Ann Eliza Brannan’s letter to her sister in September 1848 is a snapshot of life in California at the beginning of the Gold Rush. She was the wife of Sam Brannan, early pioneer and entrepreneur. They had come to San Francisco by ship in 1846, part of the Mormon migration to the West, and had stayed on, even when Brigham Young told Sam that the Salt Lake Valley and not California was the place for Mormons.
Then gold was discovered in the American River, and Sam saw his opportunity to get rich. Between mining and merchandising, he made a fortune. Just as they were beginning to accumulate wealth, Ann Eliza wrote to her sister:
I am quite contented and happy for the time being; that is, until we make our fortunes, but we would never think of settling here for life, and I rather think that two or three years will find us in New York or some wheres there abouts where we can enjoy life. That is, if we have good luck as at present, but now is the time for making money.Scoundrel’s Tale: The Samuel Brannan Papers, ed. by Will Bagley (1999), p. 278
Sam wasn’t the only one making money; Ann Eliza was doing her part. A woman, by plying her needle, could get rich.
You will hardly believe me when I tell you that this summer that in a little more than three months I have cleared five hundred dollars by making and getting made cheap clothing.
Pants and shirts, such as you would get in N.Y. 25 cents for making I am given $1.50 cents and they have only one pocket in them as women can make five or six pairs a day.
Whip up a pair of pants with only one pocket, one size fits all, and men would snap them up as fast as she could sew them.
San Francisco had its drawbacks when it came to the better things of life. Ann Eliza told her sister that if she came, “to bring every garment to last you a year or so” because good fashionable ladies’ clothing was in short supply, and “plenty of dried fruit of every description.” Their diet was undoubtedly lacking in variety.
The Brannans’ luck held out for some time, and Sam became the richest man in California. Ann Eliza still longed for the civilized amenities of East Coast life, and when they divorced, due to Sam’s drinking and womanizing, she left California for good. But she never again had to sew miner’s pants to earn a living.