The J. E. Cooley-est Prices in Town

Manuscript collections here at Virginia Tech Special Collections range in size. We have collections that are more than 250 boxes (currently, our largest culinary related collection tops out around 14 containers and 7.5 cu. ft.) and many that are a single item. However, just about anything can catch your eye, regardless of size, when you work around here. Today’s feature is a Civil War-era, culinary gem we acquired just about a year ago. It’s a flyer for a general merchant in New York City, dated 1863.

J. E. Cooley [Merchant] Price List, 1863
J. E. Cooley [Merchant] Price List, 1863  (Finding aid available online.)
The flyer is a cool item for all kinds of reasons. First, it includes a correction (the location on yellow paper is pasted over the previous address of the business). The first site was No. 293 Washington Street, if you’re curious. And here’s a map of the approximate sites in NYC today for you geography buffs:

Second, it’s a price list and those are always fun to show what products were available in a location and where they were coming from at a given time. The business was conveniently located near both the railroad and water, which meant potential access to multiple shipping routes. New Jersey was just over the Hudson, mostly likely accounting for the New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ohio fruits listed.

Third, this has handwritten prices during wartime. The obvious advantage to handwritten prices is that you could have a large number of lists printed and use them indefinitely…or least until a dramatic change in stock. Of course, the price of everything from food goods to medicines to household good fluctuated violently due to availability during the Civil War.  If you take a closer look at the prices, there seem to be a couple of different systems in use here. Some items (butter, cheese, poultry, dried fruits, and some sundries) have a range of prices on a per unit basis, which makes sense if you don’t know how much of something you may be able to acquire and sell. Others, like the apples, grains, potatoes, and seeds, have a set price.

It’s interesting to look at a list like this, then consider the content of letters, diaries, and other accounts from the same period. Some regions of the country had little to spare. Soldiers in the field were living on limited rations, foraged plants/nuts/animals, purchased goods, and the occasional kindness of strangers; soldiers in prisons fared even worse (and both of these will make good subjects for future posts). A list that included a variety of options for apples or butter and extravagances like cheese would have almost seemed foreign.

Inflation aside, we’re used to very different prices these days. A little nostalgia for the prices of a past century isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But on your next trip to the store, remember not to ask for a firkin of butter. 56 lbs requires a great deal of storage space.

2 thoughts on “The J. E. Cooley-est Prices in Town

    1. We currently have about two dozen food or food history related collections including handwritten recipes books, faculty papers, and pamphlets collections. We also have collections in other areas, such as the Civil War, that overlap.

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