January 4, 2012

Confederate Prices "What a Dinner Cost in 1864"

When reading primary sources from the Civil War, people of the time often mention the prices of various items. Many times you can feel their astonishment such as Kate Cumming, a confederate nurse who admitted in her journal that while at a wedding she saw a gown made from Swiss muslin and could not help but wonder about the price, "The article was very scarce at present; the last I heard of cost fifty dollars per yard." She also tells of items so scare that they could not be had at any price.

However, it is very hard to put these prices into comparable terms. The blockade seriously affected the supply of many items including fabric, medicines, books, and foodstuffs. When these items became available, the prices could be high or low depending on area and scarcity. Frequently, items would be available in pockets. Milk might be available in one town and scarce in the next and the prices reflected the supply.    

The type of money also was reflected in the prices. Confederate money fluctuated frequently. Union money was more stable, but when traveling in the south, some people were hesitant to accept it.

What could $13 a month army pay buy?

- 8.67 pounds of cheese ( $1.50 a pound)
- 130 apples ( 10 cents a piece)
- 52 oranges ( 25 cents an orange)
- 13 small pies ($1 a pie)
- 17.3 pairs of wool socks ( 75 cents a pair)
- 6.5 bottles of bad whiskey, ($2 a bottle according to William McCarter in My Life in the Irish Brigade.) 
-156 Cartes de Visite ($1 per dozen at the cheapest in Philadelphia, according to West Philadelphia Hospital Register published in 1863. 
- 3.54 "dates" with a lady of the night (3 for $11 according to Hugh D. Cameron of the 3rd North Carolina Cavalry as stated in The Story the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell by Thomas P. Lowry.)
-Soap, candles, coffee, flour, tea, and sugar in the South? Priceless. 

The prices above are generally from Northerners, traveling in the South. Due to the shortages and the inflation of confederate currency, it is very difficult to put an amount on any goods. Dolly Burge, who was living in Georgia wrote in her diary in November of 1864 that she "Paid seven dollars a pound for coffee, six dollars an ounce for indigo, twenty dollars for a quire of paper, five dollars for ten cents' worth of flax thread, six dollars for pins, and forty dollars for a bunch of factory thread." Burge was originally from Maine and was used to the prewar, northern pricing. We gain the best comparison of Confederate to Union in "five dollars for ten cents' worth of flax thread." 

There is a really interesting summary of the inflation in the Confederacy from 1861-1865 at Confederate Inflation Rates.  This site has a chart that shows the purchasing power of a Confederate dollar throughout the war.


  1. Excellent article!
    I'm assuming the prices listed on the charts are Confederate.
    Have you seen much on northern prices? I have a little - - I suppose I should go through my books and list all the prices I have found.
    Anyhow, thanks for the post!

  2. Thanks Ken, I added a bit more to make it more clear. The prices were typically from Union men traveling in the south as it is seemingly impossible to find a Confederate standard.

    Northern prices don't seem to vary too much during the war. If you look at period advertisement in books, things are a little more expensive but not by much.

  3. As a child I remember reading in my Girl Scout handbook about Juliette Low, who grew up in Savannah and how she had a little cake made without sugar for her birthday. It was quite surprising for us girls to read about another girl growing up without some simple things like sugar because of a war. It is one of my first memories of learning about the Civil War.

  4. Thanks for checking out my blog! I am so glad I found your! It's so interesting, I'm now following :)

  5. I have never been able to determine the cost of various types of women's dresses during the Civil War. This would include the cost of making it yourself, or the cost of having one made by a seamstress.


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