November 27, 2006
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Price and History

I was reading last night about how the young painter Frédéric Bazille wanted to rent a studio, and had to hit up his pals (Renoir and Monet among them) to make the rent of 600 francs. And I wondered:

Similarly, when I read that Edouard Manet persuaded his mother to advance him 28,000 francs against his inheritance in order to rent a gallery in the Avenue de l'Alma, I'd like to know was this for rent alone, or a year's living expenses, or for rent and salaries for a staff of shop girls?

You can't simply convert historical currency to modern equivalents, the way you can convert dollars to euros. Different things cost different amounts at different times. Clothes, for example, used to be fantastically expensive by our standards; in the 19th century, workers bought clothes as if blue jeans cost maybe $1000 and an overcoat cost perhaps $10,000. Servants and unskilled labor, on the other hand, cost less: according to Mrs. Beeton (1861), if your household income was about 750 pounds sterling, you ought to employ a cook, a housemaid, a nursemaid, and a footboy, and this staff would set you back about 50 pounds per year.

In 1861 London, a 5lb leg of lamb went for about 5 shillings. The cook would make perhaps 500 shillings per year. In the U.S. today, a supermarket will sell you a nice leg of lamb for $25 and a very top-quality organic roast might cost $80. You’d have a hard time finding a full-time, trained, professional cook for $8000/year.

To make sense of everyday history, though, you need some idea of what money means. When you took the King's Shilling in 1580, how much money was that? How much did Howard's End cost? What was cab fare from Montmartre to Montparnasse in 1860? In 1798?

An authoritative compendium of prices would be a terrific Web site. Does it already exist? This seems like a great opportunity for an Masters Thesis in humanties computing, or for a doctoral student who wants to accumulate IOU's from a broad community of historians.

(Update: Robert Sahr has a thorough look at US consumer prices, 1965-present. Thanks Fazal Majid!)