Changing Lifestyles
August 10, 2009 10:05 AM   Subscribe

The year is 1900, and I earn $2550 annually. What is my life like?

I was watching a movie set at the turn of the last century, and a question popped into my mind: If I lived in 1900 and made the equivalent of 65k 2009 dollars per year (~$2550), what would my life be like? I am a single, white male living in a city. I realize that many of the expenses I have now I wouldn't then - the cable bill being one example - but what expenses would I have then that I don't now? What socioeconomic class would I fall under? What is a job that would earn me this much?

Google was disappointing, so I decided to turn to AskMe for help. Any books, websites or TV shows/movies (fiction or non-fiction) you can recommend on the subject would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!
posted by wsp to Work & Money (29 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
Clothing would be a lot more expensive; most of what a man would wear would be tailored just for him. Shoes would likely also be bespoke. A single man might have domestic help (to cook and clean - no microwaves back then).
posted by contessa at 10:10 AM on August 10, 2009

Food would also be more expensive. Historically people spent a much larger percentage of their income on food than they do now, because agriculture has become more efficient.
posted by madcaptenor at 10:11 AM on August 10, 2009

Best answer: There is a series of books called "The writer's guide to everyday life in ___________", intended for writers who want to write about a certain era. I bet everything you want to know would be in there.

From this search the closest i can get you is "1800s" or "prohibition." Would that be close enough?
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:17 AM on August 10, 2009 [7 favorites]

The 1900 House, a PBS "reality" series about a family that agrees to live in 1900 Victorian London style for 3 months -- " The sci-fi drama of time travel meets true-life drama in THE 1900 HOUSE -- a new four-part documentary that "transports" an actual modern family from 1999 back to life in 1900. Public television viewers will have the chance to vicariously experience a time-travel journey back to everyday, middle-class life in Victorian London. The adventurous Bowler Family spent three months living in a townhouse carefully restored to reproduce the ambiance and amenities of the turn of the century."
posted by ecorrocio at 10:22 AM on August 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: drjimmy11: Those look cool. I'd probably be more interested in 1800s than prohibition.
posted by wsp at 10:24 AM on August 10, 2009

Best answer: Time and Again is also a novel that takes place roughly in that era (late 1800's). It's a good book on its own but the author of it did a lot of research about what a contemporary 1880's person would see and do in New York during that time.
posted by contessa at 10:32 AM on August 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You would have the additional expense of a staff - very probably, at a minimum, a cook and a cleaner.

The most evocative picture of life in that the era with which I am familiar is Jack Finney's Time and Again. It is off by 18 years for you but it is very, very detailed (down to newspaper prices) in regard to daily life. It's also a great novel and a fun, fun read.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:34 AM on August 10, 2009 [5 favorites]

Another novel of the era: Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. Written in 1900, takes place starting in 1890. Rags-to-riches-to-rags story.
posted by contessa at 10:39 AM on August 10, 2009

If you decided to travel to Europe, you would spend several months to a year or more traveling and staying in various parts of Europe. And likely you would encounter much of the same society as you did at home as social circles tended to stick together more prickly back then. And you certainly wouldn't be allowed to casually have a woman in your room without speculation.
posted by zizzle at 10:40 AM on August 10, 2009

Interesting question.

What is a job that would earn me this much?

I'm curious about this. Were there many salaried jobs at that level around 1900? There were surely fewer "professions" back then- lawyers and doctors would have earned more, craftsmen/laborers probably less. An accountant, perhaps? You might earn that much as a business owner, but your income would probably not be steady at that level.

Regarding contessa's point: Clothing would be a lot more expensive; most of what a man would wear would be tailored just for him.

Yes, but you would have fewer items (unless you were a dandy) and they would last longer. There's a strong case to be made that cheaper, ready-to-wear clothing does not translate into a long-term savings in clothing costs.
posted by mkultra at 10:54 AM on August 10, 2009

No idea, but thirding Time and Again - a cult book that anyone interested in this question would adore. Once read, you will never forget it and probably spend the rest of your life talking about it at parties.
posted by CunningLinguist at 11:00 AM on August 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

A single man might have domestic help (to cook and clean - no microwaves back then)

Yes, in fact, it was very common for middle class people to have a live-in servant.
posted by Melismata at 11:16 AM on August 10, 2009

Best answer: Well, this article refers to a complaint from a college professor who was earning $2,000 per year in 1905. The actual complaint is behind a pay wall, sadly.

$55 a month on food, $1200 to cover appendicitis (Who needs health insurance? It's just organ failure, walk it off!), and $25 a month for a servant. $10 more for laundry, because a regular servant won't do laundry.

So, it's five years off, but hopefully relevant enough. $2,550 would place you at the top of the heap. Wealthy enough to be rich to most people, but if your character is anything like this guy, you'd just be another of the "middle class" who just makes a bit more because he knows a bit more.

The fact that this man is single would be a major issue. His expenditures would be less, but it would be odd for a man to have the experience or skill to make $2,550 a year without having wed. He'd either have to be rather young and very enterprising with business or have been established in a respectable field such as professor for quite some time without being married for some reason or another.

Truth be told, it sounds as if your single man in the city would be making enough to live very well. Imagine making $62,500 today without income taxes. Beyond that, a house would cost much less, running what seems to be roughly $5,000. A car would only be a few months' salary, and even that would be showing off. No mobile phone bills, no credit card payments, no internet bill.

$2,550 would make for some nice living in 1900. Truth be told, $62,500 would go a similar length for a single person today, so long as they weren't looking to buy a house in a major city. That, and taxes would take a huge chunk today. On the other hand, we have things like modern emergency room services available 24 hours a day, and we're not worried about our meat containing byproducts like the severed limbs of immigrant workers.
posted by Saydur at 11:16 AM on August 10, 2009 [4 favorites]

Ask at the ref. desk of your local public library. There is a reference book, the name of which I can't bring to mind, that basically takes the basic groceries for a family of four and what it cost. They may have other resources.

Another fun thing to do is to look at microfilm of your local newspaper from the time you are interested in. You want the ads. Knowing what went on sale and for how much will tell you a lot.
posted by QIbHom at 11:19 AM on August 10, 2009

There's a series called "History Firsthand" that covers some of this stuff. I could only find it online here for pay, but your library might have it. It's a collection of essays, the one I linked is about living on $13 a week in the 20s, which is pretty close to your original question.
posted by lubujackson at 11:31 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's a great site called the people's history. They have a section for the 1920s which includes the prices of things like groceries, clothes, etc. It might be 20 years too late for your time period unless youre flexible.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:20 PM on August 10, 2009

nthing Time and Again. Excellent read and I think its close enough to 1900 to answer your questions.
posted by curlyelk at 12:53 PM on August 10, 2009

Clothing would be a lot more expensive; most of what a man would wear would be tailored just for him. Shoes would likely also be bespoke.

But, of course, you'd have far fewer clothes--IIRC, that was one of the major complaints of the 1900 house inhabitants.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:20 PM on August 10, 2009

I heard an interview on my local NPR affiliate with a guy who decided to go live for a year with his family in Virginia and pretend it was 1900. He wrote a book about it too.
posted by chiababe at 1:34 PM on August 10, 2009

You'd almost certainly live in a boardinghouse or a housekeeping flat, not maintain your own establishment at that economic level. Only the wealthiest bachelors had their own place; other bachelors lived in boardinghouses (where the residents ate in a dining room) or in housekeeping flats (a la Sherlock Holmes, where a housekeeper served meals in each of a few apartments).

The "Genius" by Theodore Dreiser is something you might want to take a look at, as it's about a young painter who moves to Chicago at the turn of the century.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:40 PM on August 10, 2009

Best answer: Were there many salaried jobs at that level around 1900? There were surely fewer "professions" back then- lawyers and doctors would have earned more

Not necessarily. Back in those days, most lawyers and doctors earned about the same as tenured college professors and high-school principals, so the equivalent of $65K seems just right. Other similarly-paid jobs in New York would include architecture, accountancy in big firms, management in an engineering company, mid-level stock and bond sales, senior management in a department store, upper-mid-level management in a freight or shipping concern, mid-level management in a bank, etc., etc.

Earning slightly less than that, probably about the equivalent of $50K in today's cash, would be newspaper and magazine editors, management in telegraph and telephone companies, paid staff of charitable foundations, management in theaters/opera houses/vaudeville syndicates, executive secretaries to large-scale capitalists (who were almost always men), and so on.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:47 PM on August 10, 2009

Clothing would be a lot more expensive

I just opened an old vault in the basement of a building in NYC. It holds carbon copies of all the correspondence for an NYC clothing manufacturer.

They talk about men's socks that cost $2.89 a pair in 1911. By the most conservative metrics that's $50 today. So, yes, apparently clothes were more expensive.

But time was cheap. These letters to suppliers and customers are very florid and long winded, as if someone spent half a day on each one of them. Even when it's just to say they aren't interested in whatever is being offered.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:35 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: What is my life like?

No TV, no radio, and outside of major cities, only weekly papers. There were telephones, but due to the complete lack of electronic amplification, most telephone service was essentially local, and transcontinental communication generally relied on telegraphy. There was no air mail service, and it took about 10 days for a letter to go from NYC to LA, mostly by train, and via several points of hand sorting, there being little or no automatic mail sorting equipment, then.

No pro football. No pro basketball. No pro hockey. No NASCAR. No Formula One. No drag racing. Pro baseball, but only in a few cities. If you fished, you rowed, or sat on a bank or bridge. If you knew where to go, you could still shoot passenger pigeons. If you had the time, and could do a little walking between system lines, you could get from Boston to NYC for 25 cents, via trolleys (by 1906, you didn't need to walk much, anymore). A lot of circuses came to major cities. Although Anheuser-Busch had begun shipping beer across country in iced down rail cars in the 1880s, beer was still essentially a local product, and one that most men drank frequently; in fact, drinking in bars was a major pastime for men in a lot American cities, in that day.

There were no antibiotics, no real cancer treatments other than surgery, very little medical Xray equipment or people trained to take and read Xrays, no open heart surgery, no contact lenses, no hearing aids (other than ear trumpets), and the average life expectancy at birth, based on data from 10 states and Washington, D.C. was about 50 years. That number may seem very low, but if you study the data, you'll realize it is being dragged down by high infant mortality, in the first year of life, and that if you were lucky enough to make it to 1 year of age, your chances of making it past 50 actually rose substantially.

Divorce rates were around 5%, but a lot of people lived, while still married, in separate arrangements. The average number of children in an American family had declined to about 4 by 1900, down from about 7 in the mid-1800s, but still far more than today's average family size.

What is a job that would earn me this much?

You could have made that much as a skilled factory mechanic, an iron worker, or a train conductor:

"... The 1890 average daily salaries reflect the status of the conductor, engineers earned $2.25 and firemen $1.50. The conductor was paid a considerably higher salary at a daily wage of $3.85. ..."
posted by paulsc at 3:32 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Err.... meant to add, "recognizing that in addition to salary, conductors also were often tipped for Pullman service, as crew leaders, and expected to sub-tip porters and waiters on transcontinental trains. Gratuities and tips were also sometimes paid by passengers for special luggage or freight arrangements. Gratuities could double or triple a conductor's earnings on some routes."
posted by paulsc at 3:40 PM on August 10, 2009

I add an observation about pre-radio&TV home entertainment in lower-middle-class Brooklyn.

My parents argued with one another a lot. And the fights were almost always about stuff that happened before I (their youngest child) was born. Many of my friend's parents also did this.

Many years later, my sister told me her interpretation of it:

Before radio&TV (especially TV), family fights and feuds were a major form of home entertainment (think screaming & dish-throwing--this was loud active stuff, and could go on for hours, and with breaks, for days).

My sister also noted that while we kids were exposed to the scary sound-effects, we had no idea about the hot make-up sex that followed. (My parents loved each other like two goopy teen-agers).
posted by hexatron at 4:55 PM on August 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

There was actually a slight real-value drop in US wages between 1890 and 1900, though, because of the Panic of 1893.

I'm currently reading a book called Selling the Great War, which talks about George Henry Creel's propaganda effort for the Wilson administration pushing US involvement in World War I, and according to that (based on Creel's extensive diaries), in 1899, Creel was paid $40/week to be the editor of a daily newspaper in Kansas City.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:47 PM on August 10, 2009

Best answer: Some information from (an earlier edition of) The Value of a Dollar:

The average salary over all Industries excluding farm labor in 1900 was $490 per year. The highest category listed is "Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate" at $1040 per year. The most expensive car I saw listed was $3,000. 10-14 room houses on Prospect Park South with tiled vestibules and two baths were advertised in the New York Times for $10,000 and up. A washing machine was $4.75. A 7-Drawer Sewing Machine was $13.25 and a Gents Kenwood Bicycle was $16.75.

If your local library has a copy of the above book I strongly recommend it.
posted by DanSachs at 2:16 AM on August 11, 2009

paulsc, I'm not getting the same math results you are:

"The conductor was paid a considerably higher salary at a daily wage of $3.85. ..."

$3.85 * 365 = $1,405.25

I don't know whether conductors worked every single day, but even if they did, that's still well shy of $2,550 a year.

wsp: I'm reading a biography of Jack London right now. Before he was able to make a living writing, he was typically earning very little - and he started young:

age 11: 2 paper routes, iceman's apprentice, and bowling alley work: $20/month
age 15: cannery work, 10 cents an hour, 10-16 hours a day
age 17: work in a jute mill, 10 cents an hour, 12 hours a day
age 17: earned/won $25 (about 3 weeks wages) by winning a newspaper's writing contest
age 17: coal shovelling, $30 a month - close to 8 cents an hour for a 13-hour day with one day off a month

He borrowed $1,500 from his stepsister to go prospecting (along with his stepbrother-in-law) as part of the Yukon Gold Rush.

Once there, he and his mates (and everyone else) had to negotiate a tricky section of river called Box Canyon. Nearly everyone else portaged around it; Jack and his mates took their two hand-built boats through the rapids ... the first to manage that year. They spent the next few days piloting 120 other boats through the rapids at $25 a boat, and made $3000 (split four ways).

Thanks to the boom, prices in Dawson, Alaaska, shot sky-high:

* gallon of milk: $30
* pount of tomatoes: $5
* great big breakfast: $3.50

A day's work paid $17.50, barely enough for food and shelter.

Like many others, London ran out of money in Dawson (to the point of getting scurvy from lack of fruit and vegetables) and had to work his way home on a ship.

Fascinating stuff. Great thread!
posted by kristi at 3:43 PM on August 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

... and, paulsc, I just re-read your addendum, which didn't fully register in my mind before, so I apologize for not including that.

I do wonder whether that doubling or tripling was the norm or the exception.

Again, I say: fascinating.
posted by kristi at 3:48 PM on August 11, 2009

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