Friday, February 8, 2019

Prices in the 1870s

Pound Flour, wheat $0.96
Pound Flour, rye $0.63
Pound Corn meal $0.32
Pound Rice $1.58
Quart Beans $1.42
Pound Tea, oolong $9.45
Pound Coffee, green $3.62
Pound Coffee, roasted $4.57
Pound Sugar $1.73
Pound Soap, common $1.26
Pound Beef, rump steak $3.31
Pound Pork, fresh $1.89
Pound Hams, smoked $2.05
Pound Lard $1.89
Pound Butter $5.51
Pound Cheese $2.68
Pound Potatoes $0.27
Gallon Milk $3.78
Dozen Eggs $4.73
Ton Coal $123.48
Cord Wood, hard $141.28
Yard Shirting, 4-4 bleached $1.73
Pair Boots, men’s $51.03

Source of data

In the 1870s silver averaged a dollar an ounce, although it was higher at the start of the decade and lower at the end.

Prices listed are the median price of a sample taken at three different times, 1873, 1878 and 1882. The nominal prices were then scaled to the spot price of silver, 15.74 an ounce at the time I wrote this.

This period was chosen because railroads had the effect of damping out price variation over wider regions and because it was still a period when most work was done by human and animal muscles. It serves as a basis for what prices might look like if the grid went down for an extended period, for instance.

A few things stand out. The price of eggs is very high compared to the price of grain products. That doesn't make sense until you consider that chickens are sensitive to day length and artificial lighting in chicken coops was not a standard practice back in the day. Also, I don't know how widespread the practice of feeding limestone or making calcium rich grit was. Without additional calcium, shells were paper thin and shipping eggs was almost a non-starter.

Another thing that stands out is the ratio between the price of fluid milk and the price of cheese. Cheese is cheap and milk is dear. I attribute that to the lack of refrigeration. Cheese is spoiled milk in a manner of speaking. Supply and demand suggests that cheese was the default end-product of milk regardless of demand.

Butter was expensive relative to today's prices. That might have been demand driven. Today we are swimming in vast oceans of inexpensive vegetable oil and hydrogenated shortening. That drags down the price of butter.

Boots were cheap. Comparable boots (Timberlands or Red Wings) run between $110-to-$250 today. This may be due to the fact that footwear is heavily advertised. My gut feel is that the cost of merchandizing "name brand" footwear is more than the cost of materials and the labor needed to assemble them.

Flour was relatively expensive. I don't have a answer for that unless it was due to the cost of packaging (barrels) and losses due to weevils and such.

Other than that, the prices are not wildly out of whack with what you might see in a grocery store today.


  1. ??? The prices seem pretty high. They are Wayyyyy higher than I recall from only 50 years ago.

    1. Hmmm perhaps I missed your point ? If you main point is prices if the grid went down ? Then maybe eventually but certainly not the first year or two. If the grid is down probably trains aren't running either. No distribution network. Also at least for a few years not nearly enough horses to go around. Without a distribution network or horses, mules, ox to till the fields or nearly enough farm hands to farm the old ways things would be really bad. Of course, if truly a grid down things would shake out but hundreds of millions would starve and/or die the first 2 years.

    2. In response to your first comment: The prices listed were indexed for inflation via the cost of silver. I just put out another post listing the NOMINAL prices and, indeed, they are much lower.

    3. In response to your second comment: All of your concerns are valid. Chaos will rule and many of our technologies will not scale back to 1870 infrastructure, for lack of a better term.

      There is value in sifting through the data because there MIGHT be some technology or information that is valuable. For instance...limestone gravel and LED lights might be a life saver in terms of egg production.

      And, since I mentioned limestone, how about finding and stockpiling sources of trace minerals that are deficient in your area. In mine that would be selenium and iodine. The lack of transportation you mentioned means I won't get the benefit of the vegetables grown in areas with high selenium.

      Thanks for reading and thanks for comments. It keeps me honest. Most of the time.

  2. I find it interesting how close prices are to today's prices - however, converting them in terms of silver is a large part of that difference.
    JG, above, has the pint that if the country fell apart, we wouldn't be at 1800's level of technology since there are so few horses, hand wells, manual skills, etc - we would go back much further, with a few exceptions, and it would hit the country HARD!

  3. I think the boot prices are a little high. One months pay was more the norm, so about $30. Cowboy boots started in Coffeeville, KS, by the way.

  4. The price of wheat was high because raising wheat in that day-n-age was labor intense and smaller yield per acre. Hybridization, diesel tractors, combines, and grain trucks have made wheat production easier and cheaper. Subsidies also play a part in keeping the cost of wheat down, today.