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.

The company competes with other restaurant chains, like Applebees and TGI Fridays, which also use real antiques in their restaurants. The New York Times reported in 2002 that the restaurants' demand for old objects had grown so much that American antique dealers were struggling to source them.

In the end these items add up to an approximation of the general store of 100 years ago. The elements don't really obey any kind of historical order, or any geographical one. The stores'  peaked facade, reaching above the roof of the building, is a classic design element of Northern country stores. The front porch, with its rocking chairs, would more likely have been found in the South. Taken together, all these elements signal "general store" to the average American.

John Russell/AP

The ahistorical appropriation of period children's toys, or farm equipment, seems to make a lot of people uncomfortable -- much  like, say, new tract housing in a fake Federal style. The era of the butter churn, we think, was not really the era of the television set. Many would argue that throwing a bunch of unrelated objects together is the definition of "poor taste." 

However, for a long time, different parts of the country really did live in different eras. It turns out women in rural Tennessee did habitually hand-churn their own butter at a time when many suburban and big-city Americans were buying theirs out of the dairy case at the grocery -- and spreading it on white bread to eat in front of a color TV. And as technological advances spread unevenly throughout the country, some households wound up with both a butter churn and a color TV.

The general store itself is a great illustration of the uneven pace of change. While many large American cities were able to support their own department stores by the end of the 19th century -- the first, Macy's, evolved out of a dry goods store in New York around 1860 -- tiny general stores selling a whole variety of stuff still existed in parts of the U.S. until the middle of the 20th century. (See the dates on the photos above.)

As travel and communications technology has sped up and proliferated, time has "sped up" too, in regions of the country that were once remote. Today's cultural and technological gaps don't seem so severe. Sure, there are differences between New York City and rural Tennessee, but the disparities are far fewer than they were even 10 years ago, thanks to increasingly (though not completely) even Internet access.

With this in mind, the assortment of stuff on Cracker Barrel's walls seems less haphazard and more like a genuine record of U.S. history. There are no wall labels, but for diners who take the time to really look at the objects around them, these places make pretty good museums.