In his examination of the 1788-1872 account books of Kentville merchant Henry Magee and storekeeper Edgar Bishop of Aylesford, Rev. Kennedy B. Wainwright often needed the skills of a cryptographer.
When studying the ledgers, Wainwright occasionally found words and phrases that were mystifying and defied explanation or decipherment, unless one had a historian’s knowledge of time period being studied.
“Many of the articles in common use at the time of Confederation are now almost forgotten,” Wainwright explains when discussing the obscure words he found in the ledgers. “Salerus would puzzle many a cook today as she is familiar with baking soda,” he writes about what apparently was once a common item in the kitchen.
“Wiscey would confound most of us,” Wainwright continues, explaining that it is an abbreviation for linsey-woolsey, “a coarse cloth made from linen and wool which was the ancestor of our flannelette.”
Perhaps the most unusual and most puzzling item in the old store ledgers – Wainwright says it appears in the ledgers no less than 50 times – has to do with ladies’ fashions. “Then there is an elusive ‘skeleton’ which was evidently very popular with the fair sex… at that period. It is not a misspelling, like ‘shall’ for shawl; and it was not a ‘bumbler’ or an ‘artificial’ or a girdle or a shirtfront. It was bought by the yard and there were 19 different prices paid for the article marked ‘skeleton’.”
If you haven’t puzzled it out by now, Wainwright adds a few clues. “When ‘skeleton’ was bought there is usually an accompanying item marked ‘binding, tubular braid, etc.’.” The ‘skeleton’ was the wires or frames for the hoop skirt, “so fashionable,” says Wainwright, “in the sixties of the last century.”
The ledgers also reveal what the ladies of the period wore to complement the hoop skirts. Dunstable bonnets or chipp hats “and usually… a camel’s hair shawl over the shoulders.” Wainwright tells us their dresses were of “mixed cashmere, fustain, black Romsey shaloon or of silk.”
Wainwright said it was an “interesting task” to decipher some of the words in the old ledgers “because of the archaic and often crudely phonetic spelling.” Easy for him to identify were “chard” for card, “cheney” for china, “shall” for shawl and so on. Wainwright was puzzled when he came to “tala” for tallow, “cris mis” for Christmas and “tea cetel” for tea kettle. One mysterious entry from the Magee ledgers, quoted by Wainwright, probably still defies translation: “Walter Manin, he is to Let Me have My Irn work at the same as I have it from Halifax, only a Lowing carage.” This may refer to materials (iron work) for a carriage that Walter Manin is making for Magee, but it’s only a guess.
The stores of Henry Magee and Edgar Bishop were the forerunners on a smaller scale of Eaton’s and Simpsons catalogue outlets. Combine a modern drug store, a Sobeys and a Walmart – plus the horse and buggy era accoutrements – and you have some idea of the stock Magee carried in his general store. Magee (and Bishop) catered as well to the “finer sensibilities” of life as well. One shipment of goods recorded in his ledgers contained a crate of “Cream Colored Ware” and another of “Country Brown,” apparently the fancy china of the day. In the same shipment was an “assortment of dishes, basons, bedroom sets, porringers, candlesticks, china money boxes, and four dozen toy cups and saucers.”