Historical Value of French Franc (in comparison to U.S. dollar)
February 4, 2015 7:12 AM   Subscribe

I am trying to find out how much 220 French francs, in 1875, would roughly equate to in current U.S. dollars (Euros or pounds sterling fine as well). Anyone know a good calculator (or care to take a crack yourself)? Thanks!
posted by dearleader to Work & Money (8 answers total)
Wikipedia says at that time the franc was in the Latin Monatery Union, which went to the gold standard in 1873. A franc was equivalent to 0.2903225 grams of gold. That's equivalent to 0.0102408248 ounces.

Today's price of gold is $1260.30 per ounce, which leads to an 1875 franc being worth about $12.90 today.
posted by Gridlock Joe at 7:32 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Finding forex data that far back is difficult. Most of the online sources only go to sometime in the mid to late 20th century. The best I've found so far is here, which is based on JPY and only goes back to 1893, but at that point the average was Fr 3.4377 to JPY 1, and JPY 66.2727 to USD 100, or .USD 0.662727 dollar per yen. This works out to 5.15655 francs to the dollar.

Wikipedia does say, however, that in 1865 the franc was pegged to 0.290322581 grams of gold. According to this chart (pdf), the dollar was at 18.94 per troy ounce in 1875. A troy ounce is 31.1 grams, which gives us a value of $.60 per gram, which gives us a rate to FR 2.06 to USD 1.

(If we cross-check that by looking at the price of gold in 1893, we get $18.96 per ounce, which still works out to roughly FR2 to USD1)

I can't quite correlate between these two data sources, but there's no knowing how much noise is in the data this far back. Unfortunately the best I can get looking at this is that the one dollar was probably worth somewhere between 2 and 5 francs in that time period, or, with historical USD inflation rates, 1 current US dollar would be worth about 50-100 1875 francs.

That's too big a range for my comfort; maybe with a bit more time I could find more reliable sources, but I'm at work right now. I just happen to work at a trading firm that does ForEx, so it caught my interest...
posted by jammer at 7:49 AM on February 4, 2015

There might be some other resources to dig in to here if someone wants to go a bit deeper.
posted by jammer at 7:55 AM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

This essay has some great information about the general ways of estimating value over time -- e.g., how much time it took an average unskilled worker to earn a loaf of bread, vs. comparing the price of gold, etc.
posted by katemonster at 7:56 AM on February 4, 2015

katemonster also raises another point: the "relative" value of a franc versus a dollar over time doesn't necessarily correlate with its purchasing power in the domestic market, especially at a time when national economies were less globally integrated than they are now. I think getting an absolute, concrete answer to this question is hard, but these data should at least put you in the right ballpark for rough mental calculations.
posted by jammer at 8:06 AM on February 4, 2015

It doesn't go far back enough for your date, but the following French Wikipedia article may be of some help in understanding the issues with defining this accurately; it gives quite a lot of detail back to 1901 plus some purchasing power snapshots for 1890 and 1828. It's in French but can probably be auto-translated well enough to get the gist.

Évolution du pouvoir d'achat des monnaies françaises
posted by protorp at 11:46 AM on February 4, 2015

Basically, it depends heavily on what you wanted to spend those francs on.

The specific metric issues brought up by the link from katemonster are the aggregated versions of the fact that, at some horizon, the concept of "a" conversion rate between currencies across time becomes less meaningful.

EG: I can get a course of penicillin for, call it $15. I could not get it for all of the francs in 1875 France. Implied exchange rate: Infinity francs per dollar.

But! According to the dataset on Angouleme prices here, "red wine," presumably per bottle, is .5 francs. In contemporary US, let's say $20. Implied exchange rate: 1/40 franc per dollar.

Prices are only meaningful in the context of the entire market/economy that produced them. Concretely, in the last 2 centuries or so raw input costs have trended downwards while labor input costs have trended upwards, so the course of the price of a good is determined, crudely speaking, by the proportions to which it depends on those inputs.
posted by PMdixon at 6:36 PM on February 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Take this in steps. Convert to USD, and then adjust for inflation. Gold is a great way to get foreign exchange rates, back then, as most national currencies were gold pegged. According to Gridlock Joe, the Franc was worth 0.2903225 troy oz gold. At that point in the US, gold was worth $18.75/troy oz (according to the US National mining office), so $5.44. Then, convert to present day dollars (these are based on US price indexes after 1913, academic study before that). That's $114.65 (the linked site doesn't do decimals, so I just multiplied by 100).

So 220 * 114.65=$ 25223 - give or take.
posted by Philbo at 2:49 PM on February 17, 2015

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