From the June 18, 1943 edition of the Vineyard Gazette:

If anyone wants to purchase anything on Martha’s Vineyard, there is a place where the article can be obtained, subject, of course, to present shortages. Clothing, footware, hardware, groceries, automobiles, farm tractors, watches and jewelry, besides thousands of other things — all are here. All this, however, has come into being within a brief period, and a glance into the past to the period of no more than seventy-five years ago would reveal a far different market scene, while a further glance of a century or more would be even more startling.

The stores of the past were very small, many of them consisting merely of a single room in a private house, and the combined stock in trade of all of them put together would hardly equal that of a single large store of the Island today. Yet it was a widely diversified stock, including many an article of surprising nature.

Edgartown possessed more stores than any other town, being the home port of whalers and the port of entry for the Island, and catering to a transient buying public of considerable size. Grocery stores, clothing stores and tobacco stores, ship-chandler stores, outfitters, and gunsmith, all were here.

The young blades of up-Island towns walked into Edgartown to purchase meerschaum pipes and watch chains. They found bear’s grease, bottled and scented with oil of bergamot, for the anointing of their hair, in the Edgartown stores. They could purchase broadcloth for their shore-going suits, and there were tailors there to cut and make them. They could purchase liquor in Edgartown, but they were not obliged to travel outside of their own townships for refreshment.

Oak Bluffs, or Farm Neck, as it was generally known before the advent of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, was little more than a neighborhood. There was no village, but there was a tiny settlement, and some business establishments at Eastville. Here, at the end of the County Road, were a pier, a coal yard, a place where certain ship supplies could be purchased in moderate quantities, and a tiny shop, carrying food more than anything else, to tempt the palates of sailors landing there.

Vineyard Haven, or Holmes Hole, had one principle store, carrying groceries, clothing, cordage and ship stores, located near Huzzleston’s Head, where the village really started.

Leaving the down-Island towns, there were stores to be found in various places. One such store was at Lambert’s Cove, another in North Tisbury, or Middletown as it was called. Still another was on North Road near the town boundary, and another at the old mill on Roaring Brook, not far from the home of James Cagney.

For many years there was no actual store at Menemsha Creek, but there was a storehouse in connection with the purchase of certain goods. Eventually a regular packet service developed, and with it a store handling groceries, grain and certain other commodities.

As to the stock in trade in these various old Island stores, its appearance would shock a shopper of today. There was little or no display of goods. Light caused some articles to fade or dry up, others might get dusty, and the result was that nearly everything was stored in wooden chests and boxes, in drawers and bins, all tightly closed. Only the traditional odor of the general store of that time revealed the presence of spices, leather, molasses, coffee, tea and other wares.

The stores were gathering places. The news of the community was exchanged there, and travelers passing would stop and report on matters in their own neighborhoods. Before the regular mail service was organized, mail, messages, or the “billet” of the times, could be left at such community stores with positive assurance that they would reach the proper people without delay.

Because there was a ruling principle of obligation to the community that governed the operation of these stores, the proprietor might have a “high” bottom in his measure, he might possess scales that were inaccurate, and pour water into his rum. But a bargain was always kept, and the commission to deliver a message was a sacred thing; thus mutual respect between storekeeper and trade never reached a very low point, though the clientele might, and often did, growl when it discovered sticks in the tobacco, charcoal in the gunpowder, or had the dye run in the new shirt.

The shopper of today can hardly believe that such a transformation in Island business can have taken place in so short a time. But neither could the purchasing public of the older day, if they could behold the change. Modernism came to the Vineyard because it could not be barred, and arriving, has been duly installed as part and parcel of the insular scene. In this may be seen a striking, and perhaps timely example of the impossibility of isolationism in the modern world. The Vineyard benefited when its isolation ceased.

Compiled by Hilary Wallcox