“Dear Charlie” — Prices

Horace Snow wrote his old friend Charlie in September 1854 and included a list of grocery staples that they bought to lay up for the coming winter. Many miners moved down out of the hills to the cities like Stockton or Sacramento during the winter, but Agua Frio must have been comfortable enough to stay year-round.

Dear Charlie:

Seated on my three-legged stool before the old rustic table, I am happy to have health, materials, time and a mind to give you a few more details of my experience in California. . . . .

We are now laying in our winter’s provisions and getting up our winter’s wood. We can purchase provisions cheaper now than any other time and also cheaper by the quantity. In doing this we capture two birds and come a “Yankee game,” as the Southerners say. Twenty dollars is worth saving if your relatives are well off! — say two thousand miles off! I will tell you our kinds with prices and quantity annexed, just for a novelty.50 lbs. butter @ .40 (cents per pound)
2 bbls. (barrels) flour @ $18.00
1 bbl. crackers @ $10.00
50 lbs. sugar @ .20
12 lbs. chocolate @ .36 (they drank chocolate as a breakfast drink)
1 doz. boxes yeast powder $5.00
15 lbs. candles @ .40
30 lbs. lard @ .20
50 lbs. of beans @ .10
and about $20.00 for extras, making a little bill of $122.00. This we calculate will last us until sunny spring begins to dawn and then we hope our pockets will look agreeable.


A typical ad for provisions, from the Marysville Daily Herald, 2 September 1853

These prices may look low to us, but to Charlie they would have seemed high. Back in Massachusetts he could buy a barrel of flour for half the price that Horace paid in California. Sugar was 8 cents a pound, not 20 cents. He could get fresh butter for 25 cents a pound, not only cheaper but better quality than the rancid butter that came round the Horn to California.

You can get a pretty good idea of what the three men ate from this list. Lots of beans, and bread they baked themselves. Meat they would have either hunted or gotten from a butcher. Did they ever have fresh vegetables or fruit? I don’t know, but I hope so. Otherwise they’d be coming down with scurvy, as many miners did.



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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