In theory, the sales of luxury goods should be a good indicator of the status of the economy. Having enough money to purchase goods not necessary for survival suggests that employment is high and salaries are good. Problems arise, however, in determining what constitutes a necessity and what constitutes a luxury.
For example, while furniture, carpets and dishware would be considered necessities, the amount and quality of these goods might move them into the realm of luxury. In a second example, one might question whether a sewing machine, invented in 1846 but perfected and made available for home use a few years later, was necessary for a woman who made most of her family’s clothing.
In late 1879, Sedalia had a number of businessmen who dealt in goods not entirely necessary for survival. When interviewed by a Sedalia Democrat reporter attempting to evaluate the state of Sedalia’s economy, they all reported to be doing very well.
Three of Sedalia’s furniture dealers, J.G. Lesure, D.A. Clark, and F.S. Little, all said they showed an increase in business over the previous year. The carpet store owned by John Walmsley had also increased its business and expected further increases.
Holcomb and Andrews, who sold glassware, dishes and queensware, reported a five-fold increase between their opening in April and the visit of the Democrat reporter in October.
Sedalia had three bookstores that carried not only books, newspapers and magazines, but also stationery and wallpaper. Brown Brothers stated that both their wholesale and retail lines were doing well, that people were paying their bills promptly, and that they anticipated Christmas business would be good. McClellan’s Book Store, which opened in 1878, noted a significant rise in business during the summer. C.A. Dexter claimed their business had increased by 50 percent since the previous year.
During the late 19th century, pianos — although technically not necessary — were advertised as an essential item for the middle-class home. Music was believed to elevate morals, increase positive feelings toward home, and strengthen family relationships. Truxel’s Piano Store sold pianos, organs, stringed instruments, music books, and sheet music. They reported a 25 percent increase in the sale of large instruments and a 100 one hundred percent increase in the sale of other musical items.
Two items manufactured and sold in Sedalia had a dubious claim to necessity. Temperance workers and members of many churches believed alcoholic beverages and tobacco products to be totally unnecessary, even dangerous and worthy of being banned completely. Others saw a snifter of brandy and an after dinner cigar as necessities of civilized life. Still others relied on a nip of whiskey as a medical need.
Peter Kuhn, a tobacco and cigar dealer, said he experienced a slight increase in trade. James Glass, a wholesale and retail liquor dealer, said it was difficult to speak of increase in trade because the fall season had only just started. He said his sales were moderately ahead of those of the previous fall, and he expected further increases. Louis Deutsche, another liquor dealer, said his retail trade had increased by 50 percent and his wholesale trade by 20 percent. He commented that collections of accounts receivable were “fair,” and added this cryptic comment: “The more well sell the less we make.”
Sedalia seemed to be experiencing a business boom during 1879. Customers were happily spending money and businessmen were happy with trade.
Rhonda Chalfant is the president of the Pettis County chapter of NAACP and the Pettis County Historical Society.