I just received some cufflinks that belonged to my Great-Great-Uncle. One set still has the price tag attached: $2.00. Assuming it was purchased in, say, 1900 (it was my grandmother’s uncle, and she is 80 now; 1900 seems reasonable) --I was wondering how much would that be in today’s dollars?
According to this site, $2 in 1900 would be about $46.25 today (actually, 2005).
But… on second thought is this realy all that easily calculable?
I took my son to dinner this evening at a popular mid-priced local restaurant and we had two very nice, sizeable dinners + an appetizer & drinks (soda + beer) for less than $ 40.00.
Even at a 20 to one ratio between 1913 and today (using Cecil’s referenced calculator) I find it hard to fathom that I could get that kind of meal for $ 2.00 in 1913 (or even less in 1900)
Pssst…that ain’t Cecil.
I found this page which has downloadable charts with inflation-adjusted pricing for various seafoods based on historical San Francisco menus (the comparison was done as a method of charting fish populations of the time periods…fascinating). I downloaded lobster and sole, and you could get a lobster in San Francisco in 1900 for an inflation-adjusted price of under $10 in 2004 dollars. Sole would set you back an adjusted $4 in 2004 dollars. So it doesn’t seem all that unlikely that you could get two dinners, appetizer and drinks for two 1900 dollars.
They’re antiques. With the original price tag… $1500.00
Rather than a precise calculation, you may find it more useful to look at contemporary pricing to see what people then thought. A “dollar watch” was even at the time considered to be a cheap and unreliable object. “Sound as a dollar watch” was a sarcastic phrase. So $2 cufflinks were probably not expensive items, just something practical and suitable for everyday wear.
And food was astoundingly cheap by modern standards. While a pair of $2 cufflinks that would last all year (remember that every non-working class man wore a suit all day, every day) was an inexpensive investment, a 2 dinner was a luxury beyond most peoples' means. I found in a search a reference to a full course steak dinner for .75.
My rule of thumb for dealing with prices from a century ago is to multiply by 100, not 20. $75 for a steak dinner plus tax and tip in a pricey New York City steakhouse is hardly out of line.
I am not saying this is wrong but it flies in the face of common knowledge and common sense. Food used suck up a much, much larger percentage of household income than it does today. Things like bread and milk were many times more expensive than they were today. I did a calculation once that showed that milk alone took up almost 10% of the typical household budget and bread was way more expensive in real dollars (and the quality way lower than premium kinds) today.
The saying “Putting food on the table” mean that literally as in there was a threat of a household going truly hungry if there was no money coming in. Now, no one sane, able-bodied person in the U.S. will have a problem finding a nice and varied diet. The only limitation is their own understanding of nutrition.
Efficiencies in farming mean that food in general is massively less expensive than it was in 1900. The general quality is also much higher and is even way higher in the U.S. now as opposed to say the 1980’s.
I can’t discount isolated cases of now luxury feeds being cheap back then. Some seafood was much more plentiful and less prestigious back then. If you are a foodie or value seeker at all, I strongly advise moving back even 10 years if you have constant dollars to spend.
I think the best way to do this kind of analysis is to locate menus for high-end restaurants that have lasted for a very long time. Two in New Orleans are Galatoire’s and Antione’s. They have a long tradition of top-notch food going back to the 1800’s with the same traditions and level of service today. I see their old menus on Ebay but don’t know what the prices are. New York City also has a few such restaurants so their old menus should answer the question.
My wife’s family is a major player in the very high end food business. Do not romanticize anything about food yesterday over today in the U.S. It sucks worse and worse the farther you go back and is still getting better.
You’re confusing and conflating too many issues in your post.
People who went to restaurants were a small and relatively upper class portion of the population. Even so, public food prices were surprisingly low.
Working and lower-middle-class families did spend what we would consider to be an abnormally large proportion of their incomes on food, probably averaging half their total. But this would still be about $.75 per day for an entire family.
A good source of information on this is Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet, by Harvey A. Levenstein
There was indeed a starving class then as there is today. But most with jobs did not qualify for starvation, and this was even less true by the turn of the century when the railroads made food cheaply available to the eastern cities.
I could quote all day from this book, or many more. But my point is that it’s dangerous to talk about the past as if it was a whole. It changed as fast and as jerkily as the world today. Most of us would consider astro’s $40 meal for two to be normal. but you could go up or down considerably and still be within normal range.
I’ve read a lot of cultural history, though, and I think I’m on safe ground in saying that until fairly recent times, restaurant meals - except for the very elite - were shockingly inexpensive by modern standards. Cheap meals were amazingly so. (Coffee and two doughnuts for a nickel was standard diner fare in the Depression.) Food did cost a higher proportion of income but incomes were so much lower that the raw numbers were minuscule. $500 was a middle class income then, $50,000 is a middle class income now. Rule of thumb: multiply by 100. With meals at hip NYC restaurants running over $400 a person, that holds true even for elites.