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

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.


  1. Great post, wonderful informaton! I've been going over the grocery lists people sent to Thomas Whaley for his General Store and they're quite interesting. We're looking to flesh out the Whaley House General Store collection/display, so I'm very interested in the ledgers and information on what people were purchasing.

    One of the most interesting lists I found requests a "pair of spectacles for an older gentleman." And additionally requests that Whaley "find an older man off the street, and test the spectacles on him."

  2. Fascinating ! Like breathing down the poeples' neck.

    And the thing with the spectacles- unbelievable !

    The Doc

  3. Hello Jim,
    It's been a few years. I happened across your blog this evening and am very glad to see all the great work you're doing.

    Best wishes,