Missouri Bicentennial Minutes: Merchandise in 1821 Grocery Stores (Part 1)

Apr 8, 2021

We can learn about how people lived in Missouri in 1821 by examining items sold in mercantile stores. Most such stores were combinations of modern-day hardware, grocery, pharmaceutical, fabric, and convenience stores. Goods arrived by steamboat in 1821, mostly via New Orleans. Proprietors advertised newly-arrived goods in local newspapers.

Most produced or hunted their food and clothing, and cash was a limited commodity. Rural residents might trade or sell surplus produce and other items to the store. For example, merchants purchased or traded tobacco for shipment, and in turn sold fine imported smoking products such as “segars.” The only foodstuffs most purchased were coffee and tea; salt; sugar, although maple sugar and honey served for most; and luxury foods such as chocolate, raisins, preserved fish, and figs. Farmers grew and milled grains locally. Many drank whiskey or hard cider, also produced locally. If anyone bought spirits, imported wines, brandies, and rum were at the store.

Missourians often used native plant substitutes for spices, but could purchase black pepper, allspice, ginger, nutmeg, and other spices. Settlers had to purchase alum, used to make pickled vegetables crisper.

Most used natural dyes for fibers and clothing. However, some colors were difficult to obtain without purchase, such as indigo for blue and madder for red or orange. Glauber salt and Epsom salt enhanced the dyeing process.

Many early Missourians knew a blacksmith in their neighborhoods, but if the smith lacked fine skills, specialty items such as castings, plough plates, and hand saws were in the store. Blacksmiths could purchase bar iron, the raw material for making iron items.