Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick

PRICES AND WAGES in the 1870s & 1880s

I recently ran across a Baldwin-McKibbon account book for the summer of 1886 and an account book from the Kilbourne Store for 1875-1876. Prices were extremely low for everything sold at the time, and so were wages. The costliest goods were rare items. Even so, everything seemed rather expensive when the wages at the time are revealed. 1873-1877 were depression years, and apparently things weren’t much better in 1886.

Customers at the Kilbourne Store bought on credit, and paid their bills as they could, much as they do today. According to the account book for late February and early March, 1876 they sold 4 spools of thread for a quarter. Butter was 25 cents for 3.5 pounds; a 50-lb. Sack of flour was $1.75; and candy was a nickel. 

Many items listed as purchased do not specify the amount. For example, coffee is listed as 50 cents; sugar 50 cents; rice 25 cents; prunes 50 cents and tea 50 cents but how much was purchased at those prices is not indicated. However, 15.5 yards of print material sold for $1.30; 2.5 yards of muslin was 22 cents total; denim was 22 cents/yard; and pants material was 33.3 cents/yard, or 6 yards for $2.00.

At the time, a day’s work in the shop was worth $2.00 and ¾ day was $1.50. If the pay was for an 8-hour day, it would have been at the rate of 25 cents/hour, but I suspect that a day’s work then was longer than 8 hours, perhaps as long as 12. At $10/week it would have been difficult to buy very much yardage material and food.

In 1886, 3.5 pounds of butter was up to fifty cents. A watermelon was 15 cents; beef steak, 30 cents; a lamp chimney 15 cents; milk, 10 cents; a mutton chop, 25 cents; salmon 25 cents; boiling beef, 40 cents; 3 pounds of rice, 25 cents; a cook book, 25 cents; 1 gallon of coal oil, 20 cents; yeast 15 cents; coffee, 22 cents/lb.; and chalk 5 cents. 

Julia Baldwin-McKibbon and her father paid 65 cents to have their laundry done and 25 cents for ironing. Mosquito netting was 25 cents, a table cloth $1.75, and Julia paid $1 to have her hair done. An interesting item appears on the books for July 31, 1886. Julia paid $1.07 ½ for ice. 

In one section of the Kilbourne book is a daily log. On November 15, 1875 they received their first snow and a foot of snow came on November 24. It was 12 degrees below zero on the 17th of December, and the snow was drifting. On the 19th of December, they crossed the river on the ice with a team of horses and a wagon.

Kilbourne had rain with thunder on December 30th and the river was rising. Heavy showers continued off and on through January 5, 1876. The remainder of the winter must not have been as noteworthy, because the book goes back to carrying people’s credit accounts and the payment of wages. A bushel of apples brought from 30 to 40 cents, depending on the variety. A gallon of molasses was 60 cents. A pair of socks sold for 20 cents, a bottle of ointment for 25 cents, and a pair of shoes was $2. Nails were 7.5 cents/lb.

Men earned $1.75/day for putting up fence. One day’s work at the mill paid $1.50-$2 apparently depending on expertise. The best paying job was hauling manure for $3/day. 

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick