As you may have inferred from this blog, I am the sort of mother who adores stocking my child’s mind with interesting tidbits about the world around her. I am also the sort who likes to make sure (eventually), that those interesting tidbits are actually accurate.
My current obsession is figuring out whether or not it could be possibly be true that potatoes were once so prized for their Vitamin C content that miners would have bartered away their gold to get them.
Last week, as you’ll remember, I ended up rating this statement as only partly true. Yes, gold miners during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-99 paid for potatoes in gold. But since Vitamin C hadn’t been discovered yet, those gold miners wouldn’t have known what Vitamin C was, much less that the potatoes they craved contained it.
So why were miners willing to pay so much for potatoes?
To answer that, it helps to know what sorts of foods were available during the Klondike Gold Rush.
What was a miner’s typical diet during the Klondike Gold Rush?
In Kathryn Morse’s book, The Nature of Gold: An Environmental History of the Gold Rush, she describes the surprisingly wide array of foods available during the Klondike Gold Rush.
Miners needed food that would keep well during the tough winters, which created a surge in production of dried and dehydrated fruits and vegetables including dried apples, cherries, peaches, and plums. Packages of dried onions, canned soup vegetables, and yes, potatoes were readily available, as were fresh foods like eggs, ice cream, steak, and macaroni and cheese (at least in the boom towns that sprang up in places like Skagway and Dyea, Alaska to cater to the miners). Assuming the miner had found enough gold to pay the market price for them, of course.
But because the nearest boom town could be 600 miles away, the Northwest Mounted Police required that each stampeder bring a year’s worth of supplies into Canada with them. Their list of required provisions (shown below) included 25 lbs of evaporated potatoes, 8 sacks of flour, 25 lbs of evaporated apples, 25 lbs of evaporated peaches, a miner’s weight in bacon (150 lbs), and not nearly enough coffee (only 15 lbs).
A miner cannot live on evaporated foods, bacon, and coffee alone.
Far from home and dealing with a brutal landscape, most miners chose to eat foods that were both familiar and didn’t require a lot of work to become a meal. For this reason, a miner’s daily diet often consisted mainly of canned foods from familiar brands.
Van Camp’s pork and beans, Eagle Condensed Milk, Royal Baking Powder, and Vermont Maple syrup offered consistent quality, a familiar taste, and a connection, however slight, with the miner’s faraway homes. But miners who structured their diet almost exclusively around bread, bacon, and beans frequently fell prey to scurvy, especially in the winter, when the Vitamin C rich fruits and vegetables needed to combat the illness were hard to come by.
As winter progressed and their dried fruit, potato, and citrus stores faded into distant memory, miners’ teeth would loosen, their gums bleed, and their legs become swollen and black. These signs of scurvy were well-known among the mining community, as was the cure. Most Klondike outfitters included lime juice or citric acid in their prepackaged gold miner kits to ward off scurvy. Miners also frequently included canned tomatoes, dried apples, and prunes in their diet in an attempt to prevent it.
When hospitals in the local area began treating cases of scurvy with a daily diet that included 2-3 raw potatoes, fresh potatoes became a hot commodity. According to the Ottawa Naturalist, the hospital in Dawson charged miners with scurvy $10 a day for the privilege of eating those uncooked potatoes. But before you write this off as just another case of a hospital overcharging its patients for even the simplest medicines, you should know that by this time demand had sent potato prices in the surrounding mining towns sky-high.
Just how expensive were potatoes anyway?
Morse writes that one miner, Mac McMichael, believed so strongly in the ability of potatoes to prevent scurvy that he bought 50 pounds of evaporated potatoes for the then exorbitant price of 50 cents a pound ($25 a bushel) in August 1898. For comparison purposes, my great-grandfather Charles Allen Phillips, who lived in upstate New York at the time, recorded in his ledger that he paid a grand total of 85 cents for a bushel of potatoes on May 9, 1898. Even accounting for seasonal variations in potato availability, that’s quite a huge price difference.
Successful gold miners tended to pay for everything with the currency most readily to hand — gold. In 1898, an ounce of gold was worth $20.67. At $25 a bushel, McMichael’s 50 lbs of potatoes wasn’t worth its weight in gold, but those potatoes certainly would have cost him a sizeable chunk of it (roughly 1.21 oz, if my math is right).
Not surprisingly, McMichael’s partner, Boyd, thought spending that much gold just on potatoes was a careless extravagance and refused to have anything to do with it. (Boyd ended up developing scurvy. McMichael didn’t.)
The Nine-Year-Old: “So is that how Yukon Gold potatoes got their name?”
Eh, not exactly. But that’s a story for another time.
Daddyo, dubiously: “The cure for scurvy would have been known for decades by that time. Literally. The first medical trial ever was on scurvy back in the mid-1700s. There’s nothing here to prove that the Klondike Gold Rush miners would have been the only (or even the first) miners to value potatoes for their scurvy-fighting powers. Wouldn’t the folks in the California Gold Rush of 1848-55 also have known how to prevent it?”
Now that’s an interesting question (for next week).
- The Nature of Gold: An Environmental History of the Klondike Gold Rush (Kathryn Morse, via Google Books)
- Klondike Gold Rush: The Perilous Journey North (University Libraries, University of Washington)
- “Were potatoes ever so valuable that miners paid for them in gold?” (Caterpickles)