Nominated by Margaret Kaiser; researched by Mary Beth Craven and Margaret Kaiser; narrative by Margaret Kaiser
Before the advent of the shopping mall, mega-mart, or broadcast media, the hub of any neighborhood was its general store. Here, one could usually buy provisions of all kinds, meet neighbors, and catch up on news of the day—which, to immigrant communities, often served as a lifeline to news from “the old country” as well.
This object is comprised of two 100-year-old grocery store account books, which were recently uncovered in the files of the Borough of Northvale, where they had been kept for many years. With the borough’s centennial approaching in 2016, attempts were made to review them but, unfortunately, the deteriorated condition of the books made this difficult. They had become so delicate that the paper began to disintegrate whenever it was touched. (Paper produced in the mid–nineteenth century onwards was most often made of wood fibers held together with sizing, which is acidic and weakens and yellows paper over time.) In lieu of a full conservation, which can help halt the rate of deterioration but not repair the fragility or bring back lost areas, the GSBC digitized the fragile pages, allowing the Society to capture the information and provide access for future generations of researchers.
Why Are These Ledger Books Important?
Northvale became an independent borough in 1916. Prior to that, it was part of the larger Harrington Township which had been established in 1775 and encompassed what became Oradell, Old Tappan, Dumont, Closter, Alpine, Demarest, Haworth, Harrington Park, and Norwood. Each of those towns had broken off on their own prior to 1916; Northvale was the last remaining remnant and Harrington Township dissolved with Northvale’s founding in 1916. At that time, the borders of Northvale included land that later became the Borough of Rockleigh.
Prior to settling on the name of Northvale, the area had been known variously as Neuvy and Carrieville. Early twentieth Century residents in Northvale were mostly Italian or French, often new immigrants to the US in search of work. At the time of the ledger, there were only about 500 residents in Northvale; today there are 4,938 inhabitants.
In 1916, Northvale was a small, quiet town with farms, residences with large home gardens, and some stores. Residents could take the Northern Railroad to commute to work in NYC, to attend the local high school in Closter, or to view movies in Tenafly. Passenger service on this line, whose tracks remain in the downtown area, ran from 1859 to 1966. The Northern later became Conrail and was used for freight traffic until recently. Small manufacturers, such as the Anthony and Charles Contini dynasties made pips (centers of artificial flowers often destined to decorate ladies hats). Remnants of artificial flower making existed until quite recently. Northvale also had a pasta factory. This factory later became a shirt waist factory, then a manufacturer of quality ladies garments, which were sold in New York City’s finer stores. The building is now an auto parts store.
There were several grocery stores known to have been serving the town at that time and unfortunately there is no indication in the documents as to which one kept these account books. Work on transcribing the customer accounts continues, noting the items sold to patrons back in the day. Most of the book entries are dated with month and day; one entry in Book 1 is dated 1911 and an entry in Book 2 is dated 1913, which seems to encompass the time period in which these accounts books were kept. Research has found some of the grocers in Northvale during this time were:
- Anthony Contini (died before July 1899) and Seraphina Contini Borzoni (she married Valenti William Borzoni on 3 July 1899 in Closter. In the 1920 census, Borzoni is listed as a blaster at a stone quarry and Charles and Anthony Contini are listed as his stepchildren. Seraphina died about 1923),
- Antonia Del Ben (on Livingston Street), where the Del Ben name was cut into the hedges in front of the store,
- John DeBello on Scharer Street/Avenue,
- Rosa Buonacore (on Association Street, later renamed Walnut Street),
- Mary DeMartini (Washington Street), and
- Anna Giannotti (Paris Avenue), among others.
In many cases, it appears that the wife kept the store while her husband worked at another job. (On top of raising the children and running the household—these women ran the business and managed the books in a time before they could even vote!) Many of the men in the area worked as stone carvers, bringing these skills with them from Italy. The grocery stores were often located in the first floor or basement of the storekeepers’ homes. Other stores at that time purveyed dry goods, or were bakeries (Anthony Damico on Livingston Street), or butchers (William Gordon on Tappan Road, Joseph Hanousek, James H. Wilton on Livingston Street, Guido Sterchele on Railroad Avenue), or seed stores (James W. Rau on Tappan Road). While this many stores seem like quite an excess for such a small community, they also served adjacent communities in Norwood, NJ, and Tappan and Sparkill, NY.
Prior to today’s world of cash and credit card purchases, in the early 1900’s, purchases were often “on the books” with accounts settled later or unpaid. Parents could send their children to the nearest store to pick up a grocery item or two. All purchases were entered by the storekeeper into an account book. When the family paid, the account was drawn down or paid off. Sometimes, those who had surplus eggs, chickens, goats, home grown vegetables or fruits, such as apples and grapes, or even wine made from home grown grapes, would sell these to the storekeeper for resale. Milk was one of the main items sold to the storekeeper as many people in town kept cows.
One descendant of a Northvale storekeeper remembers her Aunt sending a child to a store by bicycle to sell their family’s surplus cucumbers. Upon his return, he was asked how much he was paid for the cucumbers. Her Aunt thought this amount was insufficient and sent the child back to the store to retrieve the cucumbers. It is assumed that the grocer would either sell these locally or send surplus vegetables, fruits, etc. to the cities where freshly grown produce was not as available.
One of the Northvale grocery stores had their own butcher who raised pigs nearby for slaughter and sale. More than one descendant of early Northvale residents remembers that these pork products were not popular as the butcher fed his pigs fish, and the meat smelled fishy.
Sometimes, instead of sending eggs, milk, or other items for sale, the shopkeeper might accept them as barter against the outstanding debt on an account.
Some examples of typical Northvale customer accounts are:
In Book 1, Sarah Firenze, who was born March 1868 in New York, and her husband, Dominic, a carpenter, born January 1878 in New Jersey, and their three children, Dominic Jr., Natalie, and Elmo, lived on Paris Avenue (per the US Federal census records). In 1911, she purchased a variety of items beginning with pasta at nine cents a pound, sardines at 14 cents each, ketchup at 15 cents, lard at six and ten cents, rice at 24 cents, as well as tomatoes and other items. Her orders on various days totaled $0.82, $1.51, $3.49, etc. She paid her account on a regular schedule.
In Book 2, a Mrs. Charles Schuster, age 31, and her husband Charles, age 37, both born in New York, and their children, Charles Jr., Robert, and Ida lived on Pierron Street. Charles was a model maker (and later, Mayor of Northvale) and his parents were born in Germany. In December 1912, Mrs. Schuster purchased a selection of goods including cheese at ten cents, ham at ten cents, butter at 22 cents, conserves at seven cents, pasta at nine cents, bread at six cents, animal crackers at seven cents, scouring powder at five cents, as well as other items. Later purchases included corn flakes at ten cents. On one day, she paid $5 on her $9.05 balance. On another day, she paid $3 toward her then $9.10 account. She continued purchases and payments through 1913.
In addition to regular household purchases, researchers may also be able to divine patterns in household celebrations. Many families purchased chestnuts around Christmas and there are entries for extra flour and sugar, which might suggest a cake for a celebration—all clues into the day-to-day life of Northvale’s families.
Many households, in deference to what your Nonna may have told you, bought pre-made pasta from a local store—a fact which these account books support. Regular purchases of cigars and cigarettes in other entries suggest a tobacco lover in the house. A few households made regular purchases of kerosene, possibly to fuel lamps in the household before electric light fixtures were commonplace. Some entries record purchases made by men, where items such as ready-to-eat bread, salami, and cheese suggest they may have been bachelors.
As seen in these photos, small stores typically occupied first floors of the shopkeepers’ homes. Two general stores in Northvale were the Contini and DeBello Groceries.
Peter Perretti, grandson of grocer John DeBello, recalls that the DeBello store at 199 Scharer Avenue, formerly Scharer Street, was the first house on the property (which ran between Scharer and Norwood Street, now High Street) which his grandfather owned. Three houses were later added for his children. Peter’s grandfather would take his horse and wagon to the train station to get goods to sell. John’s wife, Rosa, was the general storekeeper. Previously he had owned a store in New York City, but refused to pay tribute to “the Mafia or black hand as they were known” so “they” tried to run down his young son who was playing on the sidewalk. A street sweeper who lived in Norwood told John about a place for sale in the country and he bought it sight unseen, loaded his wife, parents, and four children on the train, and moved to Northvale.
A sampling of the family surnames, possibly misspelled by the clerk, found in the account books are: Arcello/Orcello/Archello (actually, Arcello), Augenti, Bodrato, Campora, Conti (Norwood), Contini, DeBello, DeMartini, Firenze, Giannotti, Gugger, Haring, Jannett (probably, Gannetti), Martini (Norwood), Nero, Schuster, Silvia, Toraggossa, and Trott.
There are also other accounts listed with only first names such as Francis and Dominick or descriptions such as “young man in barbers.”
Many descendants of these families from 100 years ago still reside in Northvale. The Northvale Historical Society and GSBC will be transcribing family names from these books and will develop a surname index.
If you have family from the Northvale area from this time frame, you may be able to help us identify those named by first name only, know which general store these books are from, have memories of the stores, or would like to work on this project, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.