Doesn’t it seem like goods cost more than they have previously? Whether this is perception or reality, I’ve started to think about how I could use salaries and prices to better understand my ancestors. Here are some ideas as well as great sites related to this topic.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably carefully transcribed your ancestor’s census records including the value of the property and if given, the salary. However, often we don’t know what $500 meant in 1910 versus today. You can compare the dollar value with the neighbors to see if that was an average value or salary. That’s a great way to see if you ancestor was “doing ok”. Another fun way to understand the time your ancestor was living in is to take advantage of sites that give details about the salaries and dollar values compared to today. Here are a few to get you started.
Libraries – University of Missouri Prices and Wages
I have the link pointed to the 1940-1949 decade but as you can see you can choose other decades. This site has a wealth of information. On the right side of the page, choose prices of food, merchandise, housing and utilities, services, travel and transportation, and college education. For example, here is a chart comparing prices for basic foods like butter, beef from 1890 to 1970.
As you’re writing your family history, think how some of these tidbits about cost play into your ancestor’s life. I know several people who have mentioned that their farm families made ends meet by selling butter and eggs and cream in town to supplement the farm income. Perhaps you have a story like that.
This site has a handy calculator to compare the value of money from one year to another. In the default view 30 cents in 1940 (the minimum wage) was the equivalent of $5.51 in 2020. You can change the money amount to compare between any years. They also provide a chart showing what inflation was like for a particular year. A dollar in 1940 has the equivalent buying power of $18.36 in 2020.
In this article ‘The 1940 Census: 72-Year-Old Secrets Revealed’ you can learn more about the general population and industries across the United States. You might think that there was more agriculture in the 1940s—depending on where you were raised. However I was surprised to find that agriculture accounted for only 18.5%. It was still one of the top five industries. Other tidbits include the average wage for men and for women.
Dirty Thirties – Paper Dragon
This site includes a table of 1939 costs is a quick way to see how much a shirt or a dress cost at that time. Or even the price of an average fishing pole. ($1.50) While this site is geared towards writing novels based in the 1930s, I’m including it because I hope it encourages you to look beyond standard genealogy sites to find additional information.
The People History
In addition to information about various decades, you can find the cost of food in the 1930s, pop culture of the roaring twenties and much more. Even if you don’t you use specific information from these sites, they might be great triggers when interviewing family members or thinking about your ancestor in context of these times.
I hope that these sites help you add some color and context to your family story. Enjoy reading more about these early decades, understanding the prices and wages of the time!
With a lifelong passion for genealogy and history, the author enjoys the opportunity to share genealogy tidbits, inspiring others to research and write their family story.