By HON. E. A. POWELL
(transcribed from FIFTY-FIVE YEARS IN WEST ALABAMA printed in the
Tuscaloosa Gazette August 12, 1886)
WHAT A CALICO DRESS COST
From 1828 to 1833 the times were stringent. The price of cotton ranged from 6 to 8 cents, and money was scarce—while most of the articles of necessity were high. Coffee from 4 to 5 pounds to the dollar: very common sugar 6 to 8 pounds,—salt $3 to $4 per sack. I remember very well when salt got down to $2, in winter of 1834-5. A prominent farmer in Fayette county came to Tuskaloosa and bought two or three hundred sacks on speculation,—with a view to holding it until it would rise. In June following the man died and his administrator sold the salt before there was any material rise. Brown domestic from 35 to 371/2 cents a yard: calico from 50 to 75 cents.
Snyder’s Mill on North River, Tuskaloosa, Alabama ca. 1890 (Alabama State Archives)
I remember on one occasion being with my father in North Port, where he was laying in his year’s supplies. The merchant proposed to sell him a calico dress each for my sisters, who were growing up to womanhood. Father plead his inability and fears about making his bill too large, etc. The merchant replied, “I will sell it to you so cheap that you can’t resist it.” At the same time showing his some, and said, “I will sell you that at the low price of 43 1/2 cents a yard,” and the dresses were bought. This, however, was after the rise in cotton. In the fall of 1833 the price of cotton began to advance and ran from 11 to 13 cts. And continued to rise until it culminated in 1835-6, at 17 to 20 cents.
I remember my father sold his little crop at 18 1/2 cts. In the fall of 1836 the price opened at 14 to 15 and stood at about these figures until 1837, when there came a tremendous crash. Down went cotton in a short time to 10 cents. From the fall of 1833 to the latter part of 1837, began and ended what has since been characterised (sic) as “The Flush Times.”
I suppose there has rarely, if ever, in the history of any country, been a period of such unlimited credit. The plow-boy, scarcely out of his “teens” could go to the store and buy his Broad-Cloth Coat, Velvet Vest, Cassimer Pants, and Hat and Boots to match. I know this to be true, for I did it. In fact, almost any one who desired it could get credit for anything he wanted, and without any restriction as to amount. Of course, to meet this unlimited credit, increased facilities had to be supplied. This was done by a vast system of country merchandizing. (sic) At almost every cross road in the country you would find a store, and these country stores were filled almost exclusively with dry goods: all of which had been bought on a credit. Men without a dollar of capital, would let go the plow handles, throw off the ‘Jeans’ dress up in ‘Broad Cloth* and turn merchant. But this was not to be wondered at, for it cost nothing to make the change. They bought their goods on a credit, sold them to the people just as carelessly as the city merchant had sold to them. And so the thing went on through the years of the ‘Flush Times’.
Drish Mansion built 1837 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama
There was an end to the “Flush Times”
A few of the more prudent of the farmers, who were not carried away with the idea of an era of continuous prosperity and who simply bought what they couldn’t well do without would pay up, which gave mere semblance to solidity to the trade. But as all things must have an end, so there was an end to the “Flush Times.” But it may not be out of the way to state the fact, that as an incident to this almost unlimited system of trade, every one, or nearly so, who had embarked on this ship of fortune, at once became a banker and not only run their banks of discount, but without any authority of law, became bankers of issue. Their issues were of the denomination of 6 cents, 12 1/2 cents, 25 cents, 50 cents and occasionally as large as $1. These bills were payable in bills of what was termed regular Banks, when presented to the amount of $5.00. In most cases the currency in which these small bills were redeemable was just as worthless as the little bills themselves; consequently, there was seldom anything like a ‘run’ made upon the Bank issuing them. There was now and then an exception to the rule, and in a few instances parties issued these change bills in good faith, as a means of furnishing the people with change.
Silver Dollars were rarely seen
Instances of this kind occurred in Tuskaloosa, as in that of Robert Jemison, Henry A. Snow, John O. Cummins and James Hogan, who supplied the community with change in the shape of small bills,—every dollar of which was redeemed in good faith. But the rule was otherwise. There was a very plausable (sic) reason given for the issue of this currency. From some cause the Whigs charges it upon General Jackson’s specie circulation. All the gold and silver in the country had disappeared,—to use a common saying, it had “gone into a hole and pulled the hole in after it.” The sight of a Silver Dollar, or a Five Dollar Gold piece, or even the fractional coins were rarely if ever seen. It was to fill this vacuum that these small bills were issued, that is, by the few who issued and redeemed them in good faith.
But I said there was an end to these “Flush Times.” The ides of March in 1837 disclosed the fact that the whole business was a mere bubble on the surface, which had been inflated to the bursting point: that it was a huge Castle, built upon an imaginary foundation, and the foundation giving way the whole superstructure fell with a terrible crash, a crash that shook the continent of commerce from Boston to New Orleans.
It was an almost universal failure
The people failed to pay the country and town merchants. These merchants failed to pay the City merchants: the City merchants failed to pay the Jobbers and Importers failed to pay the Manufactures: consequently it was an almost universal failure. The failures were not mere suspensions of payment, with the prospect of resuming again, as soon as the shoal was tided over, but it seemed to be regarded every where as a straight out break.
People did not speak of this man or that firm as having ‘failed’ or ‘suspended’ but they spoke of them as being ‘BROKE,’ and every body seemed to understand the situation. There seemed to be very little sympathy with each other on account of the failures, for the reason that few people believed that there was no need of it. It was simply a wide-spread breaking down of the wild speculation of the country,—a speculation that really cost nothing but the imaginary fortunes of the speculators,— which in most cases existed only in the imagination. In all the region of country between the Warrior and Bigbee Rivers, I do not know of but one single country merchant that stood the storm,—Cornelius Blankenbaker. He would not go in debt, or sell much on a credit—Consequently, he did not fail. I do not now call to mind but one single house in North Port that weathered the storm, and that was the Snows. Tuskaloosa, comparatively, was almost as bad, but I cannot say how many houses escaped!
Clerks transformed into merchants
There was one peculiar feature connected with these mercantile failures. It was the facility with which Clerks, without any capital, were transformed into large merchants, and in every case buying out the large establishment of their employers. Clerks of to-day, on moderate salaries, would to-morrow walk out upon the street as the proprietor of the large store, while the former proprietor took his place behind the counter as clerk. There was no change in the manner of the business, and if even an inventory of the goods were taken, the fact war rarely if ever disclosed. The whole thing seemed to have been accomplished by a short advertisement in some newspaper stating the fact of the sale to the Clerk, and recommending him to the confidence and patronage of the public!
The distance was so great that the people were clamerous (sic) for relief, and they really knew not where to look for it. In June 1837, Gov. Clay, convened the Legislature in extra session in order to devise some means of relief. After much deliberation it was finally decided to issue state bonds to the amount of five million dollars, as a basis of Banking capital by the state Bank and branches, to enable the banks to accommodate the citizens and help them out of their embarrasments. (sic) There was a limitation on the amount to be loaned to any one person or firm, that limit I think was two thousand dollars, and the accommodation was to be extended to each county according to its population. The money was to be paid in three annual installments which was subsequently extended to six.
Gov. Clement Clay – eighth governor of Alabama (Alabama State Archives)
Thousands were lost to the state
Had the people received and acted on this legislation simply as a measure of relief, and only borrowed enough from the banks to relieve them from their pressing demands of the times, it would have been a very great relief, thousands did that and found it very beneficial to them. But the very act intended to relieve the people, was seized upon by thousands as opening up new avenues of speculation. Consequently every person who desired to speculate and who could make such a note as he could get recommended would go in for the full amount allowed, and thousands of them did not stop at that, but would get every man they could, to loan the use of their names to get more money under the surmise of paying their debts, as the different installments became due.
In this way the indebtedness of the bank became almost as universal as the indebtedness of the merchants. The result was that thousands upon thousands were lost to the state, through the default of those who either loaned their names or borrowed for the purpose of trade or speculation. This caused a hue and cry against all banking institutions, they were charged with all the pecuniary troubles then afflicting the people. The Democratic party set itself against banks generally, and even as late as the session of 1847. I think it was, that the senate passed a resolution receiving the entire Democratic vote, that it was inexpedient for the Legislature to charter any bank.
Tuscaloosa was the capital of Alabama from 1826 to 1846. This 1838 image of the former Capitol was taken from LaTourrette’s map of Alabama (Alabama State Archives)
Loss had to be met by taxation
But two years thereafter a charter was granted for a Bank at Mobile, and one at every session thereafter until the beginning of the war.
But suppose we examine, and see if the banks were properly chargeable with the loss to the state, that was charged to them. It is true, millions had been loaned out that never came back, and the loss had to be met by taxation. But before we put the blame on the banks let us see whether or not they are entitled to any credit on this large account. I will not here undertake to strike the balance, for I have not the data to do so, but I do know that for many years the banks paid the entire expenses of the state Government, and in addition aided very largely in sustaining the common schools of the country.
ALABAMA FOOTPRINTS Exploration: Lost & Forgotten Stories (Volume 1)is a collection of lost and forgotten stories about the people who discovered and initially settled in Alabama.
Some stories include:
- The true story of the first Mardi Gras in America and where it took place
- The Mississippi Bubble Burst – how it affected the settlers
- Did you know that many people devoted to the Crown settled in Alabama –
- Sophia McGillivray- what she did when she was nine months pregnant
- Alabama had its first Interstate in the early days of settlement