Where the Money Went…in 1860

October 12, 2016

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.

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)