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Book Review - Everyday Life During the Civil War, by Michael J. Varhola

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 2, Number 8

Although the book is subtitled, "A Guide for Writers, Students and Historians," it is no ordinary reference book. It is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in the minutiae of American life during the Civil War.

The book begins with the basics--the status of each state in and out of the Union, as well as the territories. Varhola recounts each area's history, its population and ethnic make-up at the time, its educational facilities, and its role during the Civil War.

Among the fact-filled chapters is one on wages and currency. For instance, government clerks earned $16 per week; teachers $2 per student per month; and, Union nurses $12 per month. Government clerks have seen quite a few raises since then, but some would argue that teachers and nurses haven't.

What could that money buy? In the midst of the war, shortages notwithstanding, the better dressed city lady would have to spend the following: Boots at $50; bonnet at a minimum of $25; merino dress at $150; cotton stockings at $6; all this and more if we include the many petticoats, the requisite camisole and chemise, fan, shawl, usually a parasol, and an overcoat or cape. (You'll even find out what a chemise is). Each major clothing item, for men or women, cost many times a soldier's pay of $1 to $13 per month.

Where did they live and how much did it cost? Varhola gives lots of detail on city life and country life for lower, middle, and higher-class citizens. He also tells us about transportation and sewer systems, including the lowdown on toilets and bathtubs (or lack thereof) in typical homes. Prices for a modest farmhouse, $2500; for an extravagant country house, $14,000. To rent a city house would cost $500 per year; room and meals in a boarding house went for $35 per month, more if that included use of the parlor. Renting a tenement dwelling would be $5 per month, and cheaper yet is rent for a stable converted to dwelling space, at $15 per year.

What did they eat? We recognize Underwood Deviled Ham (founded 1822); Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce (since 1835); Van Camp's Pork and Beans (1861); and, Borden's Condensed Milk (since 1856--Elsie wasn't their spokes-cow yet). With no preservatives, people baked their own breads daily and grew their own fruits and vegetables, which they canned and preserved for year-round use. Varhola quotes prices for flour at $30 to $75 per barrel and cornmeal at $16 to $3500 per bushel, depending on whether or not areas were experiencing shortages. Since even Costco doesn't sell by the bushel or barrel, it is hard for today's consumer to relate to these prices.

What did they do for fun? Singing, board games, and "throwing papers" (card playing). For sport there was cricket, horseracing, and the ever-popular heel-toe walking races. Theater was extremely popular, as well as music halls and other variety shows. Stars of that era are well known to us today. Among them are Jenny Lind (the Swedish Nightingale) and Edwin Forrest, whom Abraham Lincoln saw on stage many times. Ira Frederick Aldridge was the first renowned African American actor. There were also traveling carnivals and circuses, where literally, "seeing the elephant," could be the highlight of one's life.

This book has much more detail and fills a definite gap in our knowledge of the American Victorian age. For history fans who have read about famous Civil War characters, the book will give you a context to understand them--it will make you feel that you know them a little bit better.

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