Utah History to Go
The Pioneer's Cost of Living Versus Today's
Overland Migrations
Bartleson-Bidwell party
Nancy Kelsey
Bryant-Rusell Party
Harlan Young Party
Hastings Cutoff
Donner Party
This is the Place
Mormon History
Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company
Handcart Companies
A Girl Triumphed Over Handcart Tradegy
Many Mormon Immigrants Delayed Their Journey
Settlement and Exploration
Colonization of Utah
Salt Lake City
The Founding and Naming of Moab
Hole-in-the-Rock Trek Remains an Epic Experience
What Made the Mormon Landscape Unique?
Snowslides Devastated Northern Utah in 1875
A Fatal Snowslide in Provo Canyon
Those Pioneering African Americans
The Lives of Six Pioneer Girls
He Was an Outsider in Utah But Not For Long
Forty-Niners in Salt Lake Valley
Utah Farmer and the Pike's Peak Gold Rush
Emma Lee Endured Many Hardships in Pioneer Utah
Alice Parker Isom Faced Challenges WIth True Grit
19th Century Utah Women Spun Yarn and Dug Ditches
Hilda Anderson Erickson, Working Woman
Oliver B. Huntington and His Bees
A Policeman's Lot in Early Salt Lake CIty
A Blind Man and His Harp
Fanny Brooks Helped Establish the Jewish Community
Reverend McLeod and Building of Independence Hall
Jenny Baker Stanford Bridged Mormon-Gentile Gap
Welshman Dan Jones Was One of Zion's Busiest Bees
The Case of Grave Robber Jean Baptiste
Slavery in Utah
History of Polygamy
The History of a Pioneer Utah Cottage
The Pioneer's Cost of Living Versus Today's
Coins and Currency
The Sego Lily, Utah's State Flower
Pestiferous Ironclads: Grasshopper Problem in Utah
From Pioneer Fort to Pioneer Park
Ensign Peak
Temple Square
Virgin River Doused Cotton Mission Settler's Hopes
Gardner Mill and the Birth of the Valley's West Side
The United Order Movement
The Beginnings of the University of Utah
Arrival of the Episcopal Church
Ben Holladay, the Stagecoach King, in Utah
The Pony Express Added a Colorful Chapter in Utah
Mark Twain's Utah
Pony Express in Utah
The Telegraph Was Information Highway of the 1860's
The Steamboat Era Was Glamorous But Brief in Utah
Cowboys and the Cattle Industry
Old La Sal Was Once a Thriving Cow Town
Preston Nutter Made Utah Home of His Cattle Kingdom
Robbers' Roost Was a Haven For Outlaws
Utah Had Hollywood Style Western Gunfights
Just Who Was the Outlaw Queen Etta Place?
Josie Bassett-Jensen's Remarkable Woman Rancher
Military in Utah
Utah War
The Civil War in Utah
Mountain Meadows Massacre
Fort Douglas
Fort Duchesne
Camp Floyd
The Colonel Orders a Grand Review

Becky Bartholomew
History Blazer, January 1996

Sometimes it is tempting to look on the Victorian era in America as a golden age, forgetting that pioneers in Utah struggled for food, shelter, and the amenities of life just as we do. Occasionally, an entry in a 19th-century diary  or a letter reveals the actual dollar amounts of their struggle. Because here and there a pioneer noted his income for the week or how much she had paid for 100  pounds of flour, we are able to compare their cost of living with ours.

In 1849, $2.50 per day (or 31 cents per hour) was the minimum wage a Utah employer could pay and still keep the respect of the community; Brigham Young recommended $5.00. At the $2.50 rate a pioneer man working Monday through  Saturday could earn $15 in a week.

Of course, many were not paid in dollars at all but in wheat, corn, rice, produce, or "store dollars" (certificates of trade). If a housewife wanted to buy manufactured goods she was just as likely to barter for them, using a straw hat she had braided or bushels of her husband's wheat and potatoes instead of cash.

In 1996 common Utah labor wages begin at $4.25 per hour or $170 per week. Thus an 1849 laborer earned less than one-tenth today's earnings--numerically. But how much did he or she earn in "real" dollars or buying power?

Diaries indicate that many items common in today's households were also staples in early Utah homes: milk, eggs, wheat flour, beef, potatoes, sugar, butter, and cheese. Nonfood items frequently mentioned in pioneer records include shoes or moccasins, framing lumber, and stovewood sold by the cord.

In 1849 milk sold at 10 cents a quart. During the early years of settlement eggs could not be bought at all because those not consumed by the producer's family were used for setting to hatch more chickens. Flour sold at $2 per hundred pounds, beef at 10 cents a pound, and potatoes for $1 per bushel (about 60 pounds). Sugar could be bought for 50 cents a pound, butter 20 cents, and cheese 25 cents. A pair of Salt Lake City store-bought moccasins cost $1 in 1849. Framing lumber sold for $5 per 100 board feet, and a cord of stove wood cost $10.

Estimating consumption by a pioneer family of five, one concludes they spent $20.15 per week on basic food and heating and cooking fuel. That represented 37 percent of their income.

In 1996 a quart of milk costs 75 cents in Salt Lake City. Flour sells at $12 per 100 pounds (although most Utahns no longer buy it in quantity), hamburger $1.69 per pound, and potatoes $10.12 per bushel (nor do most of us buy potatoes by the bushel, although perhaps we should). Sugar sells at approximately 20 cents a pound, butter $1.80, and cheese $2.00.

If we are lucky a pair of adult or larger child's shoes cost us $30; modestly averaged, we spend about $6 per week on footwear. Although the price of framing lumber has ballooned to about $25 per hundred narrow-width board feet, many people still consume considerable quantities in a year to finish basement rooms, build tool and garden sheds, and pursue miscellaneous wood crafts; so we will assume one 2 x 4 per week.

Since few of us use stoves and fireplaces as primary heating and cooking appliances (when we do, a cord of wood costs $85 delivered), we will substitute for this item a high-end Mountain Fuel bill averaging $12.50 per week.

Assuming we eat the same foods in similar amounts as a pioneer family, we spend about $67.92 per week on staples. A worker earning minimum wage gets $170 per week. Thus 40 percent of this--about the same chunk as a pioneer spent--goes to basic survival.

Pioneer consumption patterns differed from ours in at least two major ways. Even those living in the city grew much of their produce and kept a milk cow plus a pig or two. In addition, they often built their own homes, avoiding mortgage payments.

Still, judging solely by percentage of income spent on food and fuel, the 1990s stack up pretty well. If we have higher housing, transportation, tax, and education costs, the frontier life involved poorer health care, Indian wars, few recreational opportunities, and no buffer from starvation. It seems to all balance out.

Source: Brigham D. Madsen, Gold Rush Sojourners in Great Salt Lake City, 1849 and 1850 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1983). Madsen cites diaries and letters of many Utah pioneers and forty-niners.


The Land
American Indians
Trappers, Traders, & Explorers
Pioneers & Cowboys
Mining & Railroads
Statehood & the Progressive Era
From War to War
Utah Today