Here’s a look at how much money Americans made in the year just before the Civil War started…and what they had to spend that money on.
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Nickel and Dimed
There were few labor laws in the United States at the time. The average work week was 60 hours (10 hours a day, six days a week, with Sundays off). Some common occupations and how much they earned:
- Masons earned 22.5 cents an hour ($13.50 a week, or $700 per year)
- Blacksmiths made 18 cents an hour ($10.80 a week, or $560 per year)
- Machinists earned 16 cents an hour ($9.60 a week, or $500 per year)
- Laborers made about 10 cents an hour ($6 a week, or $300 per year)
- Privates in the Union army earned $11 a week, or $572 per year.
- Firemen earned 15 cents an hour ($9.00 a week, or $468 per year)
- Carpenters earned 14 cents an hour ($8.40 a week, or $436 per year)
- Farmhands: 8 cents an hour ($4.80 a week, or $250 per year). That may not seem like a lot, but it’s more than what slaves were paid.
- Slaves: $0
- The president of the United States: $25,000 per year
Fancy, store-bought clothes were out of the question for all but the wealthiest Americans. There were no mail-order companies, either. (Chicago merchant Montgomery Ward started his catalog business in 1872.) Instead, women would buy cotton and make their own clothes. A yard of fabric cost about 10 cents; it took around five yards to make a “day dress.”
A cord of firewood, still the primary method of heating a home, cost around $7. How much wood is a cord? A lot. It’s 128 cubic feet worth—enough to heat a home for about a month.
The Henry rifle, the first repeating rifle, was brand new in 1860. It cost $20, but quickly paid for itself with all the free meat it could generate.
Old Tub, a cheap brand produced by Jim Beam, cost just 25 cents a gallon in 1860. (When the Civil War started, demand increased and supply decreased. Result: By 1863, the price of whiskey had risen 14,000 percent, to $35 a gallon.)
The Pony Express was only in service from 1860 to 1861. The original cost of the service: $5 per ounce of mail…payable in gold.
A standard fee for seeing the town doctor—not including any medicine or surgeries—was about $2.
There was no recorded sound yet, so if you wanted music in your home, you’d have to buy a piano. Cost: around $200.
Laudanum, a patent medicine consisting primarily of alcohol, with 10 percent opium by weight, was prescribed for almost anything. You didn’t technically need a prescription for it, though. You could go into a general store and buy a three-ounce bottle for 25 cents.
In 1863, one-third of the South’s population was still slaves, and only the wealthy could afford to own them. Starting price: $800 minimum. A male field hand in his 20s would run about $1,500, and a skilled laborer, such as a blacksmith, would be about $2,500.
A $2,500 rent on an apartment may be considered reasonable in Brooklyn today, but in 1860 that same amount would buy you a two-bedroom house in Brooklyn. Renting instead? A four-room house in most eastern cities ran about $4.50 per month. Outside of the city, land cost around $3 to $5 an acre.
Then, as now, a lot of a household’s budget went to food. Here are the costs of some dietary staples of the 1860s:
- Rice: 6 cents a pound
- Beans: 6 cents for a dry quart
- Sugar: 8 cents a pound
- Beef: 9 cents a pound
- Cheese: 10 cents a pound
- Bacon: 12 cents a pound
- Butter: 16 cents a pound
- Eggs: 20 cents a dozen
- Potatoes: 40 cents a bushel
- Coffee: $1.20 a pound (for coffee beans, which you then had to roast and grind yourself)