Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Friday, December 14, 2012

Historic Costume Recreations, Part 5, Some New Thoughts on a Miner's Overshirt

      When I start a project to recreate something historical in nature, I make an effort to gather as much information as I can. Over the years, I've created many different interpretations of men's mid-19th century overshirts and based on my level of knowledge at the time, some were better than others. Even though these shirts were a staple commodity during the California Gold Rush, no documented original examples of actual "miner's shirts" have surfaced. What we are left with, is the contemporary photographic record of a very popular shirt.

Classic Overshirts on the Job
image source unknown

     One of the best collections of Gold Rush daguerreotypes is found in the book "Silver & Gold" by Drew Johnson and Marcia Eymann, University of Iowa Press, 1998. I highly recommend it for anyone who is serious about studying California Gold Rush clothing.

     From Gold Rush era advertisements to personal journals, I've gleaned only bits and pieces about overshirts with few details of their construction or ornament. The best period catalog illustration with decriptive text I've ever found is the REED, BROTHERS & CO. catalog of 1853, plate 19.

From My Copy of the 1853 Reed Catalog
Showing the Miner's Frock and Descriptive Text
photos by author 2012

      So, even though none of the thousands of Gold Rush overshirts seem to have survived to the present day, you have to wonder, have any mid-19th century overshirts survived anywhere ? Yes indeedy......read on.

Original 1856 Overshirt
Image Courtesy Steamboat Arabia Museum
      I recommend that eveyone who is interested in mid-19th century American History visit the Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. The museum houses the recovered cargo of a sunken Missouri River steamboat, lost in 1856. It is a rare opportunity to have a full-immersion  material-culture experience, second only to time travel, as the collection is literally a moment frozen in time. When I first visited the Museum, many years ago I was a bit overwhelmed by the scope of the collection. The Hawley family has accomplished an astounding feat of preservation and continue to add to the exhibits. 

     Years ago, during a visit to the Arabia Museum, the late Greg Hawley told us that they still had several untouched wool overshirts in frozen storage. You can imagine how excited I was, when I later heard that several of the shirts were being carefully conserved and would soon be available for public view. and that the museum's conservator Dr. Judy Wright, had posted before, during and after pictures on Facebook. The shirt, now designated as the "Border Ruffian Shirt" is also featured in a Youtube teaser promoting David Hawley's future Preservation Series of film shorts.

Inside View of Neck Slit During Reconstruction
(note the gussets)
Image Courtesy of Steamboat Arabia Museum and
Dr. Judy Wright

     There were so many things to be discovered from  Dr. Wright's pictures. I was first struck by how casually the garment was constructed. I'm not sure if this represents "cheap" ready-made goods or what but it gave me cause to reflect on my previous replica shirts, with their tiny careful stitches. It appears that a running stitch was used for much of the construction and the seam allowances were just turned over once and left with the raw edge.  I also discovered  that the narrow braid trim only suggested a plastron with its outline. There was also an absence of underarm gussets in the original shirt. Another detail that caught my eye was the straight neck slit, rounded by the insertion of two small gussets at either end and no shape to the front of the slit. You will notice in the photo that opening down the front begins at the neck gusset. In the picture, the narrow, tapered facing hasn't been reattached yet. There appears to be no facing on the other side of the front slit as the edge is just turned back.

My Inspiration for the Latest Shirt
Image Courtesy John McWilliams

     Excitied about all of this new-found evidence, I decided to replicate another Miner's Overshirt incorporating some of these "details" I had just discovered.  True to my Gold Rush interest, I would base my shirt on an unpublished image of a young miner,shared with me, years ago by John McWilliams.

     I already had some madder red, wool flannel,  purchased from Burnley and Trowbridge.  I'm really glad that Needle and Thread of Gettysburg PA still carries the Wooded Hamlet line as they had a perfect narrow wool soutache, that I dyed a royal blue. Remember the "bright colored braid" in the REED cataloge description?  My wife is still my best source for small white china buttons, thank you very much Lindy.

My Replica

      Another thing worth noting in the Arabia shirt (and my replica), is that the front and back body are all one piece. This eliminates the need for a shoulder pieces to re-enforce a shoulder seam found with a two piece body.

Close-up Showing Faux Plastron ala Arabia
 and Patch Pockets
      The Arabia shirt's front slit-facing was quite narrow. At the top, it doesn't match with the end of the collar, leaving the collar end as an extended  tab. For my interpretation, I decided to have mine match, as you can see in the picture,

Slit Opened, Showing Tapered Facing
on the Left

    I also turned all of my seams twice to hide the raw edges, contrary to what the original shirt appears to have had. I felt the wool would contiue to unravel if it was left raw. Perhaps that wasn't a concern in the past. I did use a running stitch for the entire construction, even where I would have normally backstitched.

Small Gusset at Shoulder

    What I learned from this exercise was that maybe there is a place for simply constructed garments in the "Oh so carefully " reconstructed Living History world.  I'm not sure if the Arabia overshirt is typical or atypical but it taught me to think about historic shirts in a different way as there's always "new" information to be discovered.  My shirts will always be interpretations but hopefully reflective of a progressive approach to recreating history.

Close-up of Closed Neckline

Friday, November 16, 2012

Shedding a Little Light on a Favorite Subject

     I've been interested in early lighting devices for a very long time. Over the years, I've been lucky enough to find a few original pieces but I wouldn't claim to have a comprehensive collection. I recently decided to explore a few of the many styles of fluid lamps that existed just before the Age of Kerosene and blog on their use.

Original mid-19th Century Tinware Fluid Lamps
(not from my collection)
Image From Online Auction, Source Unknown

    As followers of my blog know, I love to practice my own version of experimental archaeology by reproducing past objects and learning from their use. For this fluid lamp exercise, I needed to put on my tinsmith hat and make a good effort with the minimal tools I have. If only I had a tinshop !

My Replica Lamps
Photos by Author 2012

     The key to learning about early to mid-19th century fluid lamps, is to study and understand their burners. Each type of  fuel needed a specific style of burner to give the best light. For this exercise, I wanted to explore Whale or Sperm Oil burners, Camphene or Burning Fluid burners, Lard Oil burners and Fat lamp burners. Even though some of these fuels are oblsolete, I wanted to faithfully replicate the burners, in order to understand how they evolved. For the time being, substitue fuels would have to do.

My Betty Lamp

     My quest started with the Betty Lamp. The classic Betty Lamp has an ancestry extending clear back to the Romans but had been improved on over time. The name "Betty" itself may have originated from the German word for "better". In this twilight period of its long history, it was still giving service as one of the humblest of lighting devices.

Nice Original Tinware Betty
Online Auction Source Unknown

     What I learned from my replica is that the wick channel has to be mounted to the inside bottom of the lamp only and not touch anywhere else. That way it transfers the heat of the flame down through the channel to the fat. By keeping the fat in a liquid state, it allows the wick to do its job.

Lid Open, Showing Wick Channel
On My Replica

      My lamp gave a constant, fairly bright light and wasn't smokey or smelly, even though the fuel I used was strained bacon fat. Maybe lesser quality fats gave the poor results that you read about. I think it's a great little lamp and will continue to use it.

My Whale Oil Lamp

     The Whale Oil lamp is probably the most recognizable lamp style that pre-dates kerosene. Whale Oil itself was the "first" commercially produced oil and was considered the premier fuel for illumination. This precious commodity was rendered from the blubber and parts of Baleen or other whales, whereas Sperm Oil was derived from the heads of Sperm Whales. Whale Oil wasn't cheap, running as much as $2 a gallon in the mid-1800's.

The Original Lamp
That Inspired My Replica
Online Auction Source Unknown

     The typical Whale Oil burner used vertical tubes that sometimes flared under their base mount and extended down towards the fuel. This extended length would transfer a little warmth to the fuel and help it to wick properly.

Whale Oil Lamp Burner
Note the Extended Tube

     Whale Oil burner tubes often have little slots cut in them, to help advance the wick with a pick. Most surviving original burners have two tubes but you do see singles. The rarest styles seem to be three and four tube burners. For my replica's pattern, I chose a Whale Oil  lamp version of a candle stick. The upright "candle" is actually the fuel reservoir, which extends into the base. To one side of the base is a matchsafe with a striker lid. Way cool !!

My Lard Oil Lamp
Note the Wick Pick on Chain

     Next in line is the Lard or Lard Oil Lamp, which in its time, was a cost-effective alternative to the Whale Oil lamp. Lard "Oil" was expressed from solid lard, but still needed to be warmed, to improve its fluidity. This need gave rise to many patented varietys of burners, each intent on improving the efficiency of the fuel. For my replica, I  made a version of  Archer's Patented Burner of 1842.

The Original Archer Type Burner
That Inspired My Replica
Image Courtesy The Old Time Lamp Shop

      A copper tube, mounted between the two flat burner tubes, transfers the heat all the way to the bottom of the reservoir. Many times you will see Lard Oil lamps mis-identified as Whale Oil lamps. The clue to their identity, is in the extended burner design.

My Replica Lard Oil Burner
Based on Archer's Patent

      For my replica, I ended up using canola oil as a substitue fuel.  I tried using solid Lard but it didn't work very well. Lard oil is a little hard to find, even though it's occasionally used by machinists as a lubricant. Just for fun, I painted the lamp with asphaltum varnish, a typical finish on tinware of the period.

My Camphene Lamp
Note the Burner Caps on Chains

     The final lamp in this project is the Camphene or Burning Fluid Lamp. Camphene was the rectified oil of turpentine and was sometimes mixed with alcohol to make lamp fuel. Although Camphene gave a cheap bright light, it came with a risk. It was very explosive and needed a specifically designed burner. Camphene burners have long tapered tubes that when in sets, angle out from each other to dissipate the heat of the flame.

My Camphene Burner

      These tubes never extend down past the mounting plate and  never have slots for wick adjustment. Apparently, any heat added to the fuel caused an accumulation of gases and the possibility of an explosion. Yikes !! Most surviving original burners have little covers to snuff out the flame and keep the fuel from evaporating. The style of lamp I chose to replicate is sometimes called a petticoat lamp by collectors for the flared shape of the base. Camphene lamps are often mislabeled as Whale Oil lamps but the difference is obvious once you know your burners. In case you wondered, my lamp burns modern lamp oil as I don't need to kill myself in the pursuit of history.

A Classic Original Camphene Lamp
Online Image Source Unknown

     By the time of the Civil War, all of these fluid lamps were fading from the scene, as the Age of Kerosene began . Untold numbers of patented burner improvements would help make this "new" cheap fuel the most popular choice in the world. It's still the dependable choice I make every time we have one of our routine power outages but after this lamp project, that fat burning Betty Lamp is looking pretty sweet.

For more information on early lighting, I would suggest these great sites:

                      The Rushlight Club has been supporting the serious study early lighting

                       James and Beth Boyle have a lot of great info on their Rams Horn Studio

                       The Old Time Lamp Shop has a lot of great photos of rare lamps and well
                       worth the visit


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Carpentry Tools Revisited or Picking Up Where I Left Off

    Once apon a time, I felt inspired to craft my own set of traditional carpenter's tools. I'm not sure how far I expected to go with that notion but for some reason, my ambitions got the better of me. The sum total of my production ended up being one Jack Plane. It turned out to be a good project though, as that plane became a learning tool, every time I used it.

     The plane project started with the purchase of the book "How to Make Wooden Planes" by David Perch and Leonard Lee (of Lee Valley Tools). After springing for a good thick steel from Garrett Wade., I picked up a nice block of hard maple and went to work. One of the advantages of crafting your own plane, is that you can custom fit the Toat to your hand. I discovered that a comfortable fit contributed to overall performance. The only flaw in my plane was its propensity to clog at the Mouth. I finally solved that problem by reducing the opening with an inset piece.

My Jack Plane
Photos by Author

     Since it now appears I'm back in the Traditonal Carpentry game, I felt compelled to revisit that "craft your own tools" notion of a decade ago. All I needed was a little inspiration. The blogging world is a great place to find inspiration and mine came from the Frontier Carpenter Blog.. Ron had posted on a sweet replica he made of an original 19th century wooden brace. Lucky for him, he owns the original and could make a carbon copy. I'm not so lucky but his work convinced me that I wanted to make my own brace.

Ron's nicely done copy
Image courtesy the Frontier Carpenter blog

      Some of my tool books feature original examples of braces, from the very primitive to plated Sheffields, but nothing really grabbed me until I started  researching online. In the Crafts of New Jersey publication called the "Tool Shed", Issue 93 of Sept. 1996, I found an article by Ron Pearson called The Primitve Wooden Brace. In the article, several varietys of wooden braces are categorized by the author according to how the bits mount. After studying the photos in the article, I felt I had enough information to design and build my own version of this classic early tool.

A beautiful brace featured in the article

    The project started with the purchase of a nice block of maple from the Wood Workers Source and after the final shaping, lathe work and sanding, I decided to stain the brace to resemble a more expensive wood. To me, it made it feel a little less "primitive". From an online auction, I scored 3 original bits, then mounted them in their newly turned pads. I liked the idea of a thumbscrew to secure the square shaft of the pad but gave it my own spin with a brass plate mount. I was very pleased with the way it turned out and decided to keep the ball rolling by crafting a few more "necessary" tools.

My Version of a Mid-19th Century Brace

     When I retired from the Columbia Carpenter's Shop in 2008, I sold all of my Crown Tool replicas to a docent / carpenter. To make up for that loss, I decided to craft my own try square, mortise gauge and bevel from scraps of hardwood I had accumulated. The patterns for the three tools came from online sources like Google Images and my reference books.

My Gauge, Bevel and Try Square
Ready for Work !

     . For the moment my tool urge seens satisfied but that could change as we continue to develop the new interpretive Carpenter's Shop at the Angels Camp Museum.  So, stay tuned !

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Traditional Carpentry Revisited and a New Job

     I was recently hired by the City of Angels (aka Angels Camp), as the Education Coordinator for the Angels Camp Museum. One of my primary goals is to create an outreach "Traveling Trunk" program for 4th graders as an enhancement to their Gold Rush studies. I'm also involved in improving overall interpretation at the Museum. Previous to landing this job, I was involved in several Museum projects, one of which is the focus of this post.

Angels Camp Museum
Calaveras County, California

    The Angels Camp Museum is an important regional Museum, housing many rare artifacts and collections relating to the history of the Mother Lode. With the recent opening of the new Artisan's Exhibit area, the Museum has begun a transition from the traditional emphasis of display only, to a more "interactive" approach to teaching local history. The Aritsan's Exhibit area is intended to highlight various craftsmen who contributed to the growth of the local community. My contribution was to build a typical 19th Century carpenter's bench for the new, interactive Carpenter's Shop.

A Nice Version of Underhill's Portable Workbench
(mine is long-gone)
image courtesy closegrain.com

    Back in 1998, when my wife and I started working in the Carpenter's Shop at Columbia State Historic Park, I was faced with trying to build a small, functional workbench to fit the tiny shop part of a small retail space. I was fortunate to have found the design for a portable workbench in Roy Underhill's "The Woodwright's Apprentice" book. Over the 10 years of use, that little bench proved itself as a great interpretive tool and gave me the experience to design and create the bench for the Angels Camp Museum.

A Classically Simple Carpenter's Bench
image source unknown

    For the Angels Camp bench, I wanted to follow the basic "form and function" of a traditional bench but keep it simple. It needed to be a good size (6 ft. long) with a nice mass for the top ( 4"x12"x6' ) and a tool well along the length. Support would come from a stout frame (4"x4" and 2"x6"), through mortised and tenoned, with a leg-vise on the left. It would need plenty of holes for a pair of hold-fasts and bench-dogs and maybe a single drawer on the front.

Lewis Miller in His Carpenter's Shop
image courtesy folkartcooperstown.blogspot.com

    Traditional carpenter's benches seem to be as varied as the people who built them, whether past or present. I fell in love with Lewis Miller's contemporary illustration of his mid-1800's carpenter's workshop and after finding several similar original examples, I was inspired to come up with my own design.

My Finished Bench
images by Lindy Miller 2012

     I purchased the hold-fasts from Woodcraft and while cleaning up the rough castings, decided to grind off the large TAIWAN on the sides to "improve" their apperance. The screw for the leg vise came from Busy Bee Tools in Canada and the Douglas Fir and Pine from the local lumber yard. After the pictures were taken, I fashioned a pair of bench-dogs to complete the project. I think it turned out well and I'm looking forward to using it at the Museum as we recreate a Carpenter's Shop of not that long ago.

Another View Showing Leg Vise

Thursday, September 20, 2012

An Interesting Trunk Project for Columbia SHP

     Followers of my blog know that I've had a long association with Columbia State Historic Park, here in Northern California. Earlier this year, I was approached with an interesting project by Amber Cantisano, one of the interpreters in the Park. Before I get into explaining the project, a little background is in order. Next to the iconic Wells Fargo building in Columbia, stands a deep, open building that has served a variety of businesses over its long history. For about the last 50 years its been a Stage Depot display for luggage and baggage, supposedly reflective of the Park's interpretive period of 1850-1870. For all those decades, dozens of original 19th century trunks and chests have sat in a state of neglect and continual ruin until many have been reduced to relics.

Columbia's Wells Fargo Building with
Stage Depot to the Right

Older Image Courtesy www.malakoff.com

     Earlier this year, Park staff began removing the original trunks to better storage, while curator Thonni Morikawa and Amber continued the planning of an updated interpretive display to replace them. This new display would be more in keeping with the Park's mission to better teach California history and would include appropriate text panels and graphics. My part in all this would be to build four replica trunks, based on originals salvaged from the old display. Three of the four picked by Thonni were good examples of mid-19th century styles and one was definitely early 19th century. My replicas would become key elements in the new display, eliminating the angst caused by the loss of original artifacts. What made this project a curious depature from my normal work was that the trunks would only be used as props and never be opened. In other words, non-funtional but pretty cool to look at.

Jenny Lind Trunk Form (upper right) Covered in Leather
Two Lower Trunk Forms in Unpainted Canvas
Hair on Hide Covered Trunk (upper left) Near Completion

Photos Lindy Miller 2012

     After gathering the data from the original trunks, I began by building the hollow forms for each trunk from one inch, number two pine. A careful layout on paper allowed me to project where thicknesses in the pine planks needed to be, in order to sculpt the profiles of the original trunks. A lot of planing and rasping brought out the curves and angles that lead to solid but graceful forms. Two of the mid-century trunks were similar and would eventually be covered in painted canvas. The Jenny Lind style trunk would get a covering of tooled, vegetable tanned leather and the fourth, earlier cylinder trunk, was destined to wear unborn calf hide, or as they call it, "slunk".

Progress on Coverings and Hardware
Hair on Hide Trunk Completed
     Although these replicas were only props, I was intent on sweating the details that characterize period trunks. In most surviving examples, the straps and protective flaps are missing and we are left with only remnant clues as to their original design. With a little detective work and research, I gleened enough information to confidently craft my facsimiles.

Hidden Details on Canvas Covered Example
Awaiting the Final Brass Tacks

      Finding all of the appropriate materials is always a challenge but I was pretty lucky to find close matches from online vendors. A good source for solid brass tacks is Crazy Crow Trading Post and they have a selection of sizes. The Jenny Lind style of tack is less common but I found two sources for two varietys. Van Dykes Restorers offers a large cast iron Jenny Lind style tack, that comes from India and the Furniture Restoration Center of Oregon has a smaller version but still a good style. For iron roller buckles, I used Blockade Runner Sutlery of Tennessee. All of the leather came from an online auction.

All Four Trunks Completed and
Ready for Delivery

     All of the locking mechanisms were crafted from scratch, using brass and steel and although based on the original versions, they didn't need to be functional. Some of the original trunk's leather handles and straps had hand stitched detail which I copied in my replicas as faithful as possible. Embossing the leather was an interesting exercise. I ended up making a tooling wheel - roller thingy , using a strip of embossed brass wrapped around a wooden cylinder. That, plus an embossing plate made from some of the same brass strip, gave me the tools neccessary to stamp the veg.- tanned covering for the Jenny Lind trunk with decorative panel designs.

Closer views of the Hide Covered Versions

     To allow for display options, I made sure that the trunks were complete and authentically styled from all sides, including the bottoms. All in all an interesting project with its own challenges but well worth it and I got to help improve the interpretation of our local history.

The Trunks in Their New Home
But Not the Final Display

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Eureka Moments Revisited, Part 6, "A Pocket Full of Rocks."

     During the California Gold Rush, some hopeful argonauts would brag about returning home with a "pocket full of rocks". This saying suggests a clothing pocket stuffed with nuggets but it might be the archaic use of the word "pocket", defined as a bag or poke.

The Routine Ritual of Weighing the Gold Dust
(and other pursuits)
note the gold bag on the table
Image Courtesy artknowledgenews.com

     After the precious dust, flakes and nuggets were wrestled from the earth, miners were faced with the problem of how to safely store their reward. Back in March of 2011, I posted on Gold Porters (vests) but barely touched on the leather bag or poke, used for storing raw gold. In this post, I will explore the subject a little more and talk about the replica bags, I've made.

     Very little has been written about this simple leather bag, so I'm left to my own speculations and conclusions. By studying surviving examples, I began to see similar features, but no two are exactly alike. There were commercially made versions and they may have been standardized (one example is featured in this post), but the evidence suggests that many were homemade.

Original Gold Bags
One in the Foreground Has a Name and Number
Image Source Unknown

    The basic form is an elongated  tube with a rounded bottom. Many are made of one piece of leather with a side seam that continues down one side and around the bottom. Some examples have a separate, second piece for the bottom. Most all have welted seams, with a strip of leather sandwiched between the two sewn sides. I'm no expert when it comes to leather identification but soft buckskin seems to have been a popular choice. From photos of originals and the few that I've had the chance to study, it appears that the flesh side of the leather was turned to the outside and the smoother, hair side ended up on the inside. This makes perfect sense, as you wouldn't want your gold dust clinging to rough side of the leather. Finally, the string ties used to close the bag, were occasionally attached at the side seam during construction and located near the opening of the bag.

An Original Gold Bag with Evidence of Wax Seals
Source, Online Auction

     An interesting clue as to how these bags were used, is the telltale bits of sealing wax that seem to decorate many original bags. After the bag was tied shut and weighed, sealing wax would be dripped on the string ties to deter tampering during shipment. In the example shown, the seals were probably intended to identify the handlers prior to or during shipping as they are not near where the ties would be. You will also see original bags with a name, location and the amount of gold, written on the outside in ink (see "California's Best", Brad & Brian Whitherell, pg. 115 for several examples).

Unused Original Gold Bag
Manufactured for and Sold by
John C. Morrison Jr. & Co. S.F. Cal.
Circa Mid-1850's
Source, Online Auction

     Not long ago, a facinating gold bag appeared on an online auction. It turned up far away from the California gold fields and in unused condition. What made this bag interesting to me, was how well it was marked.
Near the open end of the bag, is the stamp of John C. Morrison, Jr. & Co.  Mr. Morrison is listed as an "importer" in the San Francisco directory of 1852-1853, but at a different address than the stamp. Since the label claims "Manufactured expressly for", the bag might have been discovered near it's orignal source and never actually made the trip West.

Close-up of Original Label
on the Morrison Bag

     After I made my replica of the Morrison bag, I tried a little experiment to simulate the printed label found on the original. Using Microsoft Word, I composed a facsimile of the label with similar typefaces and shrunk it to size. My wife then reversed the image on her computer. I printed this final example on our copier, with the ink set to dark. With the printed label face down on the finished bag, I pressed the back side of the paper with a hot iron for a few seconds, to transfer the image to the leather. I think it worked quite nicely as an impression of the original.

    A little trick I learned while making my replica bags, (purists, please forgive me) is to carefully apply Aleene's Tacky Glue to hold the layers of leather together at the seam, before punching the holes and hand sewing with waxed linen thread. The object is to use only enough glue along the outer edge of the three layers to hold them until they're secured with a tight, overcast stitch. Once the bag is turned to the outside, you can carefully trim the welt back with sharp scissors and hopefully no glue will show.

My Replica Bags
Photo Lindy Miller 2012

    Of the three replica bags in the picture, my favorite is the J. App & Co. from Jamestown. The original is on display at the Museum in Columbia State Historic Park and secured in a case.  I could only guess the dimensions but still managed to pull off a decent replica. I love the hand lettering and how it dissapears into the seam. To me, this suggests that the bag was most likely locally made as the inking was done before the seam was stitched.

     It's hard to imagine how many "rocks" it would take to fill one of these large "pockets", let alone the amount of labor to dig them up. Just routine business in Gold Rush California.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Eureka Moments Revisited Part 5, A Gold Rush Shopping Spree

     Sometime around 2000 (the exact date escapes me) Columbia State Historic Park was contacted by an out-of-state bookdealer who had a treasure to sell.  In the pursuit of primary resources for Gold Rush material culture, it's hard to imagine anything better than the written accounts of what merchants sold to miners and that's what the dealer had.  He offered original California Gold Rush daily ledger books for  1853-'55 from the "Vanderwerker and Jacobs Store" in the neighboring town of Springfield. What an opportunity ! There was, of course, a scramble at the Park for money (these things don't come cheap) but with the help of the docents' cooperating association, the ledgers were purchased.

The Gold Rush Town of Springfield
Early 1850's
Image Collection of Matthew R. Isenburg

     Soon after they arrived, I had the opportunity to view them and I was immediately swept up in the chance to read a first-hand record of the raw consumerism, birthed by the Gold Rush. One immediate challenge was trying to read all of the different hands. There were obviously several clerks keeping accounts. More importantly though, I began to wonder how to turn this information into something useful. I was starting to feel overwhelmed as I pondered the commitment it would take to transcribe the books, but what the heck, who else would do this ?  I asked Ranger Sherrin Grout if there was any chance I could secure copies of the books. I was blown away by her generous offer to do it for me. So, with copies of the ledgers in hand my work began.

A Page From My Copy of the Original Ledger Book
Photo Lindy Miller 2012

     This post is a little different for my blog. It's mostly data with little to no illustrations as I didn't feel compelled to jazz it up with pictures. I hope the curious reader will still find it interesting and let their imagination provide the visuals. I decided to explore the earliest ledger of 1853 and felt that by organizing the purchases into catagories, complete with tallies as to their frequency, it might give us insight into the miner's buying patterns. Most established Gold Rush communities had many general merchandise stores, so at best this is a sampling and not conclusive. The lists start with a category title, followed by the top ten items in that category. Behind each item is a number that represents the number of sales of that item for the year. Next, you will occasionally see in brackets additional descriptions of the item from the ledgers. These additons were random and infrequent but still important clues to the products. I have carefully listed the items as they were written with no interpretation on my part. So, let's begin with.....

Item      # of Sales      Description


Sugar  130  ( crushed, mat )
Butter  120  (with keg)
Flour  92  (sack, barrel, can, buckwheat, rye)
Potatoes  88
Pork  60
Beans  59  (sack)
Ham  56
Apples  42  (can)
Meal  33  (corn)
Molasses  33


Vinegar  43  (bottle)
Saleratus  37
Syrup  24
Pepper  26  (box, can, paper)
Cream of Tartar  9  (box)
Cinnamon  8  (box)
Peppersauce  7
Nutmeg  7
Cloves  6  (ground)
Mustard  5 (bottle )


Tea  79  (paper of)
Tobacco  78  (plug, paper of, box of)
Brandy  63
Coffee  55  (ground)
Whiskey  30  (bottle)
Gin  27
Cigars  9
Wine  4  (port)
Claret  4
Liquor   2


Shirt  82  (hickory, twilled over-, red, grey woolen, white, wool, red wool, grey wool, blue wool )
Pants  56  (kersey, cotton, superior, S.G., grey, grey wollen, fancy, linen)
Boots  44
Socks  60  (cotton hose, cotton, wool)
Shoes  36
Hat  20   (panama)
Handkerchief  15  (pocket, cotton)
Drawers  9
Suspenders  6
Undershirt  5


Muslin  25  (brown, bleached)
Duck  23
Calico  12
Drill  12
Thread  10  (spool, hank, linen)
Flannel  6  (red)
Oilcloth  4
Ticking  4
Satinett  3
Neddles  3  (and palm)


Shovel  30
Hoe  20  (flat tom, improved tom)
Pail  19  (bucket, tin, water)
Pick  11
Hammer  8  (sledge)
Axe Helve  7
Butts  6
Saw  6  (crosscut, wood)
Pick Handle  7  (helve)
Gold Blower  5


Nails  104  (wrought)
Tacks  29  (paper of)
Lumber  29  (flooring, boards, joice, ribs)
Rope   14 (barrel of, manilla)
Twine  11  (ball of)
Shingles  5
Paint  3  (black)
Blind Fastenings  1
Pickets  1
Posts  1


Candles  104  (box of)
Plates  35  (soup, dining, large, pie, tea)
Matches  23  (box of)
Broom  16
Blankets  15  (pair of, grey)
Knife  13  (chopping, pocket)
Spoon  11  (table, tea)
Knives and Forks  10
Cups  5
Quilts  4  (Maryland, bed)


Oil  12   (can of, Carter)
Camphor  6
Sulphur  5
Sarsaparilla  4
Turpentine & Whiskey  3
Cassia   3
Turpentine  2  (spirits of)
Seidlitz Powder  2  (box of)
Camphor & Turpentine  1
Pain Killer  1  (bottle)

NOTE:  Apparently, some of the customers were making up their own "home remedies". Turpentine combined with Whiskey is a purgative and Camphor mixed with Turpentine is a pesticide or inhalent for lung congestion. Further down the list was Whiskey and Camphor, which apparently made a passable liniment or could be injested for pneumonia. Scarey eh ?


Soap  52  (shaving, bar, box of, cake of)
Paper  21  (letter, writing, wrapping)
Ink  7  (bottle of)
Cards  5  (playing, pack of)
Brush  5  (shaving, tooth)
Pens  4  (box of)
Book   4 (pocket, blank, memo)
Purse  2
Shoe Blacking  1
Razor  1

       This is where I decided to stop for this post. The list of items in each category goes on and on. The categories I left out were Gunpowder and related items and Animals and Feed. I hope the sampling gives the reader at least a sense of what was available in these mining towns. It created more questions than answers for me but that's the beauty of it. I'm still researching the data and thinking of other ways to oganize it, like how many pounds of something sold in a year.

     There were groupings of items that don't show up in the above lists that tell the story of the entrepreneurs who started a ranch or boarding house or bought the tools to ply a trade like carpentry. There it is in black and white, the story of men trying to make it in this crazy place called California, not that long ago.