We’ve determined pencils (and pens) could indeed be classified as “common” in the Old West. But what about paper? I’ve read books where the intrepid hero has to reuse brown paper the mercantile owner used to wrap a purchase in order to leave the heroine an all-important note. I read another novel where a would-be bride’s employer deducted the cost of paper and envelope from her wages.
Was paper that expensive?
Did expense translate to scarcity?
Was paper common in the Old West?
An article published in the Lawrence Daily Journal newspaper on 28 March 1888 indicates slates (for students in public schools) had become a thing of the past, and reading a bit between the lines (“when we were boys”) suggests the slate had been passé, perhaps for a generation.
This newspaper article references scratch pads, a term still common today. The product listing, below, comes from the unabridged facsimile Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalogue & Buyer’s Guide (1895).
Note the highly reasonable price for 4 graduated sizes of scratch pads (not overly large, but for most purposes, highly functional). Seventy sheets of scratch paper (sewn together into a pad/tablet) in the largest (5×8-inch) size cost a whopping 3.5 cents, and a package of ten such tablets cost a discounted 30 cents. Granted, inflation has affected pricing quite a bit. But keep in mind the prices of pencils at the same time period (roughly 2 to 13 cents each). For the price of an inexpensive every-day pencil, a body could purchase a pad of paper (at least from a mail-order catalogue).
The Stationery Department (including envelopes, note cards, paper tablets, single sheet papers, special correspondence notes, fine stationery, tinted linen note paper, blotting papers, fancy boxes to hold stationery products) runs more than 3 pages (approximately 9.5 x 12-inches)… and that’s before the company gets around to offering writing utensils. The following two images show a few more of their many options.
Twenty years earlier, in the Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalogue No. 13 (Spring and Summer, 1875), paper was a bit more expensive.
…and far fewer choices were offered by this company through the mail. The company had only been in business for about three years at that time (founded in Chicago in 1872).
Most pages of this reproduction catalogue offer no pictures and no further information, so it’s hard to guess what dimensions of the first listing, item #1086, “good Commercial Note Paper”. At 37 and 1/3 cents for 120 sheets, even if this “good” paper was roughly 8.5 x 11-inches (today’s standard), it proves significantly more expensive than the 1895 offering. But note the foolscap listing. Foolscap had been common and standard throughout the 18th century in the British Commonwealth, and was simply common paper cut to 8.5 x 13.5-inches. In this 1875 catalogue, 120 sheets of foolscap sold for 90 cents– evidently larger in dimensions than the Commercial Note Paper.
[Note: This 1875 reproduction (and supposedly the original) is TINY. It measures roughly 4×5-inches and less than 1/4-inch thick.]
Throughout the Old West period, people had more options than ordering through mail-order businesses. Local stores carried paper, pencils, pens, etc. Their prices, at least as reflected in these two newspaper advertisements (in the 1890’s), seem to be quite competitive (though page count and size aren’t provided), though mail-order companies took pride in advertising the lowest prices possible (as they purchased in bulk and cut out the middle-man [shop owners]). Wichita and Council Grove weren’t necessarily remote locations, nor were they very far “west”, thus I imagine small country stores in out-of-the-way locations likely needed to (and could) charge more in order to cover freight and money invested in inventory.
With prices such as these, is it any wonder frugal people saved the brown paper merchants used to wrap purchases and reused as much as possible? Along with many other products and manufacturing processes, paper-making’s boon came during the Industrial Revolution and wood pulp-based paper became affordable enough for everyone to buy and use (but probably not use wastefully). According to Wikipedia, new machines created in England were in use by at least one paper mill.
So, in short… yes. Paper was common (enough) in the Old West.
A cowboy might have pulled a used piece of foolscap out of his saddlebags to scribble a note in pencil (sharpened with his pocket knife), tear off the edge, and stake it to the trail… but a well-to-do Miss (say, a daughter of a mayor in a western town) would have had access to pretty stationery to write love letters to her beau.
How did our great-great grandmothers order from the catalogue? After all, the process was so very different than today’s online shopping. Read all about it here.
Please leave a comment, if you wish, and SHARE this article with a friend who’d find the content interesting. See the share buttons at the top and bottom of each Article (Post).
Copyright © 2016 Kristin Holt, LC