Like many other campers, we have accumulated and replaced camping gear over the years, but I wondered how much it would have cost to start out as a neophyte camper in about 1900, using the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue.
Today we have a lightweight umbrella tent with screen door, window, and roof, which is covered with a lightweight fly. Complete with plastic flexible ribs and wire stakes, the tent weighs no more than the Sears catalog. In 1900 we might have ordered, say, a 7' × 7' wall tent of 10-oz. canvas for about $5, plus $2 extra for a fly. With poles and stakes, the tent would have weighed about 40 pounds.
As new campers we would have been attentive to Sears' advice: "Do not drive the pegs straight, but angling; they hold very much better in this way. The tent being now up and guys all adjusted so they bear equal strain, then proceed to dig a V-shaped trench all around the tent, about three inches deep; this will insure you a dry floor at all times." Even with a moat we probably would have worried. Today, our lightweight sleeping bags rest on a compressed foam rubber mattress enveloped in a waterproof zippered bag, on a waterproof floor. In 1900, however, we might have opted for a "fleece lined blanket…made of the very best rubber…gotten up especially for hunters and prospectors who are compelled to sleep on the damp ground:" Ominously, no weight is listed, but add $2.75 to the cost. For colder weather, an Arctic sleeping bag, weighing 20 pounds and costing $12. In any case we would have passed up the U.S. folding cots, which weighed 15 pounds each.
Today, we have two string hammocks which are fist-size when folded. We mount them between trees, so in 1900 we would doubtless have had to choose a "Mexican woven hammock, made of sisal twine, fancy assorted colors" weighing about three pounds, but costing only 80¢.
For cooking and other camping tasks, we would have chosen from pages of equipment all from a supply company which modestly called itself "the Cheapest Supply House on Earth." A jack knife, or Dick's hand-fitting easy opener pocket knife, would have set us back about 50¢. Other cutlery—bread knife, kitchen fork, paring and general kitchen knives—cost about a dime each, while the fish scaling knife cost 25¢. For a buck we could have bought the "Japanned tin box" to keep the squirrels and birds from appropriating our food supplies. Given our lack of experience we would probably have settled for Wilson's camp kook kit. "Just the thing for camping out. 53 pieces. Fire jack, two boilers, fry pan, coffee pot and all utensils and tableware for a party of six. The entire kit nests in small space. and can be firmly locked up by ordinary padlock." $5.75, weighs 20 pounds. And we would have also bought a cedar water pail, 2 1/2 pounds, 17¢.
We'd have cooked over wood or charcoal rather than our current propane two-burner, but we could have made mealtime a brave and joyous occasion by blowing a large dinner horn, more than a foot long, japanned, and with an improved mouthpiece, for a nickel. For evening entertainment we would certainly have chosen a harmonica, available for a dime to a dollar; although it may have been difficult to pass up "Koch's Concert Bell harmonica, 40 reeds, 10 double holes. Full concert harmonica of powerful tone (and with) bells…of good quality, well made and supplied with strong, durable strikers, producing a really sweet and musical ring." All that costs 70¢ plus 8¢ postage. For rhythm we could have thrown in solid ebony bones for a quarter. Or we might have wanted to read or play cards under the reassuring glow of Ham's Cold Blast 'Tubular Lantern, "…made on the same principle as a street lamp, with wind break. Very desirable for use in places where there are strong drafts of wind." Weight: 2 1/4 pounds; 80¢.
We would have brought our clothes from home but might have thrown in an extra poncho for $1.25. Weight: 3 1/2 pounds. We might also have ordered new bathing suits for the occasion. Mine would have been a "one-piece best cotton bathing suit, made like a Union Suit (with buttons in front). It is like an ordinary shirt and knee pants, but all in one piece" available in solid dark colors or horizontal stripes, for $1.00. "The Ladies' Union Suit with skirt…navy blue cotton fabric, with sailor collar, blouse effect with collar and skirt trimmed with white braid" for $2.50, or in a racier model with V shape front, for a dollar more. My rod and reel would have set me back about $6.00, for which sum we could have bought three kites for more assured beach fun.
All told, our camp gear would have cost us about $35 plus shipping, (perhaps a month's wages), but it would certainly have weighed well over a hundred pounds!