Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What was $12 worth in 1814?

Anyone who studies the past soon comes up against the question of what the money amounts mentioned really meant. There are a number of sites that will "tell" us, but translating 200-year-old dollar values into today's economy is a very difficult and dubious task. I proposed some alternatives in a blog post last year and recommended the site Measuring Worth if you're determined to try to make such a statement.

But for several reasons it seemed more reasonable to compare apples to apples and describe purchases from back then that we might be able to grasp in in-kind terms today.

So when I wanted to know what it meant for a War of 1812 soldier to be paid about $12 for a couple months' service (two separate hitches), I went looking. I found that that in 1812 in near-frontier Cincinnati that amount of money would have bought

"more than 250 pounds of beef.1 In Jefferson County [New York] some 20 years later it would have bought about 100 pounds of maple sugar.2"
1 Thomas Senior Berry, Western Prices Before 1861: A Study of the Cincinnati Market (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1943), Table 23, “Median Annual Prices of Fourteen Leading Commodities in the Ohio Valley, 1786-1817,” pp. 568-69; digital images, Food Timeline ( : accessed 9 April 2013).
2 Henry H. Lyman, “Sugar-Making,” in Memories of the Old Homestead: A Story about Lorraine, NY (1900; reprint, Historical Association of South Jefferson, 1999), 23rd paragraph; digital image, Adams, New York History and Genealogy ( : accessed 9 April 2013).

These were the most intuitive comparisons I could find on short order. I was reminded that prices were very local back then, and how few things are directly comparable. (I hardly ever have occasion to buy that much beef or maple sugar.) If others have found useful sources for this purpose I'd love to hear about them.

Harold Henderson, "What was $12 worth in 1814?," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 22 May 2013 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]  

1 comment:

Geolover said...

Newspaper ads can be helpful, better in late 19th and 20th centuries. But at times when production technology was changing (as for textiles 1820-1900) and domestic competition was intensive with foreign products, the producers often advertised exactly how 'cheap' their goods were.

For farm products/equipment and artisans' tools, local estate appraisals can be helpful. Having a selection of local day books and other accounts ledgers can also be useful. Some estate records even include itemized lists of debts submitted by creditors (oh, those half-pints of whiskey!), or just the pair of shoes purchased on the Christmas Eve before a death 2 days later.

One must have a pretty good database and overview of trends. Some things such as chattel prices depended much on age, gender and size, while the price of a bushel of corn or shoeing a horse might not change much over a decade or more.

One must take into account events affecting particular commodities, such as the War of 1812's enabling domestic textile producers to thrive without British goods' being dumped on the USA market. One must understand that the onset of wage-labor as a main income source was accompanied by employers' desire to pay as little as possible: in the New England textile industry especially from the 1830s, work was so hard and long that the working class was scarcely able to reproduce (a similar situation prevailed in England).

Then there were the depressions (such as of the 1830s that went on into the 1840s in many locales), and scarcities during and after wars (e.g., cotton in the 1860s).

Estate appraisals can be especially useful where specie was scarce (as in the late 18th century) and where/when the local economies were mainly barter-based.

One can also look at Court of Common Pleas records and sometimes see specifically what a purchaser was sued for.

There are lots of resources - they just take appreciable digging and acquisition of data sources.