Gold Diggers in the Gold Rush Era

I was reading a Tyler Cowen/Raj Chetty interview on social mobility when I stopped at this statistic about San Francisco’s single ladies:

CHETTY: So if you’re in your mid-30s, only something like a quarter or less of girls growing up in the Bay Area are married.


The San Francisco Bay Area is like 75% male. Or at least the tech companies are. Ladies!! The odds don’t get any better than this!! Why are you all unmarried??

The odds are good, but the goods are odd.

Actually the odds used to be even better. In 1849, the San Francisco male-to-female ratio was over 50:1. Miners were rushing to California to find gold, but few women wanted to accompany them.

You’d think that the resulting gender disparity would present a fantastic opportunity for gold diggers to have their pick of the litter, but Nope. Even then, the female marriage rate was low: As the owner of a scarce resource, it did not make economic sense for a woman to sell out to the highest bidder. Rather, the optimal strategy was to extract rent from as many clients as possible.

Public attitudes toward prostitution were different back then. California was a brand new state with no established class structure, and aristocracy was defined by anyone with a lot of disposable income. A woman could achieve social mobility simply by being an industrious courtesan. Those of easy virtue became the most well-dressed and respectable ladies, and only the most reputable gamblers could afford to patronize them.

In effect, the women were too successful in their careers to settle down. But they weren’t exactly marriage material either. Before Maytag invented home appliances, women were responsible for a lot of manual labor around the house. Flour had to be milled, butter churned, and clothing beaten, washed, and wrung.

San Francisco women were doing none of this — the opportunity cost was too high. Even if a girl didn’t work in a brothel, saloons and gambling-houses would gladly pay her to hang around and attract customers. A woman could earn an ounce of gold just by sitting at a card table for an evening.

Eligible bachelors didn’t want a wife who wouldn’t do domestic work. As one resident describes it (1849):

The greatest privations that a bachelor is in this country exposed to, consist in not being able to furnish himself with clean linen when he desires… To induce some of the few women that are here to condescend to wash their linen for them, they have to court them besides paying six dollars a dozen.

Tragic. Well, immigrants were happy to do the jobs that American women wouldn’t do. Tens of thousands of Chinese had arrived hoping to find work in the gold mines, but Americans didn’t want the competition. The Chinese turned to laundry shops instead (later on, railroads). By 1900, one in four ethnic Chinese worked in a laundry. Hence the stereotype.

They were all men, because Chinese women weren’t allowed to enter the country.

Women had too many career opportunities to consider the prospects of marriage. Men learned the important lesson that if it flies, floats, fornicates, or folds your laundry, it’s cheaper to rent. The result is that we get this strange dynamic where Professor Chetty will never have grandkids:

CHETTY: I remember telling my wife, “I don’t think we need to worry. Our daughter will be fine in terms of earnings. It’s just that she might not be married if we move to California.”

COWEN: So, you’ve lowered your expectations for grandchildren?

CHETTY: Yes. [laughs]

Ha ha ha! Why can’t my parents see the humor in becoming a genetic dead end?

4 thoughts on “Gold Diggers in the Gold Rush Era

  1. That is a really sweet nugget of insight you sifted out of what I thought was actually a dull conversation with tyler. As economic agents marriage is an optimization for gaining resources but under rent seeking conditions becomes less necessary. And now we have our laundry delivery apps as well as virtual reality porn that will likely mean nobody will ever copulate for the sake of extending the species.

    1. All that’s left is to create robot infants to give to the parents who keep asking for grandchildren 🙂

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