In the day-to-day world of the 1990s, consumers on a tight budget have learned to "shop around," to find out where they can get the best buy for their hard-earned cash. And while goods were much less expensive in the early settlements of the West--a dollar could buy a lot more--but there were fewer dollars to be had. In early Utah especially, goods had to be packed or freighted from the East and that drove the cost up.
The settlers in the Great Salt Lake Valley knew right away they were going to have a tough winter; the crops planted in the summer of 1847 probably would get them through, but they also knew clothes and other essentials would be in short supply until the immigration brought fresh supplies in '48. The first "storekeeper," if you could call him that, to open trade in the valley was a Hudson's Bay Fur Company man, Captain Richard Grant, who ordinarily held forth at his Fort Hall trading post. But on November 19, 1848, Grant rode into the Salt Lake settlement at the head of a pack train laden with skins, groceries and other goods. He pulled in on the south side of the Old Fort and opened for business as long as the merchandise lasted.
His goods were on the pricey side because of the transportation problem, but all in all, leaders of the Mormon community were pleased that he didn't exploit the situation and gouge the buyers. As it was, Grant sold sugar and coffee at a dollar a pint (an amount less than a pound); his 25-cent-a-yard calico went for 50 and 75 cents a yard; and other articles were priced proportionately.
Why did Grant not sell higher, pondered Deseret News editor Albert Carrington in a newspaper article written years later? "Perhaps he had some conscience, and it is probable he thought the then poverty of the settlers would not admit of any dearer rate and it must be confessed the [prices mentioned] were pretty high figures."
Capt. Grant's packhorse storefront was short-lived in any case. And in early 1849 the first regular stock of goods for Utah markets was brought in by the partners Livingston & Kinkead, who hauled $20,000 in St. Louis merchandise into the valley and began dealing from an adobe house in the vicinity of South Temple and Main. The following year Holladay & Warner became the city's second merchantile firm, operating from a small schoolhouse on Brigham Young's block east of today's Eagle Gate. Then came John & Enoch Reese who opened shop on Main Street, and J.M. Horner was the fourth Utah merchant.
Fa'r and squar': With these outfits in business and dealing with the Mormon population and Gentile transient traffic, things seemed to be moving right along--but some of the city's leaders were not entirely delighted. Livingston & Kinkead seemed to be "fa'r and squar" while other stores appeared to be operating on the sharp side. And Carrington, the public watchdog in his position as newspaper editor, wasn't happy. It was bad enough the U.S. mail was months late from the states, and he wasn't receiving his exchange newspapers and correspondence, but when he felt he was being gouged by the shopkeeper--well, that cut it.
He picked up his pen and swung it like a sword. In a News editorial September 28, 1854, he pointed out that Livingston & Kinkead had established the prevailing prices by virtue of being first; the figures were based on cost, interest and expenses. Nothing wrong with that, opined Carrington. The merchants offered sugar and coffee for 40 cents a pound and good calico for 25 cents a yard. True, they brought little iron and steel, a few nails, mill irons and heavy irons, but because of their weight did not bring a proportionate return for the dollar. (You could carry more coffee, sugar, calico and sundries if you passed on the iron and steel.)
"To their credit be it known that they never raised their regular price on an article even when they had all there was in the market, never kept incorrect accounts, nor even failed to deal as fairly with a child or a person ignorant of value and price, as with the most knowing and influential, and it is just [and proper] that this conduct be remembered and the people stand by those who have been tested and found to deal fairly." Fair or not, the prices across the board were still a bit steep in the editor's estimation, and he mutter editorially that it was time for consumers (he called them "buyers") to make their presence felt.
Competition: Wagon train after wagon train of staple goods had begun reaching Great Salt Lake City, with rumors of many more on the road. And because money was always scarce in the settlement, the merchants--who had bills to pay, too--were showing signs of concern. Competition was just around the next bend and they could sense it. Carrington pointed out that some folks who had a little cash were not ready to "squeeze themselves out of shape when a new store opened in order to buy a yard of ribbon or a flumdiddle for a new wife."[Webster is as much at sea on flumdiddle as the rest of us.]
"And to the credit of the [Mormon ladies], we have seen but little teasing or crowding on their part to purchase Gentile wore fog, commonly called belgerine, gauze, coarse delaines, nor the foolish expenditure of hard earnings for silks, satins and artificials, to the neglect of more useful appropriate goods."
So what happened when the merchandise trains brought in the goods? The firm of J.M. Horner & Co. was induced to take the lead and drop the price of sugar to three pounds for a dollar, which prompted Livingston & Kinkead to cut their sugar price to 30 cents a pound, calico to 18 3/4 cents a yard, and generally slash prices of their "large and splendid stock" by 25% across the board, with a guarantee that they would not be raised later.
"Competition," exulted Carrington, "did it." And that emboldened the journalist to take the case a step further. "Can a Mormon, with cash and good credit, buy as cheap as a Gentile in the markets of Babylon? He can [or he doesn't belong there]. Can he freight his goods as cheap? He can or he has no skill in freighting. Can he rent or build rooms, and hire clerks, etc., as reasonable? If not, it is his own fault. Then why can he not sell as good an article as low as the transient trader?" The answer, editor Carrington said, was obvious. If a Mormon could not do these things, it is because he has been duped, or is selfish and greedy.
He had one last bit of advice for all concerned. "Sooner or later merchandizing here [in Utah] will have to come to the fair living level, and whoever pursues an even honorable tenor in that channel, will receive the support of the people." Buyers are learning the wires, he said. "Don't deal with shops where they ask 50 cents a pound for candles, $2.50 a bunch for cotton yarn, and will only give you $10 a ton for your hay and pay you in goods at their high prices, only to resell your hay for $15 cash."]
"Hay," Carrington wrote, "is worth $15 and will soon be worth $20. Can you not wait a little? Keep out of HIGH PRICED STORES until you are compelled to go into them, which if you are wise, will never happen." That is 1850s advice that is just as sound 145 years later.