The Pioneer’s Cost of Living Versus Today’s

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.