Work and Money

William and Margaret Jarvis paid 20 pounds for their 100 acre farm in 1813. Was that expensive? A bargain?

Jacob Wingate’s rifle sold for 9 dollars in 1811. Was that cheap?

Harvey Jarvis was a stone mason. How much was he paid?

Let’s see if we can make sense of prices and wages in 1810.

Value in today’s dollars

To see what the 1810 prices would be today, we need two tools:

1. Pound to Dollar Exchange Rate

The 200 Year Pound to Dollar Exchange Rate History

Here’s a chart of pound to dollar exchange rates:

Let’s use $4.44 as the 1810 exchange rate for £1.

2. Value of 1810 Dollar today

$1 in 1810 is equivalent in purchasing power to about $21.17 in 2020.

CPI Inflation Calculator – https://www.officialdata.org/us/inflation/1810?amount=1

Let’s use $21.17 as the value of an 1810 dollar today.

The price of a farm

Recall that William Jarvis and five of his neighbors bought their farms from Samuel McMillan on the same day, July 12, 1813.

William and Margaret paid 20 pounds for their 100 acre farm. Dennis Conyers paid 10 pounds for his 100 acres. Ralph Collins, 10 pounds for his 100. Robert McMillan, 16 pounds for his.

One pound note – Bank of England – 1810

Some people didn’t trust dollars. Perhaps Samuel McMillan required that William Jarvis and neighbors pay him in pounds.

Using our exchange rate of $4.44 = £1, the price of the Jarvis farm in dollars would have been $88.80. That was $0.89 per acre.

Now let’s calculate the value today, based on our conversion of one 1810 dollar to $21.17 today. So William’s purchase of $88.80 (20 pounds) in 1813 calculates to a value of $1,880.

OK, that seems reasonable. But is it? That’s hard to say without comparing it to land prices near a city, or by a waterway or road. Fork Lick Creek is out in the sticks.

Land, by comparison, was cheap — more people could more easily afford land than they can today. It was also cheaper to build a house than it is today, since someone could simply cut down trees on his property or on unclaimed land, fashion lumber from them, and build a crude cabin with the help of a few neighbors.

The Value of Money in Colonial America – David Walbert

Let’s consider the land value today, based on a study by the University of Kentucky:

According to the University of Kentucky study, William and Margaret’s farm today would be worth $360,000 ($3,600 per acre) if considered as pasture. More if cropland, less if woodland.

This value of $360,000 is far more than the $1,880 we calculated using dollar inflation.

Perhaps our conversion factor is wrong. Way wrong. But if it’s somewhat correct, then William and Margaret got a tremendous bargain in 1813.

Let’s keep going.

The price of consumer goods

The best way to evaluate what various goods were worth in “today’s money” is to examine probate inventories and bills of sale and use your own judgment. Compare the listed values of household goods, tools, slaves, and land; look at what everyone owned as opposed to what very few people owned.

The Value of Money in Colonial America – David Walbert

When someone died, the court appointed several neighbors to itemize an inventory and valuation of the deceased’s possessions. Often the inventory was the results of an estate sale of the deceased’s goods.

Much like today, an inventory or estate sale offers insight into the value of everyday items.

In 1811, Jacob Wingate died. Wingate’s farm bordered that of William and Margaret Jarvis on the south. William was appointed co-administrator of the estate along with Jacob’s widow Patsy.

Let’s look at the prices of the goods in Jacob Wingate’s inventory.

Kitchen utensils

Inventory – Jacob Wingate estate – 1811

These kitchen utensils seem inexpensive. A lot of the odds and ends might not sell for much more today. Let’s pick out a few of the valuable or unique items.

Let’s use our conversion of one 1810 dollar = $21.17 in 2020 dollars.

Looking at the converted 2020 prices, the prices for these items look reasonable. You might find them at an estate sale at these prices, plus or minus 50%.

The thirty gallons of whiskey would be $7.23 per gallon today, probably much less than retail today. Unless, of course, it’s home brew.

Tools and furniture

If kitchen utensils are about the same relative price as today, how about tools and furniture?

Inventory – Jacob Wingate – 1811

The tools and furniture seem to be within reason. Let’s pick out a few expensive items.

Once again, let’s use our conversion of one 1810 dollar = $21.17 in 2020 dollars.

Perhaps the tools are more expensive than you might find at an estate sale. I suppose the tools were highly valued because they weren’t hobby tools that we might have today. They were essential.

Livestock, saddle, and a gun

Do you think livestock was more valuable in 1810? A saddle? A gun?

Inventory – Jacob Wingate – 1811

Let’s use our conversion of one 1810 dollars to $21.17 dollars today.

Here’s the USDA report for cattle prices in Frankfort, Kentucky for November 27, 2020. As an example, 500 pound feeder steers sold for $722 ($144.51/cwt).

That price makes Jacob Wingate’s bull and cow a bargain.

I found hunting rifles online for $400 and up. Here’s a Remington rifle for $500. Jacob’s rifle was used, so maybe discount a bit. But it still looks like a bargain at less than $200 today.

Let’s leave Wingate’s inventory, and explore some other prices.

Tavern Rates

The court set tavern rates. Prices for everything from a peach brandy to pasturing your horse for the night.

Here are the rates for 1811.

Tavern rates 1811 – “do” is an abbreviation for ditto.
Tavern rates – December 1811

I’ll have beer and supper, and a peach brandy after. I’ll stay the night, and would you pasture my horse.

How much? 63 cents? A bit steep. Very well then, how about my beer.

So how did we fare? No, not the beer and supper. How do these prices compare to their value today?

Let’s use our conversion of one 1810 dollar = $21.17 in 2020 dollars.

After we adjust to 2020 dollars, I think we’d still expect to pay double for the beer, supper, and peach brandy. In a city, we’d pay even more. The prices are within reason.

But even in 1810, the lodging and pasturage seemed extremely cheap. And it really stands out when we adjust for 2020 prices. If you find lodging today for $1.38 per night, don’t stay there.

Price conclusions

The price of kitchen utensils and household goods were similar to today’s value.

William and Margaret’s farm price was very cheap compared to Kentucky land prices today.

Tools and furniture prices were similar to today’s value.

Livestock and gun prices were very cheap compared to the prices today.

Some service prices were a steal, like overnight tavern stays and horse pasturage. Other service prices, like food and drink, were similar in value to today.

Wages and income

We’ve looked at the cost of goods and services. Some were bargains, some were similar in value to today’s prices.

Could William and Margaret afford to buy these goods and services? How did they have the currency or trade goods to spend?

There were several ways to acquire currency.

  • Sell cash crops and livestock
  • Barter using labor or crafts
  • Practice a trade, like stone mason

Families could sell or barter for the crafts and foodstuffs and cash crops they produced. Sometimes it was called “Country Pay.” Often, merchants would keep a ledger book on each family’s county pay.

Hides were tanned. The tanbark was stripped from oak trees and brought to town by the county folk and sold to the tanner, or traded to him for leather. In those days, nearly every article of produce was legal tender at the stores and business houses, and not much money changed hands in the various transactions between business people and the citizens of the county.

When Falmouth Was a Babe in Swaddling Clothes – Dr. H. C. Clark

Wages

And some were tradespeople, practicing a craft that would bring them wages or barter.

Harvey Jarvis (4G) and his brother James were stone masons. Every new house needed a fireplace, so I imagine they stayed busy. Perhaps William Jarvis was also a stone mason, for several of his children and grandchildren took up the trade.

In this citation, orphan John Childers is apprenticed to James Jarvis until he is age 21. He will be taught “the art and mystery of a Stone Mason.” John Childers lived with James Jarvis’ family. They provided his room and board, and he provided labor. John Childers’ family were neighbors of the Jarvises.

Apprentice – John Childers to James Jarvis – Stone mason – 1815

Here’s a source for 1815 wages around the U.S. Kentucky probably was at the lower end of the scale of wages.

A contemporary historian gives presumably authentic daily rates
for carpenters and bricklayers in several States for the period 1815-
1817, as follows:
Bricklayers. —$1.50 in New York and South Carolina; $2 in Pennsylvania;
$1 in Ohio; and $3 per M. in District of Columbia.
Carpenters.—$1.50 per day in Maine and New York and $1 in Ohio

Another contemporary writer quotes a general average for the
whole country in the following decade as $1.45 for carpenters and
$1.62 for masons.

Wages of Early Building Trade Workers, Monthly Labor Review – US Department of Labor

Using this source, perhaps we can ascribe a daily wage of $1.50 for a mason in Kentucky.

Once again, we’ll apply our conversion to today’s dollars – one 1810 dollar = $21.17 in today’s dollars.

A daily wage of $1.50 would be equal to a 2020 wage of $31.76 per day. If the conversion rate is valid, then an 1810 mason was paid less than a 2020 mason.

Wage conclusions

It’s difficult to accept that our inflation conversion factor is correct for wages.

An 1810 daily wage of $1.50 converts to a 2020 wage of $31.76 per day. The actual 2020 wage for a mason would be 5 to 10 times that. At $20/hour to $40/hour, that daily wage would be between $160 and $320.

Summary

It’s apparent that we can’t use a single inflation factor for different goods and services and wages. Just like today, prices increase at different rates. Health care prices have increased more than electronics prices. Food prices more than gasoline.

In 1810 Kentucky, land was cheap. Wages were cheap. Tools and household goods were somewhat comparable to their values today.

Using our simplistic tools, we didn’t find any goods or services or wages that were more expensive than their values today.


Sources

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