Clothing fits an interesting niche as an indicator of the state of the economy. Clothing is a necessity, as both morality and weather demand some covering for the body. Clothing may also be a luxury. Garments may be more elaborate or expensive than is necessary to cover the body. In addition, the demands of fashion may require frequent purchases of new garments whether old garments are badly worn or not.
In the 19th century, frugal women sewed their own clothes, often remaking hand-me-downs for younger family members or using fabric feed or flour sacks as material for underclothing, aprons, children’s clothing, and everyday garments. Women with more discretionary income often employed a seamstress to hand-sew their garments to their own measurements. However, factory made clothing became more popular with consumers.
Sedalia had several dry goods merchants that sold linens, curtains, blankets, and also supplied fabric and sewing notions to those who sewed their own clothing and factory made garments for those who chose to purchase them. In 1879, according to the Sedalia Democrat, these merchants were doing very well. The increase in their business suggested a prosperous community.
The newly opened firm of Curran and Fry were doing an “excellent” business. Nye and Guenther, who had a retail dry goods establishment, said their business had increased 20 percent over the previous year. Their trade was especially strong among the farmers and the area’s large German population. James Clute and Co., one of Sedalia’s oldest firms, had begun carrying a higher quality of goods and a larger stock. Their business had increased 25 percent.
Another dry goods merchant, Sawyer and Springs, had increased business by 30 percent. These percentages could be explained more concretely with the information that Beck and Co. had done $2,500 more business in October 1879 than in October 1878.
Other dry goods merchants, including Wolf Brothers, D. Levy and Brothers, and H.H. Marcas, were so busy with customers they couldn’t take time to speak with the Democrat reporter about the condition of their business.
Clothing stores were also doing well. J.A. Lamy and Co., tailor and clothier, reported an increase in the sales of both factory made and tailored clothing. Blair Brothers Clothing, located at the corner of West Second Street and South Ohio Avenue, claimed a “satisfactory increase” over the amount of business they had done the previous year.
Dealers in shoes, boots, hats, and caps, such as Moses and Van Wagner, had increased their stock over the previous year, and their trade had increased as well. They anticipated that trade would increase still more as winter approached. W.S. Mackey, who dealt in both wholesale and retail goods, said that both lines were doing much better. William Courtney confirmed the other merchants’ reports of increased business.
Other clothiers reported less tangible but equally gratifying results. Shoe and boot dealers Porter and Lampton’s business had increased; they suggested that the increase in business was due to the fact that “money was more plentiful.” L. Lovenger noted an increase in trade and linked the increase to customers who seemed to be in “better spirits” and so were “spending more readily.”
Next week’s column details the business activity of merchants dealing in items not considered to be necessary.
Rhonda Chalfant is the president of the Pettis County chapter of NAACP and the Pettis County Historical Society.