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Civil War Sesquicentennial: Prices & Salaries

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Unidentified soldier in Union frock coat holding Company G, 12th New Hampshire Infantry Regiment forage cap next to unidentified woman in front of an American flag. From the Liljenquist Family Collection.

As part of a short series with the Sesquicentennial as a jumping off point, I used the 1860 Census in an earlier post as a way to find out more about the people living at the time of the Civil War.  In this second post I wanted to show how Business staff might answer a question we get quite often – how much did something cost and how much did someone make – using the year 1861.

There are a few ways to go about this, but one really fun way (and my personal favorite) is by looking at advertisements.  The Library has two sources that are quite helpful.  First is the Printed Ephemera collection (this collection comprises 28,000 primary-source items from the 17th century forward), which includes many advertisements from around the time of the Civil War, and second was is our Chronicling America collection.  Here are a few examples that I found interesting:


From: An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera

Another way is looking in titles that may be available in your local public library – Value of a Dollar: Colonial Era to the Civil War, 1600-1865 and The Value of a Dollar: Prices and Incomes in the United States, 1860-2009.  These titles have lots of interesting information on the time periods covered that has been gathered from many sources, including local news sources and advertisements.  Since prices and salaries are popular topics, both titles have a nice amount of information in these areas.  Note that in 1861:

  • A pound of lard was 10 cents in New York City and 16 cents in Charleston, while a pound of bacon was 8 cents in New York City and 16 cents in Charleston. [1]
  • Stonemasons in New York made $2.50/day; bricklayers in Massachusetts made $1.81/day; and plasterers in Pennsylvania made $1.66/day. [2]

Those old newspapers have a lot to say, so dive right in and see what you can find.


[1] Derks, Scott and Tony Smith. Value of a Dollar: Colonial Era to the Civil War, 1600-1865, pp. 388-395.
[2] Derks, Scott.  The Value of a Dollar: Prices and Incomes in the United States, 1860-2009, p. 9.

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