Take a guess — What were the best-selling items at John Bidwell’s store?
When I wrote a biography of John Bidwell in 2010, I wanted to include a photo of a page from his 1849 store ledger. I paged through the ledger at the California State Library, looking for a good representative page. But there were a couple of problems.
One was simply that half the ledger was written in pencil. Too hard to read.
Secondly, on many pages almost all the purchases were for brandy or other alcoholic beverages. I wanted my book to be suitable for young readers — I needed a page that showed a variety of products.
I settled on this one, with brandy, yes, but also sugar, flour, vinegar and quinine:
But this one is more typical:
That’s a lot of brandy!
Brandy, at $6 a bottle, was far and away the best-selling beverage. Miners could also buy ale or porter ($3), wine ($4), or whiskey ($6). I imagine that if you wanted to get drunk, brandy was the quickest way. Not to mention that it was also considered to have medicinal value.
It’s no wonder when ordering supplies from George McKinstry that Bidwell wrote “Let the cargo consist in a considerable quantity of Liquors in Bbls (barrels) & cases both” and “It will be necessary to send a few empty bottles.” (10 July 1849)
Keep in mind that this was long before John Bidwell met and married Annie. He was a businessman who knew his market and how to supply it.