Cost of living in 1851

The cost of living in Gold Rush San Francisco was higher than in most American or European cities. Prices escalated with the sudden influx of thousands of fortune seekers into a town that was less than 20 years old and in which food and accommodation were scarce. This, apparently, caused little hardship for most people because they could earn more money here than anywhere else. The standard form of currency in the town was gold dust valued at $16 per ounce. Albert Benard de Russailh arrived from Paris in March 1851 and he recorded the following in his journal.

At the time of my arrival in San Francisco the cost of ordinary living was very high, but it is only fair to add that one could earn enough to pay one's expenses. In March,1851, a fairly good dinner without wine cost $2.00, a bottle of wine, $1.50, which brought the price of an ordinary meal to $3.50 a person. For this amount, at Vefond's or at the Trois Frères Provençaux, I could have had an excellent dinner and the best wines. At the same period one could rent a corner of a bedroom for $1.50. You were given a blanket and had the right to wrap up in it and stretch your weary bones on the floor. Daily expenses ran up to $5.00. Everything else was in proportion: laundries charged $9.00 a dozen to do up shirts, although a new shirt cost only $2.00. The bootblacks working in front of the El Dorado, the Parker House, and the Union Hotel earned from $10.00 to $15.00 a day each. The negroes and other workmen who were always hanging around the Wharf charged $3, $4, or $5 to carry a trunk or two. A musician could earn two ounces [of gold] by scraping on a squeaky fiddle for two hours every evening, or by puffing into an asthmatic flute.

You had to give one of the girls in a bar about as much to come and sit with you an hour or two, and if you wanted anything more from these nymphs, you had to pay 15 to 20 ounces [$240 to $320]. But to make up for this, every kind of work was extremely well-paid. Almost any small business deal would eventually bring in very handsome profits. You earned money in proportion to what you spent, and you quickly got used to paying $3 or $4 for your dinner and no longer hesitated to spend five times as much as in France for a drink in the middle of the day.

There is a great bustle all day long. Men hurry about doing their business; deals are put through easily and quickly, even when they amount to $100,000 or $150,000, and they are helped along by drinks of brandy in any one of the numerous bars of the city. Practically all transactions are discussed and closed with a few drinks, which is the recognized method of coming to an agreement. When buyer and seller have once drunk together, the bargain is definitely concluded. Wagons and carriages crowd along through the ruts of the street, and the docks are packed with all kinds of goods, brought by ships from the ends of the earth, to be traded for gold dust. By evening everything changes and the night-life begins. Business-men and merchants, who work so hard during the day, can think of nothing better to do right after dinner than to push into the innumerable stuffy gambling-houses where in a flash they lose everything they have earned. A few of them, but not very many, go to the theatre to enjoy subtler emotions.

The above is an extract of an account in Malcolm E. Barker's book, San Francisco Memoirs 1835-1851: Eyewitness accounts of the birth of a city (Londonborn Publications, San Francisco, 1994.

Back ] Home ] Up ] Next ]