Tuesday, September 7, 2021

52 Ancestors - WORKING: The Envelope System

Davis Store in the 1920s

The Davis Store in Shenandoah, Virginia, has been the subject of several blogs here on Jollett Etc. It was built by my great-grandfather Walter Davis sometime before 1920 at the corner of Sixth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, probably about the same time that he built their Sears & Roebuck Craftsman house on Sixth Street.

Walter Davis 1933

Walter was a carpenter by trade, just like his father Mitchell Davis. Walter must have had an entrepreneurial spirit when he built the store and named it “W.B. Davis & Sons Groceries Etc.” How long son #1 Millard worked there is unknown, but my grandfather Orvin, son #2, was the owner and manager according to the 1930 census. Actually, my grandmother Lucille ran the store because my grandfather also owned a garage where he repaired cars. The garage was located on Pennsylvania Avenue just behind the store.

Among the boxes of STUFF retrieved from my grandparents’ attic after 70 years are several bundles of receipts from the store.

Envelopes containing receipts

My grandmother Lucille Davis behind the counter of the Davis Store


Most likely J.D. was John David Snyder. He grew up in Shenandoah, and like his father, he worked for the railroad in the 1920s and 30s. Shenandoah was a boom town even during the Depression because of the railroad. If someone in Shenandoah didn’t actually work FOR the railroad, they had a relative who did. In spite of having a steady job, Snyder always seemed to owe money at the Davis Store. The receipts are dated from October 1935 to July 1936. 

The last receipts of JD Snyder

The Snyder shopping list was modest, usually Wheaties, bread, lard, soap, beans, bologna, “weinies,” eggs, and bacon. Other practical items included notebook paper, envelopes, and a pencil. The most extravagant purchases were chewing gum, candy and cakes. Occasionally he bought cigarettes. If times were hard, he made an effort to be thrifty and conservative. Nevertheless, he ran up a bill over $60. According to the inflation calculator, that equates to the buying power of $1138.67 today. 

1936 was about the time Snyder moved his family to Baltimore, Maryland where he, a son and a daughter went to work at the steel mill. The last three receipts indicate he worked hard to pay off his debt. According to the last receipt, though, he still owed $35. That equates to about $665 today. No wonder my grandparents held onto the receipts. They must have hoped he would finish paying them back. 


Receipts showing
purchase of medicine
No doubt this was Emil Rothgeb who owned the house next door to Walter Davis on 6th Street. In 1930 Emil was earning a living as a house painter. Perhaps he painted some of the houses that Walter had built. However, in the 1940 census, Emil was working with the WPA and reported having worked only 40 weeks in 1939. 

His receipts are all dated from October-December 14, 1938. The timing of going to work for the WPA and the purchases on credit make sense. Times must have been hard. The last receipt shows he put down $2.00 in cash reducing his debt to $20.58. That equates to about $385 in buying power today. 

Like the Snyders, the Rothgebs did not seem to be extravagant in their shopping. Most of the receipts are for the typical necessities like bread, lard, meat. However, purchases of aspirin, cough drops, Bromo seltzer and “medicine” suggest someone must have been sick. The holidays meant Essie Rothgeb needed yeast, nutmeg, sugar, flour, and coconut. 


Paper-clipped together is the thinnest collection of receipts from Ernest Comer, a farmer by trade. They are dated from July 1937 to October 1938. However, a death record indicates he died in 1936. I know I have the right Ernest Comer because a couple of the receipts are written to his wife Lottie. Aside from the date confusion, what makes this group of receipts interesting is that part of the family debt was paid in goods, specifically meat in November 1937 and potatoes in June 1938.


When I first opened the envelope, I thought Mrs. Moore was a customer at my grandfather’s garage. All the receipts are from his car repair shop. Only one receipt shows work done on her car. 

2 tubes and a condenser
only 75 cents for labor!

The rest of the transactions, however, show she was a customer at the grocery store. I wonder if this was about the time that my grandfather took over at the store. Maybe he had not had new receipts printed yet.

Because there were a number of families named Moore living in Shenandoah, Virginia in the 1930s, I did not think I could identify the woman who ran up a debt at the Davis Store in 1933. Robert and Charlotte Moore lived on Seventh Street, just a block behind the store which certainly would have made shopping there convenient. By 1940, the couple was divorced. That made me rethink all the accounts at the Davis Store. Since men were the bread-winner in most households, the accounts were likely in their name even if the wife did the shopping. As a divorced woman, Mrs. Moore had her own account. Unfortunately, the envelope holding her receipts was marked “Judgment.” I think that indicates my grandparents must have sued for payment.


If my grandparents kept a ledger or other bookkeeping system, it did not survive. Only these envelopes of detailed receipts attest to who shopped at the Davis store, what they purchased, what they still owed. With no Excel spreadsheet and no calculator, my grandparents carefully carried the balance forward on each carbon-backed receipt and calculated debits and credits. It was a simple system.

One story I always heard was that customers who could not pay their bill often left diamond rings as collateral. I wonder if these receipts are for the very customers who owned those diamond rings and never came back for them.

Ring my mother had made from the diamonds
left at the Davis Store

Amy Johnson Crow continues to challenge genealogy bloggers and non-bloggers alike to think about our ancestors and share a story or photo about them. The challenge is “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.” 


© 2021, Wendy Mathias. All rights reserved.


  1. This is such an interesting post. I have friends whose last name is Rothgeb. I'm sending a link to them to see if they are related to the Rothgebs in your post.

  2. Oh my gosh girl! This is an amazing post! Love it!!

  3. Such a pretty ring from "free" diamonds! I'm sure $1138.67 is less than a year's worth of groceries today.

  4. Wow, receipts! My ancestors also owned a store and I haven't found any customer receipts.....yet.

  5. These receipts are in excellent shape. A view into the past of the customers and the storekeepers!

  6. The receipts really illuminate the shopping habits of the store customers. I hope some of their descendants find your post. The photo with the stove in the middle of the floor is very nice, too. Thanks for sharing!