In a letter from the Whitman Publishing archives, a young numismatist asked about precious metal in a non-coin format: “Cartoons and old movies show California miners buying supplies with pinches of gold dust. How did that work? What was stopping them from grinding up regular rocks or mixing their gold with powdered fool’s gold or something?”
To answer that question, let’s crack open the fifth edition of Coins: Questions & Answers, wherein Clifford Mishler shines a gold-miner’s lamplight on the situation.
“Miners and shopkeepers quickly learned to judge the approximate value of gold dust by its color, which varied with the amount of silver present in combination with the gold,” writes Mishler. “Gold in Sacramento and Stanislaus counties had an average value of $18.60 an ounce. That found in Mono County had such a heavy silver content that it bore a distinct resemblance to silver in color. It had an average value of $11.35 an ounce. The first attempt to arrive at an average price occurred on September 9, 1848, when the price of California gold was set at $16 an ounce, providing it had ‘good color.’”
Dennis Tucker is the publisher at Whitman Publishing.