Cracker Barrel's Oddly Authentic Version of American History

The casual dining chain uses thousands of real antiques and preserves a genuine part of U.S. culture.

Library of Congress/AP

Cracker Barrel is today's American history museum. Some of the restaurant's visitors get a kick out of its old timey decor. Others would rather eat their pancakes without staring up at old hula hoops and deer heads. Either way, if you've ever eaten at a Cracker Barrel, you know there are antiques everywhere. Maybe you think they're fake. But the company says they're not. And they're not just kitsch, either. In fact, in their own way, they're quite sophisticated.

The significance of Cracker Barrel's design is a lot easier to understand if you think about its main reference point: the 19th- and early-20th-century general store. For over a century, a large number of Americans living in remote areas got most of the stuff they owned from these small local shops. 

Ophir, Colorado, 1940 (Russell Lee/Library of Congress)

In many cases, the stores replaced the 18th century peddler -- a man who carried several dozen pounds of pots or fabric or coffee around the countryside in a cart. Often, a settlement got its general store when a peddler decided he was sick of wandering around and decided to pitch camp in a particular place. Many country stores started in small, unpainted, windowless buildings and were improved by their owners over time. As towns developed, they built elaborate facades over the humble original structures.

The general store was often cramped, warm, and dirty. The floors were rarely cleaned and tended to get caked with boot mud, soap shavings, nut shells, and whatever else patrons might be buying or eating. Dried meat hung from the rafters, and colorful advertisements from merchants spruced up bare walls.

In the Northeast, most of the stores had fireplaces or pot-bellied stoves; when it got cold, there'd be a fire going. (Southern general stores often had porches in lieu of the stoves.) Some of the owners also served as town postmaster. Others hosted itinerant wholesalers called "drummers" who traveled the region asking store owners to buy an unusual fabric or new kind of broom. More often, they succeeded in drinking a lot of free whiskey and telling stories to the assembled residents about whatever big city they'd come from.

All these attractions basically guaranteed that everyone in town would pass through in a given week, from the local drunk to the elderly widow. Knowing this was good for business, owners tried to get them to stay. A lot of the stores had crackers for patrons to snack on while they were hanging out. They were served in a barrel, the same way they were shipped. (Most of the packaging we use today didn't exist then.)

General store interior, Moundville, Alabama, 1936 (Walker Evans/Library of Congress)

Cracker Barrel picked up on this idea -- the stuffed store with a homey vibe -- and branded it. Every time the chain opens a new restaurant today, a few hundred old feed lot signs, wagon wheels, pitchforks, and so on ship from company headquarters to Florida or Maine or Massachusetts, where they are mounted on the wall alongside only tangentially rustic items like stuffed and mounted deer heads, abandoned family photographs, and motorboat motors.

The antiques, according to the company, are real ones. They come from across the U.S. to the Cracker Barrel Decor Warehouse in Lebanon, Tennessee. The company has a mock restaurant that it uses to plan the decor of every single location; designers arrange the elements for each new store in a way that looks right, make a plan (with photographs) for where the objects should go, and send it off with those objects to the new location.

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Emily Chertoff is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's National channel.

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