In the 1850s, bread making was a topic of serious discussion in England. People were encouraged to learn how to make their own bread at home rather than pay expensive prices for ‘unwholesome bread’ that could be tainted. By the time of the gold rush, the art of domestic bread making had become easier because of the use of saleterus, which allowed the bread to rise. Saleratus was a leavening agent for baking and was made by injecting pearl ash into the fumes of fermenting molasses. The first formulas for baking powder were developed in the United States in 1850. In that year a cream of tartar baking powder was sold by Preston & Merrill of Boston as “infallible yeast powder.”
In his book, “At Home in the Wilderness” Royal Engineer John Keast Lord wrote that the most important items to take into the wilderness were a wrought-iron camp kettle and a dutch oven. “Flour is very much more easily conveyed on mule-back than ‘hard bread’ or biscuit…whereas biscuit rapidly mildews if damped…” The workers on the survey crew soon learned to make “capital loaves” in small cast-iron ovens with a ration of Preston and Merrill’s Infallible Yeast Powder for rising bread.
A miner who could make a good loaf of bread could easily barter with it when Sunday arrived – a day normally set aside for domestic chores. Miners would wash dirty shirts, darn stockings, repair boots, mend clothing, chop the whole week’s firewood, make and bake bread and boil pork and beans.
Sourdough bread was a favourite food of American gold miners, some of whom carried sourdough starter wherever they travelled, so as to be assured of good bread later on. Sourdough bread had been very popular amongst gold seekers during the California gold rush and the term ‘sourdough’ became associated with the ‘49ers themselves.
At the start of the gold rush, sacks of flour were carried in on the backs of mules or on the backs of gold miners. Some bakeries like the Miners’ Bakery and Restaurant in Barkerville offered an arrangement where miners would drop off flour in exchange for bread. In addition, miners could buy tickets for meals, lunches, pies or cakes.
Most flour was imported from California, but there were exceptions. F.W. Foster milled flour at Lillooet. He advertised flour of all grades: Extra, Superfine and Fine.
Robert Harkness, Overlander, wrote from Richfield June 10, 1863:
“You must pay well for everything here. Flour is $1.12 a pound. This is at the rate of $225 per barrel… Wages are ten dollars a day, out of which you must, of course, board yourself. We live on bread, beans and bacon, with an occasional mess of very tough beef (.50 a pound) and manage to subsist on three to four dollars a day each…I worked pretty hard today carrying stones to a man building a chimney…”
The price of flour dropped considerably with the construction of the Cariboo Road. Still, there were times when it crept up again and this had an effect on the local economy.
On October 17, 1867, the Cariboo Sentinel reported: “Rise in Flour. We understand great apprehensions are being felt by our miners that provisions and especially flour are about to be raised to an unusually high price…” Consequently, many left the Cariboo.