Two famous Gippsland explorers, Paul Strzelecki and Angus McMillan, passed through the immediate area around 1840. The first white settler was Archibald McIntosh who arrived in 1844 and established his 'Flooding Creek' property on the flood plain country which was duly inundated soon after his arrival.
In the 1840s, drovers heading south to Port Albert crossed Flooding Creek and were confronted with the difficult marsh country around the Thomson and Latrobe rivers. A punt operated across the Latrobe River until a toll bridge was erected. A Post Office named Flooding Creek opened here on September 30, 1848 being renamed, somewhat belatedly, as Sale on January 1, 1854
The first town plots went on sale in 1850. When the new settlement was gazetted in 1851, the traditional name of the area, 'Flooding Creek', was dropped in favour of 'Sale' - a tribute to General Sir Robert Sale, a British army officer who won fame in the first Afghan war before being killed in battle in India in 1845.
The town greatly benefited from the 1851 gold rush at Omeo as it was situated on the Port Albert to Omeo route and was an important base for the goldfields, until the arrival of the railways. It was also an important service centre for East Gippsland and the Monaro Plains of New South Wales. A building boom took place c.1855-65.
In 1863 the population of Sale reached 1800 and it became a borough. The courthouse opened the following year. Shops, hotels and offices spilled over into Raymond Street and the first Anglican Church was erected on the site now occupied by St Anne's and Gippsland Grammar School. The Gippsland Times newspaper was established in 1861 while the first Star Hotel and the Criterion Hotel were built in 1865.
In terms of access, the first reasonable road from Melbourne arrived in 1865 and Cobb and Co established a rough-and-ready 24-hour coach service linking Melbourne and Sale. The Latrobe Wharf was built in the 1870s and two hotels emerged to exploit the new centre of activity. It was located near the present swing bridge although little is left.
Anthony Trollope visited Sale in 1872. Writing of the experience in Australia and New Zealand (1873) he spoke of the town's 'innumerable hotels' and concluded from his impressions that the Aborigines had little chance of surviving as a race. The children's author Mary Grant Bruce was born in the town in 1878.
A two-storey post office, with clock tower, was built in 1884 (it was demolished in 1963). The Sale gaol was completed in 1887 and it operated for 110 years until it was replaced by a private prison at Fulham. The building has since been demolished, with only part of the large brick fencing still remaining.
With the growth of shipping on the local waterways and the Gippsland Lakes (and the establishment of a railhead at Sale in 1879) schemes emerged to develop Sale as a port. The construction of the Sale Canal (complete with turning circle) duly commenced in the 1880s, thereby linking the town via the Thomson River and the Gippsland Lakes to the open sea. It was completed in 1890. Other elements were the swing bridge, completed in 1883, a high wharf, and a launching ramp which still exists in the heart of the city. However, neither the bridge nor the canal created the desired surge of trade and the depression of the 1890s soon engulfed the town. Sale became a town in 1924 and a city in 1950.
An oil and gas display centre in Sale outlines the formation, exploration and drilling processes. Esso's Longford gas plant was the site of a major explosion on 25 September1998 which killed two employees and crippled the state's gas supplies for a period of two weeks.
The town services smaller farming communities in the surrounding area, both through its large shopping area and three high schools ( Sale College (public), Sale Catholic College (private Secondary School) and Gippsland Grammar School (private Anglican)), along with many primary schools including, Guthridge Primary, St. Thomas', St. Marys, Araluen Primary and Sale Primary (commonly referred to as '545' due to its school number and non-distinctive name). Sale is also home to the Sale Regional Art Gallery, Central Gippsland Health Service, St. Paul's Anglican Cathedral, St. Mary's Catholic Cathedral and the Fulham Correctional Centre.
It is home to the Sale Sonics, a representative basketball team that competes in the Country Basketball League and is renowned for developing many elite Australian rules football and National Basketball League sporting stars including Jason Gram, Scott Pendlebury, Dylan McLaren, Rhys Carter and Matt Smith.
Sale's most beautiful attraction is, to some, arguably Lake Guthridge, a low lying artificial lake filled by storm water runoff, which features a park for children, barbecues, and a walking trail around the lake, plus sufficient car parking facilities. Prior to refurbishment in the mid 1990s, Lake Guthridge suffered an environmental malady related to a blue-green algae problem that resulted in wide-spread fish mortality until local joggers and nearby residents complained of the associated stench, causing council to act. Lake Guthridge has never been used as a food source.
A significantly superior natural waterway of historical significance is the aforementioned Port of Sale (previously Sale Canal), the original inspiration for the early town's original name - Flooding Creek. The Canal connects to other local rivers and lakes, leading eventually to Lakes Entrance, an oceanside tourist resort situated near a managed, naturally occurring channel connecting the Gippsland Lakes to the Bass Strait. In historical times, steam boats and ocean-going craft were able to journey from Lakes Entrance to Sale, arriving at the docks at Sale to ferry passengers and goods from Eastern Victoria, although its success in such a role was short lived.
In recent years, a grassroots effort helped to persuade the local council to invest in restoration of the foreshore, and to protect against erosion. Prior to the rise of Common Carp as the predominant fish species due to nutrient overload from agricultural runoff, Sale Canal featured pristine waters and native fish stocks. The Sale Regatta is run yearly on a long straight section of the canal headed towards Longford. Visitors to Sale are usually unaware of the Canal, including its restoration, due to roadside views of it being blocked by the largely disused former Esso corporation headquarters.
A fishing contest is held at Lake Guthridge every Easter and the Sale Music Festival at Gippsland Grammar School in June. The Sale Art Exhibition is held over August and September, while the Sale show falls in October.
As a tribute to the late King George V of the United Kingdom, an elm-garrisoned section of the Princes Highway is named King George V Avenue.