The Feminine Advantage
Women were scarce in Gold Rush-era California, a mere 8% of the state-wide population in 1850, and only 30% ten years later, in 1860. This scarcity added immeasurably to every woman’s perceived value in society, regardless of her physical attractiveness or temperament, or whether she was married or single.
Some lonesome gold-rushers traveled for miles just to hear a woman’s voice; and many were willing to pay a premium for her cooking. Among those overlanders lured by the Gold Rush, Luzena Stanley Wilson and her husband settled for a time in the new city of Sacramento. The night before they entered the city, a hungry gold miner came to their camp and offered Luzena $5.00 for some biscuits she had just made. When sheer astonishment at being offered what she considered a small fortune for mere biscuits made her hesitate to answer, he doubled his offer, pressing $10 in gold dust into her palm for “bread made by a woman.” Still agog, Luzena sold the biscuits and made another batch for her family.
The Wilsons established a boarding house in Sacramento, where Luzena did the cooking and serving. The men who ate at her table every day were a motley crowd of gold prospectors, enterprising young merchants, and roaming adventurers, but all of them treated her with courtly courtesy and esteem. “Deference and respect were as readily and as heartily tendered to me as if I had been a queen,” she said in her memoirs. “I was a queen.”
The shortage of females also meant that many single men, who elected to stay in California after they abandoned prospecting for other occupational pursuits, were unable to find wives; and the fellow who did have a wife but were perceived as mistreating her, drew stern disapproval from other men. In October 1859, the editor of the Sacramento Daily Union took it upon himself to scold an unnamed husband for ignoring his lady:
"TAKING A DRINK –a gentleman recently took his wife to a theater San Francisco, and towards the close of the play stepped out to imbibe. Getting into a discussion on politics, time passed until the theater closed, and the wife was forced to find another escort in the shape of a very handsome fellow. According to the San Francisco Times he was polite enough to yield up the wife to her husband—a better fortune than the latter deserved after such marked neglect.”