Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Trip to the Mercantile

The wages and expenses from the last post make for some harsh reading, don’t you think? Remember, the $5 a month per person “cost of living” did not include expenses like:
     ~seeing the doctor if your baby was sick
    ~ fixing the barn if a storm blew it down
    ~ taking into account a bad year of crops or
    ~ replacing your horse if it died. 
Most working-class people lived from one weekly paycheck to the next and prayed nothing would “go wrong” and put them into debt.

The middle-class had things a little better, but not by much. Many were merchants, like grocers or shopkeepers, hotel keepers, jewelers, and saloon keepers. Lawyers, doctors, and ministers were “professionals,” but they weren’t rich, either, since the people they served were mostly from the working and middle-class. The rich folks were the land owners, bank owners, railroad barons, and other wealthy businessmen, or those with “family” money. Some people in California had become rich because of the Gold Rush.

Whenever the family had a little extra money, the place to spend it was at the mercantile. One could find all kinds of things to buy—from thread and ribbon to kerosene lamps and candy.

A family bought their fresh produce from the grocer, milk came from the milkman, and the ice to keep things cold came from the ice man. Here you can see a sampling of items and their prices from 1880.

Here is your "assignment." At the bottom of this post is a shopping list. Your mother has sent you to town to pick up a few items. You have $1.50 to buy all the things on the list. It's all the money left until pay day, so spend it wisely. (You really want to buy the calico fabric because it is your little sister’s birthday, and your mother wants to make her a special dress.) 

Will the $1.50 be enough to buy everything on the list? If not, what will you do? How will you spend the money and bring home as much change as you can? Use the price lists here. Do not use a calculator! Remember, you are living in 1880, before calculators. You can do your figuring on paper or in your head. Leave a comment and let me know how the shopping trip went!


  1. That was quite a challenge andi! These activities are so fun!

    I choose to only get half a gallon of kerosene, we can always go to bed a little earlier. I also decided to not buy the thread. Mother and I can give little sister the calico as her present and tell her as soon as we can afford some thread mother will start making her dress. That way, she can be part of the fun of making it and will have something to look forward too. I came home with an extra 5 cents that I might spend on some penny candy if mother says its okay. All together it was a great trip!

  2. HI Andi -

    I bought kerosene, calico material for my little sister's present , spool of thread, one dozen of eggs and milk, and one box of matches. I have 3 cents to bring home. I foudn it was easy to decide what to buy. Thanks for the fun. Madison C from California


Let Andi know what you think!