Tales of Tuscaloosa: Soap, Segars, and Whiskey (January 14, 1843) Featured

The simple clothing worn by slaves was often manufactured in New England and shipped to Alabama and other southern states. The simple clothing worn by slaves was often manufactured in New England and shipped to Alabama and other southern states. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On a warm spring morning, black smoke from the stacks of a riverboat wafted above the edge of River Hill. Teams of sturdy draft horses pulling heavily laden drays and wagons climbed the nearly 100-foot ascent up Market Street (now known as Greensboro Avenue) on their way to Tuscaloosa stores and warehouses. Below at the city wharf, stevedores moved rapidly to simultaneously load and unload a steamer about to embark on the two-day downstream voyage to the port city of Mobile. Crates and barrels of cargo were off-loaded, while hundreds of cotton bales were stacked onboard to begin their journey to distant destinations such as New England, Liverpool, or Le Harve. 

During Tuscaloosa’s first two decades, the little settlement prospered and grew to a population of nearly 4500, a relatively large size for cities of the Antebellum South. Although it would be nearly three decades before the first railroad would serve the area, river transportation provided reliable shipment for the area’s exports and imports. The main export was cotton—the primary source of cash, since it was one of the most important raw materials fueling the Industrial Revolution. Cash from cotton financed the imports carried on return voyages, cargo that filled area businesses with exotic merchandise—goods usually not produced locally or of sufficient quality to satisfy discerning buyers.

Since Tuscaloosa was located at the head of navigation on the Black Warrior River, lower shipping costs gave local merchants a distinct advantage that allowed them to serve retail and wholesale customers over thousands of square miles. An 1845 business directory published in the Independent Monitor listed 26 dry goods and grocery firms in Tuscaloosa. A sampling of other listings included clothing stores and tailors, booksellers and stationers, silversmiths and jewelers, cabinet and furniture makers, auctioneers, bakers, confectioners, portrait and sign painters, physicians, druggists, blacksmiths, shoemakers, carriage builders, attorneys, and workmen plying a number of trades. There were even 14 hotels and boarding houses. 

One of the dry goods firms, Brown & Maxwell, advertised their extensive inventory in the January 14, 1843 issue of the Independent Monitor. Many offerings had distance sources. Bags of coffee beans originated in Brazil, Cuba, and Santo Domingo (Haiti), while chests of tea arrived from the Orient. Barrels of whiskey came from Pennsylvania and Tennessee, while other liquors and wines poured in from the West Indies, England, France, Portugal, and Spain. Many necessities came from American producers, often in the industrialized Northeast, and included things such as salt for curing meat, nails, firearms, gunpowder, rope, patent medicines, dyes, fabrics, and cutlery, along with simple clothing for slaves.

Many items were stocked in huge quantities. Brown & Maxwell’s inventory included 30,000 pounds of sugar, 200,000 pounds of salt, 50,000 pounds of bacon, and even a ton of feathers.

Brown and Maxwell’s inventory included over 18,000 gallons of distilled spirits. That’s enough to fill over 300 standard American barrels, or about six times as many shown in this photo, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Large quantities of necessities are to be expected. However, to modern readers, some items now considered non-essentials would seem to be in inexplicable quantities, such as over 10,000 gallons of whiskey, nearly 6000 gallons of brandy, over 2000 gallons of rum and gin, untold quantities of wine, and 110,000 “segars” (cigars).  On the other end of the scale, the only hygienic necessity listed was a mere 40 boxes of soap. Several reasons could be advanced, but it should be noted that at the time, Tuscaloosa was the State Capital, and the Legislature was in session. 

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Jim Ezell

Local author and historian Jim Ezell is busily writing a collection of historical stories about the Druid City and surrounding areas, in hopes of publishing a book ahead of Tuscaloosa’s bicentennial celebration in 2019. What began as genealogy search in 1992 quickly turned into a much larger project. As Ezell searched through over a century of newspapers on microfilm at the University of Alabama’s Hoole Special Collections Library, he became fascinated by other articles about Tuscaloosa’s rich history.

Ezell was recently named Writer of the Year for 2015 by the Tuscaloosa Writers and Illustrators Guild. 

Druid City Living (DCL) is Tuscaloosa, Alabama's premier community newspaper, covering the great people, places and activities of the area.


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