Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Money in the Old West--Part One

“It was not by gold, or by silver, but by labour that all wealth of the world was originally purchased.” Adam Smith

While doing research for Never Done, I learned much about the nature of money in the Old West or what substituted for it. I incorporated some of what I learned in my novel if it fit the story’s action or theme. For example, in part IV, “To Market, To Market,” I write how the main character, Clara, and her husband exchange food with the Stuart’s, their closest neighbors. In autumn, the trees in the Stuart family’s orchard were heavy with fruit. Albert shared the beef he butchered with his men, and Vincent traded some of it to the Stuart’s for apples.   
Barter was common in sparsely-settled parts of the West, whereas bank accounts were rare. Self-employed farmers exchanged what they grew or raised for canned goods, seed, building materials, or clothing. The milk and eggs they produced were the two items most prized by people living in towns. Wage-earning townspeople were either paid in cash or with chits and coupons redeemable only at the company store. The storekeepers kept track of a household or customer's monthly purchases, and then settled accounts on payday. 

Long before the West was won, trappers swapped beaver and fox furs for tobacco, hunting gear, alcohol, and food. Native Americans traded hides and rugs for beads, cooking utensils, and horses. In “Make Do and Mend,” part III of Never Done, Vincent sells the wolf hides he cures over the winter and uses the money to buy a Singer sewing machine for Clara.
Cowboys were usually paid in cash. When they ran out of cash, they often paid for a well-earned drink at the saloon with a .45 caliber bullet. Back then a bullet cost about the same as a glass of whiskey, hence the expression “shot” of whiskey or other hard liquor. Miners buying a drink at the same saloon might pay with a pinch of gold dust rather than plunking a bullet or coin on the bar.

Gold dust or gold nuggets were acceptable almost everywhere as currency. Every store kept a gold scale on the counter to weigh it; although with questionable accuracy. Saloons didn’t use scales, and many bartenders became rich skimming dust off the saloon’s earnings. Sometimes they carried it home under their fingernails. Other times a bartender would rub grease in his hair before his shift, and then casually run his fingers through it after he was paid. Later he would wash the gold out of his hair, giving himself a nice bonus.
(to be concluded next month)

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