This blog explores the history of Phoenix, Arizona and a little bit of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California. This blog is not supported by advertising, it's supported by the generosity of my patrons on Patreon. Thank you!

Buying groceries in 1890 Phoenix, Arizona


One of the most commonplace things in the world is buying groceries. It's not the kind of thing that historians show much interest in, but it fascinates me. That's because I'm interested in the ordinary things of life that people do, and have always done, especially in Phoenix, Arizona. Time-travel with me now to Phoenix in 1890 and let's buy some groceries.

I'm Christian Hanny, and you can be my son, Vic. If the name sounds familiar to you, you may have gone to the clothing store that Vic Hanny had, or you may have gone to the restaurant on 1st Street and Adams, which is the former Hanny's Clothing Store building. The family still lives in Arizona, and I was privileged to see what the latest generation have saved and lovingly preserved, including this receipt from W. F. McNulty, Family Groceries and Provisions, Gents' Furnishing Goods, Etc., Washington Street.

Your first question might be "Where on Washington Street? - That's not much of an address!" But you have to consider that in 1890 Phoenix was only 14 blocks wide, and most of the businesses were right there at Central and Washington. City Hall, which was way over between 1st and 2nd Streets, had only been built two years before. There are, of course, no cars, but there are plenty of horses. No, the streets aren't paved, and wouldn't be for over a decade. Phoenix was never like the "Old West" towns you see in Westerns, but it was still pretty raw. But businesses like McNulty's are doing fine, there's a lot of activity around Phoenix, especially in the gold and silver mines. The railroad had just arrived in '87, although Phoenix had been there since 1870.

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A respectable citizen like Christian Hanny would of course been allowed to run a tab. That is, he would have been able to buy stuff all month without paying for it right then, and McNulty would just write it down, and the total would be settled up at the end of the month, or whenever the customer could pay. So really, you're looking at a Statement (for all of you Business Majors out there). Note that it has been marked Paid, and that's how you know. For practical purposes I'm calling this a receipt.

The left column says "Merchandise" and it looks like the Hanny family got some butter, canned ham, sugar, crackers, a bottle of olives, and so on. As you can see, they ran the tab on the 3rd, the 6th, the 18th, the 29th, and settled up at the end of the month. These amounts of money seem tiny to our modern eyes, but you have to consider that you could get a shave and a haircut for two bits (25 cents) in those days, so five dollars and ten cents was a considerable about of money back then. And the Hanny family had the money to settle up, although many people couldn't, and the merchant would have to "carry" them, until they could. This was very hard on merchants, who were out of pocket until they got paid, and this practice (essentially free credit) went away not long afterwards.

I like looking at these little simple slices of history! This is what makes me feel as if I'm walking back there, in time. Thank you for coming along with me.