by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, January 31, 2014.
At the conclusion of the war, Exeter, like most New England towns, was ready to get back to work. And, like most New England towns, a host of new industries and businesses began to flourish during a period stretching from 1870 – 1900, sometimes called the ‘second industrial revolution.’ The northern states came out of the war with infrastructure intact. All that was needed was a renewed workforce and an injection of capital to pull the economy out of the doldrums.
In the years just after the war, heavy industry developed near the railroad depot. Exeter Machine Works manufactured heavy boilers, radiators, blowers and exhaust systems. Many of the older homes in Exeter still have radiators embossed with the name “Exeter Machine Works” on the fins. The business incorporated in 1876 at a time when central heating systems were still considered a luxury.
Nearly on the same spot was the Exeter Brass Works. With a workforce of sixty people, Eben Folsom and Joseph Wiggin incorporated the business in 1892. Turning out high-quality fittings for water, gas and steam, the foundry also produced some fancy goods. Brass candlesticks bearing the Exeter Brass Works logo can still be found in estate auctions throughout New England.
Production methods used during the war created an entirely new way of creating goods. Assembly line production and mass produced items changed the purchasing habits of the population. Instead of having a pair of shoes made by a cobbler, one might be able to walk into a shop and buy a pair ready-made at a shop. The Exeter Boot and Shoe Company was founded on Front Street in 1882 and by 1911 was producing 125 sixty pair cases of women’s shoes per day.
But the factories and machine shops weren’t the only change in the local economy. In the business district of town, down by the river, new stores advertised a wide variety of consumer goods in the late 1800s. A small booklet entitled, “Exeter. Resources, Development and Progress, A Series of Comprehensive Sketches” published in 1902 was a veritable booster for the downtown merchants. “Capital and business enterprises have given Exeter good stores and stocks of merchandise and other essentials being rich and varied and, as freight rates are comparatively low, prices are quoted accordingly, so that people from the surrounding districts come here to buy. The business men are so fully alive and attentive to the wants of the community, that there is no necessity for going outside to get anything, for here everything that can be required for a family can be had, of the latest make and at prices which compare favorably with those ruling in the great metropolitan centers.” No need to take the train to Boston, Exeter had everything you could want right here.
At James Batchelder’s book shop on Water Street one could browse through a wide variety of goods. The “Business Guide to Exeter,” published in 1911, related that Batchelder had opened his business in 1883 and, “in addition to a select stock of stationery and accessories, he is a large handler of wall papers, music and musical instruments, post cards, leather goods and novelties.”
At Lucy B. Getchell’s millinery shop, which opened in 1881, the “Business Guide to Exeter” said, “may be found a most complete stock of millinery, embroidery goods, laces, ribbons, in fact an almost endless variety of new, fresh and up-to-date goods.”
Most shops, by 1900, had ceased to confine themselves to single item wares. Shoe shops, like Thomas Smith’s, offered not just shoes but “an excellent assortment of footwear, consisting of everything that is desirable in boots, shoes, rubbers and slippers for men women, and children.” Even the druggist, A.S. Wetherell, no longer sold only medicine. “The house was established in 1873,” states the guide, “and since that time it has steadily increased in popularity. Mr. Wetherell carries a complete line of drugs, medicines, trusses, toilet articles and physicians supplies. The quality of ice cream and soda furnished here makes it a very popular resort.”
Our consumer economy, it seems, has its roots in the Gilded Age. We appreciate one-stop shopping as much as our predecessors. Is it any wonder, then, that we can pick up a rice cooker at the drug store or oatmeal at the gas station?
Photo: This well-stocked Exeter shop on Water Street from about 1906 offered a wide variety of goods to shoppers. The consumer economy as we know it today developed in the years following the Civil War.