Food for Thought

In 1886, when Cabot Yerxa was 3 years old, his parents, Fred and Nellie, moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, from the Dakota Territory (the Dakotas were not admitted to the Union until 1889). Fred Yerxa joined two older brothers in opening and operating grocery stores for some 15 years after that. Ads and newspaper articles around the turn of the century reveal much about the times and their business operations.

Let’s start with an ad in the July 3, 1896, edition of The St. Paul Globe for the grand opening of a Yerxa store in St. Paul.

The finest Grocery Store in the United States! The brightest, cleanest, and most attractive Meat Market in the Twin Cities. We will give Grand Opening Prices that will annoy all competitors, but will please the Buyers with Cash. We are the Price Makers in this city and will continue to be.

Below the introductory paragraph were listed prices for certain goods, including the following:

1 cent per loaf (full weight 16 oz.) for best Vienna bread. Baked by ourselves in our own oven, by first-class union workmen.

16 cents per pound for Yerxa’s extra creamery butter. Positively the best ever offered for sale. This quality is well worth 20 cents.

8 cents per dozen for strictly fresh eggs. (Every egg guaranteed.)

An 1889 ad in the same newspaper, announcing the grand opening of another St. Paul store, featured the name Yerxa repeated line over line all the way down the left side of the column. Words to the right included the following:

We shall throw open to the public what others tell us will be the handsomest Grocery Establishment in the West, if not in America. We have spared neither pains or money to make it what “others tell us.” The goods we shall display are what they will always be — new, bright, and clean. We have exercised our best judgment in engaging first-class attendants and invite complaints of shortcomings to the counting room. We make all wrongs right. The modest prices we shall ask for groceries are not thrown out as a “bait” for the “opening.” They will prevail.

After noting that all sales are cash only (“hence our ability to sell cheap”), the following enticement was offered:

At our opening, we shall present to every purchaser a handsome bon-bon of selected candies. They will be found pure, toothsome, and wholesome. We extend to the housekeepers of St. Paul a cordial invitation to visit us, look over our wares, our prices, and then count their possible gains by so doing.

The Yerxas touted their in-house capabilities, including the manufacturing of candy and “delightful all-Havana tobacco cigars, made before your eyes in our Cigar Department.” The March 5, 1899, issue of The St. Paul Globe published an article with a photo of a coffee roaster at a Yerxa store under the header “Improvement in Roasting Coffee. A Machine at Yerxa’s That Would Be a Revelation to Our Grandmothers.” And the following editorial copy appeared in The Minneapolis Journal on May 17, 1901:

Minneapolis Women: Why Baking Day in Summer Is No More Dreaded by Them.

Warm weather months bring a large increase in the sale of bakery products. Minneapolis women procure the bread and pastry supplies of their table in an easier and more economical way than by tempting the torrid blasts of the oven on a warm day. The proof of the pudding is the eating. Yerxa’s immense sales of bakery goods are the proof.

None but the most competent and careful help is employed in Yerxa’s bakery. Yerxa’s patrons are supplied with the very finest of bakery goods at a very reasonable cost. The plum pound cake, the German pound cake, and gold cake, light, easy to digest, and of very fine grain, are favorites. The sunshine cake and sponge cake are very popular. Yerxa birthday cake, ladyfingers, plum, almond and cocoanut macaroons have gained a wonderful and deserving sale.

The Yerxa bakery supplies any item in the entire line and guarantees absolute satisfaction. One thing appreciated by the ladies is the placing on sale of warm biscuit between 4 and 6 in the afternoon. Orders for parties are booked in advance. Many Minneapolis hostesses accord the Yerxa bakery enthusiastic praise.

Though you may long for the days when you could buy a loaf of fresh Vienna bread for a penny and a dozen “guaranteed” eggs for a nickel and three pennies, take heart in the fact that newspapers no longer can get away with unconscionable sexism. What strikes us as amusing is that, although The Minneapolis Journal aimed its oven-mitt rhetoric solely at women, a photo of the Yerxa bakery reveals it was manned by, well, men (indeed, according to the 1896 ad, “first-class union workmen”). Also, check out the left side of the bakery photo. We imagine today’s health inspectors would frown on the presence of a cat on a stool in a bakery. Ah, yes, times have changed — and, ahem, Minnesota no longer is considered to be the country’s “West.”

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