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What did it cost in 1900? How much did it pay? Prices, wages and inflation...

Anyone doing historical research often has to wonder what a particular price, or wage, would equate to in today's dollar.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis has assembled an estimated consumer price index back to 1800.

The official Consumer Price Index from the Bureau of Labor Statistics begins in 1913.

By dividing a later year's index by an earlier year's, one has a ratio of how much prices have risen. The February 2012  index for the official CPI was 227.663, while for January 1913 it was 9.8.
Since 227.663 / 9.8 = 23.23, what cost $1 in 1913 would cost $23 now.

But there are some big caveats. Prices of food and clothing have risen far less quickly than housing and most services. In other words, the average person now spends a much smaller share of income on food and clothing.

Wages are much harder to equate. I estimate that wages have risen about 50 times, in other words, twice what the CPI rose. But I use that as a kind of average.

In 1900, a policeman in a medium to large city might make $800-$1,000/year. The  salaries of government employees can often be found in city directories and almanacs, many of which are available in Google Books.

A skilled worker, like a mason, might make something similar. Factory workers would generally make half that. But people forced to do piece work, like many garment workers, might only make half of that.

There are ads for domestics I've seen paying as little as $12 a month. But they would be getting room and board, and room and board swallowed up the vast majority of a working person's income.

Women definitely got the worst of it. Nowadays there may be an inherent wage bias borne out by statistics. But back in 1900 it was just a blatant bias. The 1910 Brooklyn Daily Eagle Almanac lists separate wage scales for men and women teachers. The wages for men start at $900/year, comparable to what the police patrolmen would earn. While women, in the exact same position, would be paid $600/year.

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