Keeping up with the murphies: groceries in 1893 Kansas City
Kansas Citians of 1893 were surprisingly well supplied with foodstuffs from all over the country, even in winter. Refrigerated cars, cooled by blocks of ice, had come into general use soon after the Civil War, and as a rail center, Kansas City aspired to play an important role in the distribution of agricultural products across the country. Commission sellers along Walnut Street handled a full range of agricultural product; one specialized in potatoes.
A spike in produce prices in the winter of 1892-3, attributed by the commission men to increased demand from eastern cities and a cold winter in Colorado, threatened to make potatoes a “greater delicacy than frogs’ legs, lobsters or clams,” reported the Times in February: “In fact, the common people, who have heretofore looked upon ‘murphies’ as one of the mainstays of life, will soon find them beyond reach, if they keep on their mad career to reach the top.” Colorado potatoes were selling in early February of 1893 for up to $1.25 a bushel.
Fish and pork prices were also high; most of the city’s fish came from Louisiana and the southern states. Northern fisheries were closed for the winter. Fruit was relatively cheap, reported the Times: apples sold at $4 a barrel. Bananas, oranges and pears were also cheap, since commission men preferred to sell at a lower price rather than risk shipping.
Chicken and turkey prices were rising rapidly, chickens selling at 11 to 12 ½ cents a pound, turkey at 16 ½ to 18 cents.
The situation had not changed much by the end of February, when the Times reported that there was at the city market a good variety of the kind of produce that used to belong to the midsummer season “before fruit cars were invented,” but at a high price: tomatoes from the south at 25 cents a pound, cucumbers at 25 cents each, cauliflower from 5 to 15 cents a head. Spanish onions, turnips, cabbage and cranberries were also sold. “This is the time for pine apples,” the paper reported, “and many fine ones are offered. The average price is 25 cents a head. But few grapes are on the market and they are from California. They bring 25 cents a pound.” The price of potatoes hadn’t improved.
As spring approached, a grand new Fruit auction building opened at Second and Main, “considered by competent judges from other cities who have inspected it as the finest fruit exchange building in the country, and the auction room as undoubtedly the largest, with the possible exception of those at Chicago and New Orleans,” according to the Times.
Fruit and produce came by rail from California, Florida, and the south for daily auctions. “It will … be the aim of the company to make Kansas City the great fruit center, supplying all the country tributary to the Kansas City market from Kansas City,” the Times reported.
The auction system was a new development, offering a way of determining the real value of fruit and vegetables by competition between commission men in the sales room as well as keeping cash flowing without thirty day billing cycles.
About two hundred people, including “all the leading fruit and commission men of Kansas City and a number from surrounding cities….” showed up for the inaugural auction of 600 boxes of California oranges. Among the buyers were a large number of Italians, who in contrast to the big wholesale dealers were “active searchers” for the best product at lowest cost. One of the Italians is described as bidding “Sicca de cent” for a lot: “There was a shout of laughter,” reported the Times, “but ‘Sicca de cent’ got there, as the lot was knocked down to Tony Visiti at 95 cents per box.”
Kansas City, declared the Times, was “rapidly assuming a position with reference to the handling of fruits and produce that it has long occupied relative to the handling of live stock.” With the usual civic hyperbole -- the city is said to be “surrounded by the most productive fruit and vegetable territory in the United States,” with advantages “second only to those of New York” -- the paper devoted a special feature to the produce commission firms in and around the city market and to the new Fruit and Produce Exchange building.
Most of the firms, such as the St. Louis and Kansas City Fruit and Produce Auction Company at 511 Walnut, stood along Walnut Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets. According to the Times, the St. Louis and Kansas City Company held “successful auction sales of Florida and California fruits once or twice each week at its salesroom” in the West Bottoms, with “an average attendance of about 125 buyers from the Kansas City markets and from all the neighboring cities.” The company was the agent for fruit growers in Florida, California, and Arizona.
Wholesale Italian fruit firms were among the heaviest buyers at the inaugural auction at the new Fruit and Produce building, but the Italian immigrant population was marginalized in the city’s business community, as the reaction to Tony Visiti’s bid suggests. Italians owned fruit and produce firms, and worked in the city market, but most lived under poor conditions in “Little Italy,” a section of town described in a story in the Star as a “foothold for cholera.”
Some day after shopping in the city market, suggested the Star, follow one of the produce vendors home: “If he is an Italian or if she is an Italian’s wife, he or she will very likely hurry along down Walnut street to Third and, turning, make straight for Locust.” There, three hundred people, most of them Italian, constituting “two-thirds of the entire Italian population of Kansas City,” according to the story, lived in two buildings with “the most primitive methods of sanitation – absolutely no removal of garbage.” The story wavers between faulting the obvious neglect of this part of town by city officials – water is distributed by the bucket only briefly each morning – and ascribing the problem to a lack of “pride about personal cleanliness” among the inhabitants of “little Rome.”
The fear of cholera and the high prices of produce began to diminish simultaneously with the arrival of spring. Kansas Citians, prompted by a city ordinance and threats of fines, gathered up mountains of trash and deposited them in the Missouri River. The residents of Little Italy, noted the Journal, were particularly active in removing garbage, including fruit which had become too decayed to sell. Since the city lacked a city garbage removal service, the fruit had been buried.
As the city’s spring cleaning was going on, the city market began to fill with market gardeners bringing in their produce. A Journal reporter paid a visit to the “market house” on the public square, adjacent to the imposing Victorian Italianate city hall building to observe market gardeners arriving from adjoining areas, sometimes many miles distant: “Many of the market gardeners are women,” he writes, “and it is not an unusual sight to see them on their wagons between midnight and daylight wending their way to the public square. They are hardy and robust women,” who bring in “all kinds of vegetables, berries and melons during their seasons.”
Their first customers were keepers of grocery stores and boarding houses, and buyers for hotels and restaurants, followed by “the housewives of the city or their servants.” The public square and surrounding streets became crowded with wagons. Wooden sheds projecting from the market house to provide exterior stalls added additional clutter: “The sheds,” the Journal reporter observes, “do not add to the appearance of the market house, because they possess no uniformity of architectural design, but they yield a good revenue to the city.” Meats, fish, lobsters, shrimp, oysters, game – “everything eatable” – were sold from inside stalls year round.
The Star did a regular inventory of street markets for the benefit of area farmers planning to bring their produce to town and found home grown vegetables “abundant” by mid-May, with abundant eggs: “Receipts of country butter are larger, the quality is fair and demand is equal to supply at steady prices.” Turkeys, in contrast, were “neglected and weak,” and “It is useless to send little chicks here as they will not sell.” On the other hand, “It was no trouble to get from $3 to $4.50 per case” of strawberries. As for the “murphies”: “The market is bare of trashy potatoes and the little good stock is selling quickly.” 
The Times’ survey of Saturday markets in late May reported the City market “radiant just now in the full glory of spring vegetables of almost every description,” with vegetables coming in from Texas: “beans, peas, tomatoes and potatoes… All these vegetables are carefully shipped and are almost as fresh as if home-grown. Arkansas is beginning to furnish some vegetables, and in a short time will nearly supply the market, until local gardeners step in with their usual crops.” Texas potatoes were, however, more expensive at 50 cents a peck than Colorado potatoes had been in February at $1.25 a bushel.
Spring chickens were fetching 45 cents apiece for “very ordinary looking specimens,” and there is “quite a demand for pigeons, and good ones cost from $1.50 to $1.75 per dozen.” These were probably passenger pigeons, on the road to extinction. Also on sale: “A box of choice frogs’ legs were received from Southwest Missouri yesterday and were selling at $1.75 and $2 per dozen.” 
By early June, locally produced produce was pushing imported out of the markets, despite a cool spring. “Radishes and lettuce are a drag on the market,” reported the Times. “About thirty large radishes may be bought for 5 cents, and six and ten bunches of lettuce may be had at the same price.” Cabbage and cauliflower were selling for a cent or two a pound. Cherries, peaches and blackberries were starting to show up, but spring chickens were “still scarce” and at 75 cents apiece expensive considering the pay levels typical of the time – a police patrolman, for example, was paid $70 a month, or less than $2.50 a day.
The humble “murphy” was still no bargain in the June markets, as locally produced potatoes began to appear: good new potatoes were selling for 40 to 50 cents a peck. Even a bushel of “old potatoes” went for $1 at Williams Grocery on Independence Avenue.
 “Murphies” : slang name for potatoes.
 The St. Louis and Kansas City Fruit and Produce Auction Company was in the building now occupied by Planters Seed and Spice Company.
September 1, 2012