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.
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.