Hard Tack and Historyby John Scott on Feb. 21, 2013, under Uncategorized
For the past nine years during the Tucson Rodeo season I am asked to speak at the elementary school my lovely wife teaches at. The subject is the 1880‘s cowboy, and since I can only hold their attention for about 20 minutes, It’s more of a condensed comparison to today’s cowboy. I don my 1880’s attire complete with authentic tools that Victorian era cowboys carried with them. Some of these items are antiques, some are faithful reproductions. Everything I bring with me has a place in my oration.
At the end, the students file by the table with the goodies on it, handling everything and asking questions. The children typically write thank you letters noting what they learned during the presentation. These letters are a kind of feedback which has helped me and my wife fine tune the lesson. For instance, over the last couple of years I have presented hard tack, an instant favorite. So popular, in fact, that my wife obtained a recipe and made it for the students to try. They don’t seem interested to try mine. Maybe because it’s five years old. Relatively young for hard tack, I’d say. But you can’t please everyone.
I don’t claim to understand what goes through the minds of our youth, but this year I watched in shock as my hard tack paled in comparison to a 3¢ coin from 1881.
Is it really 3¢? In one coin? Wow! 3¢ could really buy something?
Yes, indeed. You could buy an egg, maybe some butter, or even an orange. In a typical cowtown, one could purchase a beer for a quarter, and a pound of rice for 9¢. By the way, my examples are adding up to a very strange meal. Iron Chef, Old West style.
You have to consider the cost of living back then. A cowboy earned about $30 a month. Lawmen made a similar salary. Soldiers only earned about $13 a month. Merchants were no doubt making more, but then they also had overhead to contend with. As you can guess, there weren’t a lot of 401k plans going on in the wild west.
Boomtowns, like Tombstone or Deadwood, were centered around the mining industry. Due to the pricey ore being pulled from the ground, businessmen would charge more. Law of supply and demand applied, and everyone paid it.
Kind of like today, eh?
By the 1880’s, Tucson was a bustling little burg. There were plenty of shops, restaurants, banks, and saloons to go around. Putting an ad in the Arizona Weekly Citizen ran $2.25, a hefty amount back then. Consider that in the 1800’s, reading a newspaper was the primary way to get news. To advertise in the paper was a smart investment. Probably even a necessary one, if you were in a big town.
In 2013, 3¢ may not buy you much of anything, but it intrigues us how our great grandparents valued money. It opens our children up to learning about history and economy. To me, that is encouraging.
OK, time to go make some hard tack.