An Early Louisville Grocer, Illuminated

By James Prichard

John L. Johnston's account book for his grocery, 1846-1849

Johnston's account book

At first glance, the old volume seems to be devoid of any historical value. Yet like all original documents available for research in the Filson’s Special Collections Department, the worn ledger book of local grocer John L. Johnston (c. 1821-1878) reflects the man and his times.

1847 license to operate.

John L. Johnston's 1847 license to operate as a grocer.

A native of Ireland, Johnston initially formed a partnership with fellow grocer Francis Torrance in early 1846. Once their partnership dissolved, he continued to operate a grocery on Main Street for a number of years. Entries in his ledger reveal that he was required to obtain a license to operate his business from the city government. Dated June 28, 1847, an original invoice inserted in the book reveals he paid $25.00 to operate for one year a “4th rate Grocery Store” on Main Street “between Seventh and Eighth Streets.”

Account book of John L. Johnston, Louisville grocer. Note the December 28, 1847 mention of hiring an African American.

Entries for late Dec., 1847

Johnston’s ledger, which covers the years 1845 through 1849, provides detailed lists of the goods and wares he offered for sale. It also reveals that Johnston bought items and clothing for both himself and his family. One 1848 entry reveals he withdrew funds to pay a photographer for a Daguerreotype likeness. Other entries show that he occasionally hired slaves from his neighbors to work at his establishment. An entry for December 30, 1847, which refers to “Wages to Bob,” indicates he paid these bondmen for their labor.

Johnston recorded his donations

Johnston recorded his donations

Several other entries reveal that Johnston was a civic minded, charitable man. He donated money to both the “Relief Fire Company” and the city “Poor Fund” over the years. He also contributed money “and sundries” to Louisville’s Scotch and Irish Relief Committees. These organizations were formed in 1847 to provide aid to those famine stricken lands. Johnston apparently prospered in the years that followed and by the time of his death from tuberculosis in 1878, his business, which operated under the style of “Johnston, Newman & Co.”, was located at 312 Walnut Street.

Today, while Johnston lies in an unmarked grave in Cave Hill Cemetery, his ledger book lives on, documenting his role in antebellum Louisville’s small business community.

Information for this post was gleaned from the John L. Johnston Account Book, contemporary newspapers, and Louisville City Directories.

Filson Historical

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