Monday, June 25, 2018

What Things Cost In The Old West

I have said it before, and I’ll say it again. The things authors—particularly historical fiction authors—must research for accuracy in their stories is a mixed bag and always proves interesting. I can’t tell you how many times I find myself questioning what a particular item might have cost in the Old West. I thought you might find it interesting to see the costs of various things in the latter half of the 1800s.

Grocery Items

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can walk into our local grocery store and pick up “a few” items—and drop over $100 without batting an eye. Prices on everything seem to skyrocket. What about 150 years ago?

Old General Store, St. Augustine, Florida, where canned goods and other items line the walls behind the counter.

Here’s just a sampling of common grocery items from a sampling of years. (These prices are pulled from various sources. Costs could have been drastically different in different areas of the country):

Barrel of Flour
Pound of Corn Meal
Barrel of Salt Pork
Quart of Beans
Gallon of Molasses
Pound of
Pound of Starch
Pound of Sugar
Pound of Roasted Coffee
Pound of Oolong Tea
Pound of Lard

I find it notable that during the years of the Civil War (1861-1865) and in the 5-7 years afterward, prices on many typical grocery items were higher than before the war, and they dropped down again a decade or more afterward. 

We are so spoiled today. We are used to walking into any store—from Walmart to Nordstrom, and anything in between—to purchase ready-made clothing in vast arrays of styles, colors, and price ranges. It hasn’t always been so. In the late half of the 1800s, people still made their clothing, something that is far more of a rarity today than it once was. 

The "dry goods" display in the Old General Store, St. Augustine, FL
A yard of brown shirting material would’ve run .08-.09 cents between 1860-1882.

A yard of ticking would have cost .17-.18 cents.

A yard of satinet (a polished cotton fabric with a similar look to satin) would have cost .54-.59 cents in that 22 year span. 

And if you didn’t have the sewing skills to cut out a pattern and stitch it together, then you’d pay a tailor or seamstress for their services.

Livestock, Saddles, and Other Gear
So much of the Old West culture revolved around ranches, livestock, and horses. So what did these animals and the equipment needed to use them run?

A calf might run $2.50/head.

A yearling would go for $12.50.

A 2-year-old steer would go for $22.50.

A bull would run $90.

A yoke of 2 oxen, good for pulling wagons and the like, would run roughly $150.

An average workhorse to be used around the farm or ranch would also go for $150.

A fine saddle horse would cost more—about $200.

Harnesses for the oxen or workhorse would go for $50 or so.

A saddle, depending on the type, would cost between $30-$60.

If you were looking at a wagon, expect to pay $70 or more.

Guns and Other Weapons

Historic ad for Colt Peacemaker

In the 1800s, if you expected to eat, you typically had to have a gun. Life wasn’t like it is today, with a grocery store on every corner where you can pick up neatly-packaged, pre-cut meat, ready to throw on the grill or into the oven. No…in that day, you hunted for your food. And while perhaps not as prevalent as western TV programs, movies, and novels would have you believe, gunplay with pistols was also an element of western life. So what did those tools of the time cost?

A used single-shot, muzzle-loading rifle would cost $8.

The fancy seven-shot Sharps Repeating Rifle cost $50.

A breach-loading shotgun would go for $60.

And the gun that won the west—the Colt .45 “Peacemaker” ran $17 if ordered by mail-order.

If you preferred the upgraded pearl-handled set, which came with holsters, those Peacemakers were $100.

And cartridges for the guns cost $.50/box.

Salaries of that Day
Of course, none of these prices means a whole lot until you compare it with what typical folks made back then. So what did people earn in common western jobs? 

During the California Gold Rush, carpenters were making $16/day in San Francisco (1849). By the 1860s, this had dropped to $4/day.

Wild Bill Hickok earned $150 a month as the marshal of Abilene, KS. Other Kansas lawmen earned $100, and deputies often made $60-75/month.

Typical ranch hands earned $30/month, plus room and board. If you were a top ranch hand, you might earn $40. A ranch foreman could command $50/month. And the trail boss of a cattle drive sometimes made as much as $100.

The average school teacher would earn $30/month.

Pony Express Riders, for the very short time of that service, earned $25 a week for their efforts and the dangers they faced.

Pony Express ad, showing the pay of $25/week.

A private or corporal in the Army (in 1865) could expect $13/month. A sergeant’s page jumped to $17. A 1stor 2ndlieutenant made roughly $105, with captains earning $115. If one was fortunate enough to make it all the way to the rank of General in 1865, they could’ve expected almost $760 in pay.

Oh, and just to keep it real—a soiled dove could expect $1 to $2 per roll in the sheets.

I hope you enjoyed this little look into what things cost in bygone days. If you did, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Just please be patient with my response time. My hubby and I are in a training class all week, so I won’t be able to respond until evening, if then.


  1. This was so much fun! I can surely see how you have to keep your characters historically correct even in this way. You can't have them spending that $8 for a barrel of flour in 1864 if they weren't employed at all, or had no savings in the context of your story! Thanks so much for the post!

  2. Cool. And you walk into a grocery store today and look at the prices and shake your head. That's what I do. I know inflation but some food items the prices are just outrageous.

    1. Hahahaha. I almost wrote that in the post, Kim, but thought better of it. Surely, everyone would see the craziness of today's prices in comparison without me having to point it out. Right?

  3. Thank you for this post with interesting facts and pictures. Yes, authors have a lot to research with historical fiction for the time, events and prices. Dating myself but I remember our mother making our clothes and learning to sew in 4-H--where I made all my own clothes and even sewed for others at one time. Something that I do not do now, as material and patterns have become so expensive when you can purchase a sale piece of clothing for less. Inflation definitely has taken over in stores when farmers market has fresh produce for less.

    1. I used to make many of my own clothes too, Marilyn. My mom taught me to sew, knit, crochet, etc., and it was great fun to go to the fabric store, find simple patterns for shorts, tops, dresses, etc., and have the pride of saying, "Oh, you like my dress? I made it myself!" Not so much anymore. For one, I don't have the time I used to have, and for another, yes--the supplies for making just about anything are far more than buying it pre-made. Sad...

  4. Thank you Jennifer for this interesting and informative post.
    I am so grateful to you (all the historical fiction authors) and the research you do to ensure the accuracy of your stories. I love reading Christian historical fiction, it is not only entertaining but educational as well.
    blessings, Tina

    1. Tina, thank you so much for your vote of confidence on the work we all love to do! The research can be frustrating sometimes, but I absolutely love finding that little fact I need to make the story "right."

  5. Thank you for this informative post. I appreciate the research you and most other historical fiction writers do to make sure your stories are as accurate as possible. It's so disappointing when reading historical fiction and glaring inaccuracies pop up.

  6. How much was a restaurant steak back in ta western days, or a full meal