Irish Grocers in Alexandria (1850-1880)

In most historical analyses of the Reconstruction Period (1865-1877), the southern economy is often described as devastated due to the war.  This argument, however, is far too simplistic.  In Alexandria, Virginia, Irish grocers did well financially from 1860 to 1870 based on census data.  Although the majority of Irish in Alexandria were laborers when the 1850 U.S. Census was taken, there was a significant increase in Irish grocers in 1860 and and again in 1870. And many of these families also became wealthy during the decade.

Irish Grocers in Alexandria, Virginia, 1850-1880

Year Number of Grocers Value of Property
1850 0 $0
1860 16 $93,020
1870 31 $156,700
1880 14 Not Listed

The 1850 U.S. Census for Alexandria reported that most of the Irish workforce were employed as laborers; there were no reports of Irish grocers. Most Irish laborers had no assets of value, which indicated their poverty. By 1860, one year before the Civil War, the U.S. Census reported 16 Irish grocers, a noticeable number considering a decade ago there were none.  A majority of these grocers listed assets at $1,000 or more.

In 1870, the U.S. Census reported 31 Irish grocers in Alexandria, a doubling over the previous reporting. The value of property listed also demonstrated that not only were these grocers prosperous, but also they had accumulated wealth during wartime. At least for one individual–Michael Harlow–was able to change his economic situation during the 1860s and become well-to-do.  In 1860, Michael Harlow was listed as a laborer with no assets (NOTE: almost all laborers had assets valued at $0 in 1860 and 1870). A decade later Michael Harlow was listed as a grocer and his property was valued at $10,000. Harlow’s success was also passed down to his sons. Michael B. Harlow Jr. became the city’s Treasurer and President of the Catholic Beneficiary Society. H.M. Harlow became a grocer and joined the Executive Committee of Liquor Dealers. The status of this family’s second generation symbolizes the economic potential and acceptance of Irish in the South.

Irish Merchants in Alexandria, Virginia, 1850-1880

Year Number of Merchants Value of Property ($)
1850 18 142,000
1860 2 150
1870 0 0
1880 15 Not Listed

Additionally, it is important to note is the relationship between the terms grocers and merchants in the 1850 U.S. Census. In 1850, there were no grocers and 18 Irish merchants. A decade later. the U.S. Census reported 16 grocers and only 2 merchants. Many of the grocers listed in 1860 were merchants in 1850.   Two examples are Thomas Burns and Thomas Davy. They were  financially successful business owners, and increased their property over the course of the decade. By 1870, the U.S. Census listed 31 grocers, the highest number of Irish grocers from 1850 to 1880, and no merchants.

There are several reasons why the number of grocers dropped to 14 in Alexandria by 1880. Based on the U.S. Census, the second generation began running these stores as their parents–the immigrant generation–retired.  There were also other immigrants–Germans and English–who opened similar establishments.  At least in Alexandria, grocery stores were one of the few small business options open to immigrants and their offspring.

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