History Stories

When we think of foods of the California Gold Rush, our thoughts are likely to turn to sourdough bread and Hangtown Fry. But a much more interesting phenomenon was at work in the gold fields of Northern California in the 1850s: an out of control rate of inflation in the cost of food itself. Once gold was discovered in tiny Coloma, food prices rose dramatically, seemingly overnight. A barrel of flour, sold for $8 before the discovery, suddenly sold for $85. In nearby Placerville, a single slice of bread cost $1. Would you like butter on your toast? That’ll be another dollar.

There were many reasons for this sudden, incredible rise in prices. Once news of the gold discovery spread, most able bodied men took off for the gold fields to make their fortunes. Cities, businesses and farms were abandoned. For the first, and perhaps only, time in the history of California agriculture, there was just no interest in growing and tending the crops that had been the backbone of the state’s economy.

Food, then, had to be imported. And importing food, in the days before the transcontinental railroad, was an expensive and arduous process. Oregon became the new breadbasket for the miners, sending most of the flour to the fields. Argentina shipped beef jerky, rice came from China and delicacies like canned oysters and ice were sent on a boat from the East Coast. Vegetables and fresh foods that had to be produced closer to home were still local, but at prices that would seem out of line to many of us even today. The Californios, Spanish-speaking residents of huge ranchos and farms up and down California, were quick to take advantage of all the new arrivals in town, and realized a sure thing when they saw it. Instead of taking their chances in the gold fields, they made excellent money selling eggs for a dollar each, or onions and potatoes for $1.50 a pound.

Another reason for the steep increase in prices was the steep decrease in the number of women available to cook. Of course, in those days, women did the vast majority of cooking, but when only 2 percent of the population in the gold fields was female, it’s easy to see how things could get out of hand quickly. Men who had never before set foot in front of a stove were left to their own devices. And when the going got tough, the tough…well, they went out to eat. The majority of businesses that sprang up in mining boomtowns were food related: inns, taverns, pubs and eating-houses were always the first to appear in a new community. And while the meals eaten at these places could be good, bad or indifferent, they were all considerably more expensive than a similar meal anywhere else in the country. Dinner in a larger city like San Francisco might be a dollar, but in a more out of the way locale, it could get as high as $2.50. That doesn’t seem like much to us now, but back then a square meal could be had in Boston or New York City for just 40 cents!

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