What It Cost to Shop at the Grocery Store in 1836, and What Goods You Could Buy

Click here to view the image in a larg­er for­mat.

Like many chil­dren in pos­ses­sion of a toy cash reg­is­ter, I was a big fan of play­ing store.

A short stint work­ing retail in a 90’s era Chica­go hip­pie cloth­ing empo­ri­um cured me of that for the most part.

But look­ing over the above page from Roswell C. Smith’s 1836 Prac­ti­cal and Men­tal Arith­metic on a New Plan, I must admit, I feel some of the old stir­rings, and not because I love math, even when it’s intend­ed to be worked on a slate.

Cof­fee, 35 cents per pound. A self-sharp­en­ing plough, $3.50. A whip, a buck four­teen. And a gal­lon of gin, 60 cents, which was “about two-thirds of a day’s wages for the aver­age non-farm white male work­er.” (View the prices in a larg­er for­mat here.)

But I’m less intrigued by the whole­sale price of the var­i­ous items Smith’s hypo­thet­i­cal coun­try store­keep­er would pay to stock his shelves in 1836, though I do love a bar­gain.

It’s more the type of goods list­ed on that inven­to­ry. They’re exact­ly the sort of items that fig­ure in one of the most mem­o­rable chap­ters of Lit­tle House on the PrairieMr Edwards Meets San­ta Claus.”

Okay, so maybe not exact­ly the same. Author Lau­ra Ingalls Wilder was pret­ty explic­it about the sim­ple plea­sures of her 1870s and 80s child­hood. Her family’s bach­e­lor neigh­bor, Mr. Edwards, risked life and limb ford­ing a near-impass­able, late-Decem­ber creek, a bun­dle con­tain­ing his clothes, a cou­ple of tin cups, some pep­per­mint sticks, and two heart-shaped cakes, tied to his head. With­out his kind­ly ini­tia­tive, their stock­ings would have been emp­ty that year.

Pre­sum­ably, the Inde­pen­dence, Kansas gen­er­al store where Neigh­bor Edwards did his Christ­mas shop­ping would’ve stocked a lot of the same merch’ that Smith alludes to in the above frag­ment of a book­keep­ing-relat­ed sto­ry prob­lem. Online book­seller John Ptak, on whose blog the page was orig­i­nal­ly repro­duced, is keep­ing page 238 close to the vest (coin­ci­den­tal­ly the last item to be men­tioned on the inven­to­ry, almost as an after­thought, just one, priced at 50¢.)

Child­hood rec­ol­lec­tions aside, per­haps there was some­thing else in Mr. Edward’s bun­dle, some­thing the adult Lau­ra chose not to men­tion. The sort of host­ess gift that could’ve warmed Pa and Ma on those long, cold fron­tier nights…

Some gin, perhaps…or wine? Rum? Brandy?

Smith’s shop­keep­er would’ve been well pro­vi­sioned, lay­ing the stuff in by the bar­rel, hogshead, and pipe-full.

As for that “blad­der” of snuff, a post on the Snuff­house forum sug­gests that it wasn’t a euphemism, but the actu­al blad­der of a hog, paced with 4 pounds of snortin’ tobac­co.

Of course, Smith’s shop­keep­er would’ve also car­ried a healthy assort­ment of whole­some goods- hym­nals, children’s shoes, cal­i­co, satin, whips…

Per­haps we should do the math.

via Slate/JF Ptak

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Enter an Archive of 6,000 His­tor­i­cal Children’s Books, All Dig­i­tized and Free to Read Online

19th Cen­tu­ry Maps Visu­al­ize Measles in Amer­i­ca Before the Mir­a­cle of Vac­cines

Thomas Jefferson’s Hand­writ­ten Vanil­la Ice Cream Recipe

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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  • D Bouchette says:

    Notice that the total price for the two great-coats, sec­ond line from the bot­tom, was car­ried across in error as 4 cents, rather than 4 dol­lars. (I did not do an exhaus­tive check on oth­er items…this just struck my eye.)

  • Andre Jenkins says:

    I have a sign at home that asks, “What do things real­ly cost?” Just about any recita­tion of his­tor­i­cal­ly inter­est­ing data of this sort should at least have the infa­mous aster­isk attached to it. The lega­cy of slave labor pri­or to 1865 and that of ‘share­crop­ping’ for gen­er­a­tions after the war sure­ly had a huge impact on prices. Just as one could not exag­ger­ate the impact of RW on his Okla­homa team’s record this year, the real­i­ty of how prices were kept so low should not be left out.

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