Assessing the state of the economy of a community at any given time is based on the levels of employment, the amount of wages paid to workers, the amount of taxes gathered by the community, and the sales generated by local firms. Considering the types of goods sold provides further insight into the economy.
Increased sales in lumber, hardware and building materials indicates increased housing demand, usually an indication of population growth. Sales of furniture, carpets and other household needs may suggest increased housing demand, but it may also suggest a desire to upgrade one’s home and perhaps one’s status by purchasing new or better items.
Sales of essential items such as food and clothing are a good indicator of economic prosperity, but these figures may also be deceptive, as families, especially working class families, might grow some of their own food in backyard gardens and women might make much of their families’ clothing.
Sales of non-essential items such as jewelry, books, and musical instruments may indicate a strong economy, in that people are able to afford to buy things that might enhance their lives but that they do not actually need. Sales of tobacco and liquor may suggest a strong economy, or they might, as temperance reformers claimed, indicate that some, especially the poor, might be spending money they could not afford to buy items they definitely did not need.
In 1879, the Sedalia Democrat printed an analysis of Sedalia businesses. Lumber yards, stove and tinware merchants, hardware stores, and furniture stores were doing quite well. Grocery stores also told a Democrat reporter that sales were up.
Because of its position as a railroad hub, Sedalia was a center of wholesale trade. The Democrat interviewed one wholesale grocery firm, Malty and Hogue, who reported a “very material increase” in sales, as well as an increase in the prices their goods could command. Sedalia’s other wholesale grocery firm, Hall and Beiller, noted that business had increased by a fair amount and that collections of money owed were more satisfactory that they had been in previous years.
Sales were also good among the retail grocers. Rod Gallie, whose grocery business dated to the early days of Sedalia, said his trade was much better. J.M. Yeater and Co., another established grocery firm, claimed a gradual increase in business. Yeater said that most customers “feel better” about the economy and were willing to spend money.
Other established grocery stores noted a similar increase in sales. Grocer Jim Story reported a satisfactory increase in sales. R.L. Phipps told the reporter that his sales were one-third as great as they had been in the early fall of 1878.
Two new grocery stores had opened during the late 1870s. McGinley Brothers had opened its grocery store in 1878. In the months of September and October, their sales had doubled what sales were in the summer. W.J. Bagby, whose grocery store had opened in 1879, was doing an “excellent” trade. Bagby confirmed that most grocers were doing well.
Only one grocer reported less trade than in earlier years. Business at L. Allen’s Buffalo Store Grocery, was “satisfactory,” but less than in the fall of the previous year.
Next week’s column details the condition of retail and wholesale shoe and clothing manufacturers and dealers.
Rhonda Chalfant is the president of the Pettis County chapter of NAACP and the Pettis County Historical Society.