Dry goods

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Though the term dry goods is used in both British and American English, the meaning differs slightly between the two types of English. We will examine both of the definitions of the term dry goods, where it came from and some examples of its use in sentences.

In British English, the term dry goods is used to mean food that is not wet, or has been dried in order to preserve it. Before refrigeration, dry goods were a safe way to deliver food staples to the public. Dry goods, in this sense, may include rice, dried beans, flour and tea. The term dry goods came into use at the turn of the eighteenth century, to mean food that was dried and therefore, did not spoil easily.

In American English, the term dry goods is used to mean textiles and the accompanying implements used to sew textiles. Usually, the term dry goods also includes sundries or miscellaneous items. The opening of a storefront in a frontier town was often a signal that the area was growing. In the early years, store founders would drive a wagon into a new area filled with furnishings, textiles and specialty items needed by new homesteaders, ranchers or prospectors. Some items found in a traditional dry goods store may be quilting fabric such as calico, gingham and other cotton fabric used for piecing patchwork, batting, quilting tools such as a ruler, scissors or a needle, wool and needles used to knit, sheeting, denim and a wide variety of other bolts of material such as woven linen, gauze, flannel, canvas, muslin, oilcloth, damask and silk. Embroidery thread or ribbon would have been popular items that could be used as embellishment on homemade clothing. Most women who lived during the 1800s and early 1900s made their own clothes, or hired a seamstress to make clothes for them. An American dry goods store may have carried apparel such as jackets, overalls, hats, gloves, a bandana or a dress or skirt, as well as a small array of grocery dry goods or fresh groceries from nearby farms. Such groceries might include fresh eggs or churned butter, or even a smoked ham. However, for the most part, the merchandise in a dry goods store were items other than food. As time went on, freight wagons would bring items to the frontier dry goods store, and eventually the inventory was brought on trains. As a town became more established, a dry goods store might carry more merchandise geared to an established home such as home decor and more. Interestingly, many large American department stores began as dry goods stores, including Macy’s, J.C. Penney’s, Marshall Field’s and Target. Today, there are several dry goods stores in the United States that are considered specialty stores. These retail suppliers carry collectibles, novelty items and goods that can not be found in other stores such as a treadle sewing machine, quilt kits, special stationery and old fashioned candy. Many of these retailers sell by mail order or online. Note that the word dry in the term dry goods is the present tense. Dried goods simply refers to items that have been dried, whether in the sun or with a towel, and does not refer to a category of merchandise.


They were built to carry high-value freight, like tea from China or, during the Gold Rush, dry goods and provisions to California that would fetch very high prices. (National Geographic Magazine)

While operating a successful dry goods business, the Coffins, along with other members of the Quaker community, established and operated an important way point that received a steady stream of freedom seekers. (The Daily Star)

Dayton-based Elder-Beerman has roots in the area back to 1883 when an advertisement for the Boston Dry Goods Store owned by Thomas Elder ran in the Dayton Daily Journal. (The Dayton Daily News)