Wednesday, November 16, 2011

100 Years ago today: Calculating the cost of living

One of the difficult things to negotiate when reading fiction not only set in but, more importantly, written in the past is determining how much things cost and how much they were worth. For example, when Agatha Christie's short story "Philomel Cottage" was published in the November 1924 issue of Grand Magazine[1] its readers found it quite reasonable that a comfortable country cottage with heating, electricity and plumbing (not a given at that time in England) could sell for two thousand pounds.[2] Alix Martin (from whose point of view the story was written) had been able to buy it outright because she had inheriting "a few thousand" pounds--an amount that yielded "a couple of hundred a year"--on which she would be able to live. Meanwhile in "The Manhood of Edward Robinson" (originally published in the December 1924 issue of Grand Magazine) the titular character buys a very, very nice car for just under 500 pounds.[3]

However the modern day reader cannot simply deduce from those two data points how much it would cost to live in a certain fashion in the England of the mid 1920s since at that time very few people (even well to do people) owned their own cars and almost everyone who considered themselves part of the "gentry" aspired to having several servants. The cost of eating dinner then is hard to compare with the cost of eating dinner now unless one knows what the food cost at the store, how much it cost to cook it, how expensive it was to heat the house, buy the china or pay for the hot water used to prepare and wash up the dinner.

One of the best places to go for that type of invaluable information is old newspapers where advertisements and want ads provide the modern reader with information about what people wanted then and how much they were willing to pay for it.

Page six of The Tacoma Times of November 16 1911 gives today's reader a sense of what various things cost in Tacoma at that time:

One could rent a furnished apartment for $12.00 to $16.00 a month
Both men's and women's "long" coats could be bought for $10.00 apiece.
$1600.00 would buy you a 40-acre farm along with two houses.
For $1150.00 you could get 20 acres of cleared land 3-room house, barn, 6 stalls for cows, 4 large cherry trees, about 20 apple and pears, a good stove.
A (live) rooster could be bought for $5.00 and a (live) hen from $1.25 to $2.00
A sewing machine cost $5.00
You could rent a 5 room house for $10.00 a month
An upright piano could cost anywhere from $80.00 to $150.00
A "small grocery and cigar store" was on sale for $250.00
Hotel rooms were available from 25¢ a day
Houses in the city were for sale at prices varying from $900.00 to $1700.00
For $2200.00 (only $200.00 down and $15.00 a month) you could get a 7 room house that stood on two lots--on a paved road, with a sidewalk, sewer, and gas already connected. Both a steel and a gas range were included in the sale price.
Looking over that list some things jump out at one. The costs of a "good" coat was surprisingly high. A piano could easily cost as much as a year's rent. There seemed to be a much greater variation in "how people lived" than there are today. (Good) hotels rented out rooms on a monthly basis. Furnished apartments were quite common. People took rooms in boarding houses. Rooms and apartments were available with housekeeping included.

This is before the dawn of the "homeowner" society in North America and England. Yes, there are houses for sale in the city, but a surprisingly large number of the houses are either for rent only or far sale or rent. Outside the city the house came with the land almost as an afterthought whereas today it is often the land that comes with the house. Given the costs of houses, pianos, farms and apartments on page six it isn't surprising to find this item in the wanted column:
A young man with $4000 savings would like to get acquainted with a good, honest lady.
$4000 was indeed a substantial amount of money at that time and I imagine that the young man in question was able to get acquainted with at least one good honest lady.

I wonder what happened next........

[1]Republished in 1934, under the same name, as part of the short story collection The Listerdale Mystery.

[2] The reader can deduce from other details in the story that Alix Martin inherited approximately six thousand pounds in bear bonds.

[3] Republished in 1934 as part of the short story collection The Listerdale Mystery.


  1. I think that many people expect to be able to apply a simple scaling factor to historical prices and get modern ones, and this simply doesn't work - your first two examples are enough to point this out (four modern cars will not buy you a house, at least in the UK, unless they're very expensive cars).

    And that's without considering the changes in tech level; what price being warm? In 1920s England, it's simply part of life that rooms will be cold in winter unless there's a fire going, and you wrap up warm all the time. Remember that bit in The Franchise Affair where the old woman is casually discussing ways of getting rid of lice? She wasn't poor or unusually dirty; it was just a problem everyone had. And so on...

    I live in a pleasant house with lots of space, but a Christie protagonist would see the lack of servants and the fact that I have to work to keep the house...

  2. I was startled to find out at eldest son's piano lesson, that for the price of his piano teacher's piano, we could have bought three Toyota Siennas, or made a 50% down payment on our first house.

    So the piano price scales, at least.

  3. Yeah, mmySpouse is a pianist and good pianos are very expensive.

    The thing is that back in the day it seems that every middle-class family had a piano, the way that everyone now has a tv.

  4. A few years back my dad introduced me to the golden-age radio drama "Your Truly, Johnny Dollar", which had the framing device of an insurance investigator's (humorously padded) expense report.

    My dad had thought I'd be most impressed by how cheap everything was back in the 40s, but what I noticed even more was the things that _were_ expensive. Hotel stays and food were cheap of course, but a cross-country flight was over a thousand dollars, and a fur coat was several thousand.


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