Customs and Prices Gleaned
from a Cash Book in 1853

Customs and Prices Gleaned from a Cash Book in 1853

One hundred years ago a Journal was being kept at Bedford, Kentucky of the cash transactions of a partnership carrying on a multiple business.  A study of this journal reveals the customs of the trade and the ways of life of a rural community of that period.  Aside from the differences caused by slavery most of the customs were similar to like situations throughout the Middle West.  There are, however, three items clearly related to slavery: an expenditure of eighteen dollars for hunting a Negro; a receipt of two dollars and a half for the use of Bill for five days by a neighbor, and a receipt of four dollars for the hire of Mary.

The partners were Dr. Robert O'Brien and James Ferdinand Young.  Their business consisted of a steam mill which ground grains into flour, meal, and feeds; a saw mill which produced lumber, staves and firewood; a tan yard and Sadler shop which tanned hides and fashioned leather; a hostelry which furnished shelter and food for man and beast; a general store which carried most everything needed by an individual or the home.  In addition, the partners were farmers and landlords, and O'Brien was a physician.

 A striking fact about the items in the cash book is the large number of five, ten and fifteen cent purchases and the magnitude of many other purchases which often exceeded one hundred dollars.  These large purchases from the farmers were made seasonably and their income fluctuated greatly from month to month.  This fluctuation resulted in extended credit by the firm. This credit was after a time converted into a due bill and a note bearing interest, thus the proprietors became community bankers and made loans to suit the convenience of their patrons, from a loan of twenty-five cents to a due bill of $415.53.

 The flour mill, which is always referred to, seemingly with great pride, as the steam mill, purchased wheat, rye, oats and corn, and produced flour, middlings, shorts, shipstuff and corn meal. Large purchases of wheat were made, especially during the months of August and September, which would indicate that the farmers had few facilities for the safe storage of that grain and sold it shortly after threshing.

 Usually in the Journal, only the total price for the wheat is given but the price per bushel of one dollar is listed in one sale of one hundred bushels, assuming that the price was usually near that figure.  Many of the crops meant rather large acreages for the days of harvesting with a cradle, for many times the total paid exceeded one hundred dollars but occasionally the amount of wheat was less than ten bushels.

 Flour was sold by the barrel at a price varying from $6.00 to $8.75 per barrel, and also in smaller quantities at .03 to .045 cents per pound.  The largest purchaser of flour was the Str. Belle Quiglay, which bought $1200.00 worth in four sales.  There is one account of trading flour for baskets so that barter had a small place in our economy in 1855.  The by-products of milling grain were sold for feed for livestock at .02 to .025 cents per pound.  There is one sale of shipstuff of $275.50.

 Corn was usually purchased in lesser amounts than wheat and not many purchases or rye and oats were listed.  The mill produced corn meal, which was sold by the half bushel at from .32 to .62 per half bushel.

 The saw mill bought logs as low as $1 apiece but there was one purchase listed of eleven logs for $83.37. Lumber sold from .75 to $1.25 for a hundred board feet.  It was largely in the form of planks, sheeting, flooring and staves.

 The tan yard treated sheep, cow and horse hides and sold leather and materials fashioned from leather such as saddles, shoe soles, girths, martingales, and bridles.  One saddle and bridle sold for $18.00.  (Possibly the saddletree came from Schroeders in Madison).  George Stratton received $546.66 for two years and 2 month's work in the tan yard.

 The general store's sales including shoe blacking, brushes, shaving soap, razor strops, four dollar hats, vest patters with trimmings, flannel coats, shoes at three dollars, silk handkerchiefs at $.25, fine shirting and shirt buttons, and socks at $.25.  This meant that the rural gentleman in Trimble County dressed up on occasion.  Dr. O'Brien paid his tailor one bill of $200.39, and had two blanket coats made by a neighboring woman. 

The ladies purchase silks, woolens and cottons by the yard, and handkerchiefs, gloves and shoes to go with the dress  Two typical purchases were the following:


 17 yards calico @ 15 cents   $2.50
1 yard bobbinette @ 50 cents        .50
Hooks, eyes, and boss        .15
  2 yds muslin de laine @ 50 cents     1.00
1 pair of shoes                       1.30



8 yds black alpace @ 50 cents      $4.00
  2 skeins black silk        0.20
  Hooks and eyes          0.05
  1 yd black cambric        0.10


Often such sales included thread, needles, pins and whale bone.  The number of yards per purchase reveals the fluted, floating style of 1855.

 Cottons were commonly sold and there was a large variety listing as factory cotton, calico, gingham, bleached cotton, cotton drilling, cottonade, cottoneen, ticking, canton flannel and jeans; alpaca, linsey, flannel and muslin de laine were among the wool offerings.  Isaac Greenwood also had a store in Bedford where the more expensive yardage could be secured.

 Shoes sold from 60 cents to $3.00 per pair and boots sold from $3.50 up.  A number of sales showed the man of the household buying four or five pairs at a time at varying prices so he must have been buying the year's supply for the children. (Possibly carried a notched stick to show the different lengths of his youngsters' feet).

 While there is a sale of hogs from the farm of $200 and steers bought from $15 to $30, meats from the store were - according top present prices - very cheap.  Meats were mostly sold in large pieces; sample sales were as follows:

 68 lbs. Bacon, @ 10 cents                 $6.80
20 lbs. Beef @ 5 1/2 cents                   1.50
12 lbs. mutton @ 5 cents                       .60
20 lbs. pork @ 6 cents                         1.20
50 lbs. lard @ 10 cents                        5.00
17 lbs. ham @ 8 cents                          1.36

 Eggs were bought as low as five cents a dozen, but there is a January sale listed at ten cents a dozen.  Very few eggs were sold to the consuming public, which undoubtedly meant that most of the residents of Bedford kept chickens.  Butter and cheese sold at .125 cents a pound. From the items of rent for cow pasture, one also assumes that many in Bedford kept a cow or cows.  The small sales, three or four hundred pounds of hay at a time, from the barn, would indicate the same thing.  This hay was usually weighed at the barn with a steelyard and lifting lever in about 120-pound lots held in place by a rope.

 Coffee was commonly sold at 6 lbs. for $1.00; this was unground and usually not browned.  A coffee mill was sold for sixty cents and the coffee was usually ground before each meal in order to retain the aroma.  The browning was done in the oven at intervals.  The scent of browning coffee is a pleasant memory of the older people.

 Surprisingly few sales of sugar were made, although four kinds were listed: loaf, white, brown and maple.  The sorghum and maple syrups produced on the farms account for the small demand for other sugars.  Loaf sugar seems to be the kind that was in greater demand.  Rather a steady demand for spice, sage, mustard, saleratus [think "baking powder"], cream of tartar, pepper and salt was evident from the cash sales but the quantities purchased were small with the exception of pepper and salt.  Pepper sold by the pound and salt by the barrel at about a cent a pound.

 The tavern furnished meals as low as twenty-five cents and fed a horse for the same amount.  There is one statement of a dinner and cigars for thirty cents, another of a meal to a father and son for seventy cents.  The tailor out of his tailoring bill of $200.37 paid $159.00 for board.  This likely meant that the tailor traveled from town to town periodically.

 The housewife must have spent some time dyeing clothes as there are sales of madder, indigo, alum, copperas and other chemicals used in changing the color of garments.

 Sales of tallow and candlewick indicated the home molding of candles.  Candles were also a leading item of sales.  I was surprised to learn that matches at five cents were for sale in 1857.

 From the store moved a small stream of common drugs such as quinine, lemon syrup, magnesia, castor oil, ipecac, Seidlitz Powders, liniment, vermifuge, cordials, pills, turpentine, and, in July, 1855 one bottle of cholera medicine.  The leading seller seemed to be vials of Bateman's drops.  Wines and brandy were sold at one dollar per bottle.

 Muzzle loading guns were the common types in Trimble, as evidenced by the sale of shot, powder, caps, wadding and lead bars for the molding of bullets.  Other articles that are not commonly sold now but were staple in 1855 were scythes, whetstones, and currycombs.  The sale of fats meant home soap making, yet some bar soap was sold.

 While many farmwives made candles and soap, and carded wool, they gave attention to their appearance as evidence by the sales of looking glasses, combs, hats and trimmings.  That they maintained a correspondence is also evidence by the sales of paper, pen and ink.  Sales of tableware were similar to those today but covered dishes were more common: iron skillets, pots, pans and teakettles made up much of the kitchenware; crocks and crockery were also sold.

 The cost of a doctor's visit varied from 75 cents to $10, this charge including medicine.  His posting usually was as follows: "Visit, medicine, etc." 

The firm furnished the coffin, trimmings, and hearse for a departed patient for $15.53.

The store sold a number of spelling books for ten cents each and there is a notation of a third and fourth grade reader selling for 65 cents each.  The schools were supported by subscription as evidenced by two items: one, a recorded payment of three dollars to a teacher, and another, $13.75, for the tuition of "Kate and Tommy."

 The firm bought considerable tobacco by the hogshead at two and three cents a pound and then sold it on the Breaks at Louisville; they also received tobacco for sale on commission.  An interesting purchase was one-half crop of 4 hogsheads for $91.37, which was used to settle a due bill of $86.41, allowing the seller $4.96 cash for his crop.

 Here are a few items relating to power and methods of transportation:

 A bay horse               $90.00
A blind horse              $25.00
A yoke of Oxen          $55.00
A log wagon                $60.00

 These two partners were millers, sawyers, coopers, tanners, sadlers, storekeepers, doctors, undertakers, farmers, bankers and landlords, and their record, 100 years old, touched every phase of life of a rural community from the birth of some to the burial of others.


by John Seiler. This item was found in a clippings file at the public library in Madison Indiana.  There's a reference in it to “The Godfry Show” that likely dates it as from the 1950's.  The library has glued the work to a folder, and the title and author were on the back of one of the sheets.  So if we held it up to the light, we could read the title, but we're not sure we've got the author's name correctly.  If you know for sure, we'd appreciate being corrected on the point.