Prices in the Gold Rush

gold coinIt’s no wonder that Luzena was amazed when a miner offered her a $5 gold piece, “ma’am, for them biscuit.” According to Measuring Worth, $5 in 1849 was worth at least $157 dollars. A man might work a week for that much money. But everything in California was different than anything the 49ers had known back in the States.

One of the most fascinating things (to me at least) in Luzena’s account is the food she cooked and the prices she paid for it. It’s a vivid picture.


Luzena’s salt pork probably didn’t look this good.

My first purchase was a quart of molasses for a dollar, and a slice of salt pork as large as my hand, for the same price. That pork, by-the-by, was an experience. When it went into the pan it was as innocent looking pork as I ever saw, but no sooner did it touch the fire than it pranced, it sizzled, frothed over the pan, sputtered, crackled, and acted as if possessed. When finally it subsided, there was left a shaving the size of a dollar, and my pork had vanished into smoke.

I found afterward that many of our purchases were as deceptive, for the long trip around the “Horn” was not calculated to improve an article which was probably inferior in quality when it left New York. The flour we used was often soured and from a single sieve-full I have sifted out at one time a handful of long black worms.

The butter was brown from age and had spent a year on the way out to California. I once endeavored to freshen some of this butter by washing it first in chloride of lime*, and afterwards churning it with fresh milk. I improved it in a measure, for it became white, but still it retained its strength. It was, however, such a superior article to the original “Boston” butter, that my boarders ate it as a luxury. Strange to say, in a country overrun with cattle as California was in early days, fresh milk and butter were unheard of, and I sold what little milk was left from my children’s meals for the enormous price of a dollar a pint. Many a sick man has come to me for a little porridge, half milk, half water, and thickened with flour, and paid me a dollar and a half a bowl full.

Ten years later John Bidwell was complaining of the same thing. In an address to the State Agricultural Association in 1860 he said:

But a few years ago nearly all the farmers in this valley, and I among the rest, purchased nearly all the butter they used—butter that had been imported across the Isthmus of Panama, or around Cape Horn. Some of it seemed old enough to have made a voyage around the world. I became ashamed of it, and resolved that if I could not, with thousands of cattle, which I had at that time, make sufficient butter to supply my own family—and my family is large, over fifty, and sometimes a hundred in number—I would do without it.

By his family, Bidwell meant his employees and dependents on Rancho Chico. He was not married at the time and had no children. But he treated his workers like family, and he didn’t waste any time in establishing a dairy.

You may have noticed that everything in California cost a dollar. That seems to have been the smallest unit of currency, and was often equated with a pinch of gold dust.

Luzena continues:

The beans and dried fruits from Chile, and the yams and onions from the Sandwich Islands, were the best articles for table use we had for months. The New York warehouses were cleared of the provisions they had held for years, and after a twelve-months’ sea voyage, they fed the hungry Californians.

No wonder that miner was willing to give ten dollars for bread made by a woman! The alternative was bread (hard flat “pilot’s bread”) shipped ’round the Horn.

*Chloride is lime is Calcium hypochlorite, used as a bleaching agent and disinfectant. It’s hard to imagine that it could have made that butter any worse.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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