On December 22, 1841, less than a day before Joseph Smith’s 36th birthday, 13 wagonloads of merchandise, purchased in St. Louis, arrived in Nauvoo. The Prophet was pleased to receive the goods because he was preparing to stock the shelves in his new general store.
The exterior of Joseph’s two-story building was constructed of red brick; it soon became known among the Saints as the Red Brick Store.
Inside, fine craftsmanship was evident. Writing to his business partner, Edward Hunter, Joseph described the interior: “The principal part of the building below, which is ten feet high, is devoted exclusively to shelves and drawers except one door opening back into the space, on the left of which are the cellar and chamber stairs, and on the right the counting rooms; [Clerks used this office to keep the store’s financial records, to operate a small loan agency, and to receive donations for the Nauvoo House Hotel and Nauvoo Temple building funds.] From the space at the top of the chamber stairs opens a door into the large front room of the same size with the one below, the walls lined with counters, covered with reserved goods. [Joseph sometimes referred to this room as his general business office.]
“In front of the stairs opens the door to my private office, or where I keep the sacred writings, [here Joseph received revelations; edited the Times and Seasons; prepared the Book of Abraham for publication; and prepared a hymnal, the Doctrine and Covenants, and a new corrected edition of the Book of Mormon for the press] with a window to the south, overlooking the river below, and the opposite shore for a great distance, which, together with the passage of boats in the season thereof, constitutes a peculiarly interesting situation, in prospect, from the bustle and confusion of the neighborhood and city, and altogether is a place the Lord is pleased to bless.” [Over 45 steamboats carried immigrant converts from New Orleans to the wharves of Nauvoo, including such vessels as the Maid of Iowa, the John Simonds, and the Ariel.]
The store’s double doors were opened for business on January 5, 1842, and Joseph was delighted with the response of the public. He wrote: “The store has been filled to overflowing, and I have stood behind the counter all day, dealing out goods as steady as any clerk you ever saw, to oblige those who were compelled to go without their usual Christmas and New Year’s dinners, for the want of a little sugar, molasses, raisins, & c. …
“Our assortment is tolerably good—very good, considering the different purchases made by different individuals at different times and … I rejoice that we have been enabled to do as well as we have, for the hearts of many of the poor brethren and sisters will be made glad with those comforts which are now within their reach” (History of the Church, 4:491–92).
Compared with prices in the 1980s, food and merchandise were very inexpensive. Beef sold for 3¢ a pound; butter, 8¢ a pound; eggs, 6¢ a dozen; sugar, 10¢ a pound. Shoes sold for $1.00 to $1.75; boots, $4.50 a pair. Riding whips were $1.50; spades, $1.25; calico sold for 12 1/2¢ a yard; and shirt collars for 28¢ each. These low prices were a blessing to the Saints, yet there were a significant number who lacked even pennies to purchase their needs. Hundreds fleeing from Missouri had lost all of their possessions, and many new converts came from backgrounds of poverty. Such people were often touched by the Prophet’s kindness and generosity, as he drew upon the resources of the store in their behalf. For example, Jane Elizabeth Manning, a freeborn black convert from Wilton, Connecticut, came to Nauvoo in the late fall of 1843 with her mother, Eliza, four brothers and sisters, a brother-in-law and sister-in-law, and Jane’s small son, Sylvester. They had walked nearly 800 miles: “We lay in bushes, and in barns and outdoors, and traveled until there was a frost just like a snow, and we had to walk on that frost. … I wanted to go to Brother Joseph.”
When the family arrived in Nauvoo, the Prophet and his wife Emma hosted them in the Mansion House until they could find homes in which to live.
“When I [came to Nauvoo] I only had two things on me, no shoes nor stockings, wore them all out on the road. I had a trunk full of beautiful clothes, which I had sent around by water, and I was thinking of having them when I got to Nauvoo, and they stole them at St. Louis, and I did not have a rag of them. … One morning, before [Joseph] came in, I had been up to the landing and found all my clothes were gone. Well, I sat there crying. He came in and looked around. … To Sister Emma, he said, ‘go and clothe her up, go down to the store and clothe her up.’ Sister Emma did. She got me clothes by the bolt. I had everything (“Joseph Smith, the Prophet,” Young Woman’s Journal, Dec. 1905, pp. 551–52).
James Henry Rollins, a refugee from the mobs in Missouri, moved his family to Nauvoo and sought the Prophet’s help: “I went with him to his store and he asked Newell K. Whitney if he had any work for me to do. He replied nothing that he knew of then, that he had sufficient help at present. Joseph said to me, ‘I have work for you’ and he took me thro in the back of the store and showed me about the cords of hickory wood. He asked me if I were a good hand with the axe. I laughed and said, ‘Well, some little.’ He said the clerks here were too shiftless to cut their own wood. I asked him if he had a sharp ax. He turned to Lorin Walker and said, ‘Get the ax for him. I want him to chop up this wood,’ which I did and piled it up the same day. The next day he came to the store and unbarred the outside cellar door and he would unlock it from the outside. When the doors were opened and then asked me if I thot I could straighten up things and I told him I would try and see what I could do.
“He was pleased with the change I had made with the appearance of the cellar. …
“… At this time a good deal of work was being done on the Temple which the workmen received orders for their labor on the store.
“It was very much crowded for two or three days, and as I stood in the counting room door looking at the faces in the house, there were a great many very familiar with me, and they came to me as they were waiting for their pay, asked me if I could wait on them. Joseph being in the store at the time said to me, ‘Why don’t you wait on these people.’ I told him when I was ordered I would do so with pleasure. He then said, ‘go and wait on them.’ I then went to work behind the counter on the grocery side and payed off many orders this day and the next, the store being crowded constantly and at least 50 to 100 people to be waited on from morning until night and being so very close with so many present was very oppressive to us all.
“When Joseph came in, and saw us looking tired and pale, he told us to shut up the store that night and not open again for two or three days, which we did until we got rested. Then opened again for business” (“A Sketch of the Life of James Henry Rollins,” Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, 1888, pp. 11–12).
Joseph’s store, located on the southeast corner of the intersection of Water and Granger streets, near the Prophet’s home, became a popular place for Nauvoo’s citizens to gather, and for Church and civic leaders to conduct important business. Here the Saints could subscribe to the Times and Seasons, contribute to the temple and Nauvoo House building funds, or purchase a city lot from Joseph Smith, the Church’s Trustee-in-Trust, in addition to purchasing groceries, clothing, and equipment.
Leaders would gather on the upper floor for meetings of the First Presidency, stake high council, Nauvoo City Council, Nauvoo Legion, and Nauvoo House and Nauvoo Temple committees. In addition, citizens enjoyed concerts, lectures, and performances of theatrical groups.
Joseph permitted teachers to use the large upper room to conduct their classes. However, the boisterousness of some students frequently disturbed the clerks, who were often at work writing the history of the Church. One of the Prophet’s sons, Joseph Smith III, recalled: “As schoolboys we had good reason to remember Doctor Willard Richards [one of the clerks], for often in going down the stairway from the schoolroom we were noisy, which seemed to annoy him considerably. Upon one or two occasions he met us at the foot of the stairs and refused to let us pass, the while he cautioned us to be more quiet. Doubtless we were annoying as we trampled and jostled, crowding the steps and surging through the door. He especially scolded the larger children. We learned it was better to go quietly than to cause such real distress” (Mary Audentia Smith Anderson and Bertha Audentia Anderson Hulmes, eds., Joseph Smith III and the Restoration, Independence, Missouri: Herald Publishing House, 1952, p. 28).
On November 7, 1843, Joseph recorded that: “Mr. [Joseph M.] Cole moved the tables back into the hall, when [Willard] Richards and [William W.] Phelps called to report that the noise in the school disturbed them in the progress of writing the History. I gave orders that Cole must look out for another place, as the history must continue, and not be disturbed, as there were but few subjects that I have felt a greater anxiety about than my history, which has been a very difficult task, on account of the death of my best clerks, and the apostasy of others” (History of the Church, 6:66).
Several historic events took place within the walls of the Red Brick Store. On Thursday, March 17, 1842, 18 sisters gathered in the upstairs assembly room to witness the organization by Joseph Smith of “The Female Relief Society of Nauvoo,” established, Joseph explained in a subsequent meeting, for “the relief of the poor, the destitute, the widow and the orphan, and for the exercise of all benevolent purposes” (History of the Church, 4:567).
Nine men gathered in a sacred meeting on May 4–5, 1842, in the upstairs rooms, where they received their temple endowments from the Prophet. These brethren, including Brigham Young, were later able to carry on this sacred work within the walls of the Nauvoo Temple after the Prophet’s assassination.
Joseph eventually had to turn the management of the store to others, for early in 1842 he assumed responsibility as the mayor, chief magistrate, and registrar of deeds for the city of Nauvoo. His store was not profitable, for Joseph had extended credit too widely and had too freely shared its merchandise with those in need. But more important than lost earnings were the lives which had been touched for good. When the store had first opened, Joseph had written: “I love to wait upon the Saints, and be a servant to all, hoping that I may be exalted in the due time of the Lord” (History of the Church, 4:492).