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Happy Birthday, Reuben: Life in 1820

Costume for 1815-1820
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The year was 1820. Cast iron stoves were becoming more and more common, replacing the hard-to-control hearth; Maine became the 25th official U.S. State; and our library’s founder, Reuben McMillan, was born. 

Ohio became an official U.S. state in 1803, so we were just about 17 years into our life as a state. In Reuben McMillan’s lifetime he saw the gold rush in the 1840s, the Civil War in the 1860s, the abolition of slavery in 1865, and – four years before his death – the designation and erection of the Statue of Liberty.  

Here are some fun facts about life in 1820:  

U.S. Population (according to the 1820 census): 9,638,453 

$1 in 1820 would be $22.22 in today’s money!

James Monroe was the president and he made an annual salary of $50,000, which in today’s money would be over a million dollars! His VP, Daniel D. Thompkins, made $10,000 a year, which is over $220,000.

The average skilled worker made about $16.00 a week, which in 2020 is about $356. For women and people of color, this pay scale was much less.  Unfortunately, there were a lot of people working without pay or for pennies. Most people had jobs as farmers or supply makers (blacksmiths, leatherworkers, etc.), but there were still jobs like lawyers and teachers as well!

Rent was often paid on a weekly basis, for a fee of about $2-4 a week. Most people owned their homes at that time, which they (or their ancestors) had built, but in bigger cities tenement houses (much like apartment buildings today) were popular. The larger tenements (which were made up of around 6 rooms) would cost on the higher end, while the smaller tenements (made up of 4 rooms) would cost less.

Pre-made clothing was often expensive, so most households bought fabric and made their own clothing. High quality cotton sold for about $0.25 per yard. This was still pretty expensive when clothing took about 10-20 yards of fabric, so people used to have around three or four outfits that they would wear, plus a special occasion outfit. Definitely different from the bursting closets we have today! Shoes were often bought instead of made and cost around $2 – $3 per pair.

Premade food was also expensive, so unless you really needed to save time or you had the extra cash, you made your own. Here are some food prices from 1820:

  • Rice: $0.06 per pound
  • Sugar: $0.08 per pound
  • Coffee: $1.20 per pound of green coffee beans (which you then had to roast and grind yourself)
  • Tea: $0.75 – $2.25 per pound (depending on the type)
  • Beef: $0.06 – $0.08 per pound
  • Potatoes: $0.56 per bushel (which was about 60 pounds!!!)
  • Eggs: $0.20 per dozen
  • Butter: $0.21 per pound
  • Flour: $0.03 per poundfor Rye, or you could pay $7.14 for a barrel of flour, which was almost 200 pounds.

Fashions were all the rage in the 1820s. Regency style (think Jane Austen) was the height of fashion. Empire waists and flowy fabrics for women, and men sported top hats, high collars, and coats at even the most casual of affairs. Everyone in that day wore corsets or stays – man or woman. They were all looking for that signature figure.

For women like Elizabeth Bennett, protagonist of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, their layers usually consisted of a shift/chemise, stockings, and shoes, which were all put on before their stays. Shoes were put on before the rest of the outfit as once the stays were on, it was harder to bend over and put on the complicated shoes of the time. Then came the stays, which are the same thing as corsets, and the petticoats. That’s right, I used the plural – some women wore anywhere from 1-3 petticoats depending on the temperature and their way of life. Petticoats of this time period often had shoulder straps, due to the empire waist trend of clothing. Without the straps, the petticoat would sit at the wearer’s natural waist instead of the higher location where they wanted it. A shirtwaist covers the corset, and it usually came with a collar. That didn’t stop Regency era women from adding another collar, though, which went around corset cover collar, propping it up so it would sit flush against the wearer’s neck. The overdress was next, which the wearer put on like a jacket and pinned in place. It usually had a bib front, which was square in shape and pinned in place. This might be the final look, or the wearer could add a jacket which was either a bit cropped to still emphasize that empire waist, or long and falling to the floor. Military style jackets were popular, but were preferable in feminine pastel shades. Women topped their look with a bonnet or hat.

For men, like Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy (also of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice), men had underclothes much similar to women – they also sported a short shift as well as a pair of drawers, along with stockings (to the knee) and garters. If men were of a higher social class (as Darcy was) they would don a dandy’s corset before putting on their undershirts. These shirts were usually made of white muslin and were flowy-er than today’s dress shirts, with high collars to match the women of the time. Men took much liberties with their pants in the regency era – they could be long, like usual dress pants of the day, or cut off right after the knee. The pants always came with a square front flap that would be buttoned into place. Whatever pants they chose would be followed by a waistcoat (or vest, today), which would cover the shirt and be covered by a tailcoat. Cravats were popular male neckwear of the time – that floppy bowtie that you sometimes see in Austen-era movies. Other popular accessories (which were necessities for a finer gentleman, like Darcy) were gloves, pocket watches, and canes, along with wallets or change purses. A hat would sit upon the head of any man, no matter their class – men of a higher class like our Mr. Darcy sported top hats, while lower class men wore straw (or similarly lightweight) hats.

So that’s what life was like in the year of Reuben McMillan’s birth – 1820. Can you believe it’s been a whole 200 years since then?