a physical description of the appearance of the Alexandria store (trimmed in red), and a brief glimpse into the life an enslaved individual.


[1] In looking at the days of the week the Brownly's visited the Alexandria store, the day of the week most visited was Tuesday (18 visits). After Tuesdays, the number of visits per day was: Thursday (17), Saturday (16), Monday (13), Wednesday (10), with the least frequently visited day being Fridays at only 8 visits.

[2] The only Chew we know of associated with Colchester and Alexandria was Mrs Mercy Chew, the widow of Joseph Chew. None of Joseph's descendants with a first initial of "H" were living in 1768.

[3] For more information about the reverend Dade and his illustrious behavior, see his biographical information found in the Washington Papers (accessed 6 May 2019).


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