Many people have asked if I would post more prices from these years from the old family journals. So here are prices for 1860, 1872, 1878, and 1882… for “groceries, provisions, fuel, dry goods, rents, and boards.”
Glimpse into the Past
An area of New England as far south as New Jersey and as far north as Maine experienced an event that has come to be known as “New England’s Dark Day”… before noontime on that day it had become as dark as early evening… people gathered in panicked groups, fearing that perhaps the world was coming to an end.
Another of the old family journals… this one for the year 1899… seems to be mostly an accounting of what the weather was like on a given day, when animals on the farm were born or sold, crop information, and prices for various items… including many references to the subscription-only Sears, Roebuck multi-page grocery list. Apparently a yearly subscription to this list cost 13¢ and six updated lists were sent out to subscribers every year.
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was campaigning for President, home canning jars and the Winchester rifle had just been invented, and the Pony Express was beginning its mail delivery service. The latest census showed that the United States had 31 million people, 77 of whom were killed that year in the country’s first factory disaster. Land was selling for $3 to $5 an acre, and a laborer’s wage without board was 90 cents a day.
My great great… grandfather was extremely interested in weather patterns and always kept a detailed daily record of weather conditions at his farm. The strange weather this area experienced during the years of 1888-1889 was of great concern to him and featured prominently in his diary entries for those years. It is easy to understand why he saved this particular newspaper article about another year with no summer… a previous equally strange… but thankfully only temporary… year of weather anomalies.
I came across an amazing old book about culture and manners this weekend, and I found the tutorial on how to act when meeting the President especially interesting. The book is copyrighted 1890, so the President at the time would have been our twenty-third President, Benjamin Harrison. It’s hard to imagine the President of the United States ever being that accessible to the general public.
This little book started life as a leather covered textbook that was written by a man named Walter S. Cox. He led an interesting life… he was one of several lawyers who defended the group of people who were accused of conspiring to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. After he became a judge and an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, he presided over the trial of the man who assassinated President James Garfield. Later he became a professor in the Law Department of Columbia University and the first Dean of Columbia Law School. He wrote this book, called Questions for the Use of Students in the Junior Law Class of Columbia University, which served as a textbook for law students. Versions of this book came out every few years. This one is dated 1881. It is set up like a study guide, with a summary of various legal principles, including questions and blank pages for the law student’s answers and notes. My law student was very diligent. This book is packed full of his responses and essays written in the most beautiful handwriting… it’s all very neat, very legible, and in the very distinctive writing style of that time period.
I almost didn’t even look through this one… after all, I’m not a law student and I don’t really need an 1881 study guide for the junior law class of Columbia University.
:o) But apparently this particular law student finished the course with blank pages still left in his textbook, and someone else decided to use these pages for a journal.
In 1872, the U.S. population had grown to over 38 million people, and Ulysses S. Grant had just been re-elected for a second term as President. Luther Burbank developed the Idaho potato from a single seed ball, much of Boston burned during a three-day fire, and an American cargo ship called the Mary Celeste was found drifting in the Atlantic Ocean with no crew aboard. On average, horses cost $60, pigs $5, milking cows just over $20, and goats only $2. A farm worker earned $23 per month, a place to sleep, and meals.
Have you ever looked through a copy of the 1902 Sears Roebuck catalog? It’s 1,192 pages packed full of anything and everything anyone might need from windmills, buggies, furniture, and cooking utensils to fabric, hair brushes, phonograph records, and ready-made clothing… with everything described in the most minute detail. Some of the most interesting items for sale, I think, are the medicines and personal care products, like the Dr. Rose’s French Arsenic Complexion Wafers (ad shown below). I especially enjoy the grandiose phrasing but stilted language used to promote these products. In the case of Dr. Rose’s complexion wafers, prospective buyers were led to believe that their regular use would make even the ugliest person beautiful by clearing up any facial “disfigurements” and even softening angular features… in fact, such a transformation was guaranteed if the product was used as directed. And of course, the buyer was repeatedly assured that this particular dose of arsenic was completely safe.