One of the most formative book series for American children has been the Little House books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Published in the 1930’s and 40’s, these books chronicle Laura’s childhood and teenage years as her family traveled across the midwest during the 1870’s and 1880’s. Laura Ingalls was born in 1867, near Pepin, Wisconsin. Though Laura made significant changes to her story at the urging of her publisher, the books are predominantly autobiographical. (Those wishing to know the story as it was originally written should read the recently-released book, Pioneer Girl.) Between the ages of 2 and 9, Laura and her family had lived in 5 locations: Wisconsin, Missouri, Kansas, Wisconsin again, and Minnesota. (The second stint in Wisconsin was the inspiration for Little House in the Big Woods, though it is the first in the series. According to Wilder biographer William Anderson, her publisher did not believe that she could have such vivid memories of her life at age 3, and insisted the timeline be changed and Laura’s age increased. The fictional and historical timelines merge at By the Shores of Silver Lake.)
Charles Ingalls, Laura’s father, was a restless man who moved the family often, usually to areas on the edge of a frontier, before finally settling in De Smet, South Dakota. Laura’s parents and blind sister Mary remained there for the rest of their lives, and it was in De Smet that Laura Ingalls met and married Almanzo Wilder, the farmer boy from her book of the same title. The couple spent their early married years in De Smet before moving to Minnesota and then Florida, eventually settling in Mansfield, Missouri, at Rocky Ridge Farm. It was at Rocky Ridge, in a house built for them by their daughter Rose (a popular author in her own right), that Laura finally sat down and wrote her story.
With the stability of coin denominations and designs in the 20th and 21st centuries, it’s easy to forget how different the coinage of the 19th century was. (President Theodore Roosevelt was a notorious critic of contemporary American coinage, writing in 1904 that “I think our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness.”
The coins that Laura Ingalls would have seen during her childhood are very different from the coins we use today. Most of the coins Laura saw were likely created at the Philadelphia Mint (1792-present), though the Denver and San Francisco Mints also produced coinage. Though Mint facilities at Charlotte, NC, and Dahlonega, GA, were in operation shortly before Laura’s childhood, both only minted gold coins and were unlikely to produce anything the hardscrabble family would have owned, and both were shut down in 1861 after the Civil War. The New Orleans Mint (1838-1961, 1879-1909) would not come back into operations until Laura was twelve years old; when she was 3, the new Mint in Carson City began operations, producing predominantly silver coins from the rich local mines.
By the time she was 7, in 1874, Laura and her family were living on the banks of Plum Creek just outside Walnut Grove, Minnesota; Charles Ingalls was the town butcher and served as the Justice of the Peace. With the family living closer to an established town, it is likely that Laura, Mary, and the other children would have seen more contemporary coins than they had grown up with.
Lower-denomination coins would have been the most common; these included the Indian Head cent, the shield 2-cent and star 3-cent (both discontinued in 1873), bust 3-cent, and shield 5-cent coins. The two-cent shield design coin was the first to bear the motto, “In God We Trust,” but was only produced for ten years.
One of the more common designs of the time, the Seated Liberty, appeared on half-dimes, quarters, half-dollars, and dollar coins. More valuable coins would have included the coronet head gold coins in $2.50, $5, $10, and $20 denominations, as well as the gold dollar coins. The silver trade dollar came into use in 1873, but as those were minted in the western mints and almost all of the coins used for overseas trade, it is unlikely that any of them would have been in circulation in a small Minnesota town.
In 1870’s Minnesota, even a small coin had substantial buying power. The book Minnesota As It Is In 1870 records some of the costs of basic items: “Beef, by the quarter, costs 7 and 8 cts.; steaks and roasts, 15 to 18; pork, 81/2 to 10; steaks, 18 to 20; mutton, 15 to 20; hams, 20 to 25; venison, 8 cts., by the quantity; steaks, 18; chickens, 121/2 to 15; turkeys, 15 to 18; fish, 5 to 15; lard, 20 to 25; flour, $5 per parrel (sic); meal, 4 cts; buckwheat flour, $1.50 per sack; butter, 25 to 30 cts.; cheese, 20; eggs, 35 per dozen; potatoes, $1 per bushel; ruta bagas, 35 cts.; onions, 75 cts.; beans, $1.45 to $2.50; cranberries, $1.75 to $2.50; sugar, 14 to 16 cts. per lb.; coffee, 22 to 28; tea, 90 cts. to $1.80; woo, $6 to $7.50 per cord. Rents, $3 to $15 per month for cottages; $15 to $50 for larger houses. Board, $1 to $3 per day; $4 to $6 per week, day board; $4 to $10, board and lodging; lower in smaller towns […] Wages.–Carpenters, $2 to $3; masons, $3.50 to $4.50; painters, $2 to $3; laborers, $1.50 to $2; and by the month, $20 to $25, on farms; $35 to $60, on boats and in the pineries; servants, $8 to $15; clerks, $500 to $1800; teachers, $300 to $1500.” [Note: the last two salaries appear to be listed by year rather than day or hour.] These numbers are for St. Paul, and items were probably slightly cheaper in Walnut Grove.
Not many purchases are recorded in Laura’s books, but she does mention a few significant ones. On the Straight Dope forum, user Choie offers a list of purchase amounts mentioned in the Little House books:
“A meal in a railroad hotel costs $0.25 (On the Shores of Silver Lake.) Also in LTotP [Little Town on the Prairie], Laura later earns $1.50 a week as a seamstress, with hours from 7AM – 6PM, and a half-hour for mealtime. Pa says of this workday, ‘That’s fair. You get off an hour early but have to bring your own meal.’ (User Lissla Lissar corrects this in a subsequent post: “In LTotP, Laura makes ‘$.25 a day plus dinner’, which is $1.25 a week.”) For her first teaching stint, Laura earns $25 (+ bed/board) for two months’ work. Later, as a more experienced teacher, she earns about $75 for teaching school for 3 months (These Happy Golden Years). In THGY, a parlour organ costs the Ingalls $100, $40 of which is Laura’s.”
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books have defined an optimistic vision of America for generations of children and adults. Her experiences with life on the frontier, from coins to bears to one-room schoolhouses, are a reminder of our history and our commitment to progress.