The “then-current exchange rate” calculation seems incorrect.
There are a variety of ways to compare the value of money in “then and now” terms. When examining the price an author is paid for a book, it is probably worth considering the concept of average earnings.
In terms of average earnings, £25 in 1887 would be worth £10,800 in 2003 when this article was written.
A average earnings comparison of £1,000 in 1892 would result in £398,000 in 2003.
There are of course other ways of comparing the value of money over time. A retail price index comparison is much more conservative, but still suggests a thousand pounds in 1892 would be worth significantly more than $5,000 in 2003.
Measuring Worth has some very useful tools for comparing the value of money over time in both the UK and the United States.
A discussion of different ways to compare worth, and which methods are most relevant for comparing different kinds of prices, can be found here.
Yes, sorry for confusion: I was converting 1887-pounds to 1887-dollars, I wasn’t trying to bring the numbers to present day.
The question of how to translate past money to present money is an interesting one, with no clear-cut answers. One approach is to take a market basket, price it in year X money and then price it in year Y money and compare the two. The problem is what you put in the basket to compare. And that problem is compounded when we’re talking 1887. For instance, pre-refrigeration, pre-air transport, things like fresh fruits or vegetables would be way cheaper today than back then. And if we’re not talking fresh foods, manufacturing processing is also way different. Over the counter vitamins weren’t available back then, etc. etc.
The other approach is to look at salaries – what a secretary or hourly laborer or plumber earned each year. This also has problems. And I don’t want to write a staff report on the problem. There are people who do such calculations and publish their results, but they’re all faulty to some degree or another.
Anyhow, that’s why I didn’t try to convert 1887-pounds to 2003-pounds.
Well, this is a question of what you’re putting in your basket, surely? Refigeration and air transport are only factors for foodstuffs that need to be stored for lengthy periods or travel large distances. In 1887, the fresh fruit and vegetables that people actually bought would have been very largely seasonal produce grown quite locally.
I think you might as easily find that the comparative cost of many fruit and vegetables is actually higher in a modern American city than it would have been in 19th century London.
At the time, London was the largest city in the world, with a population of about 5 million. You can’t grow food for a city of that size “locally”, so you have to factor in the costs of transport. Some basic foods came from a long way away, e.g., tea from India and Ceylon, and sugar from the West Indies. (And if you don’t think tea is a basic food, then you don’t know the English). Since trucks with internal combustion engines were not available, a lot of the transportation was horse-drawn, which is relatively more expensive, because you have to feed the horses, again on food that cannot all be grown locally.
Well, yes. I was only meaning to point out a further complication in calculating comparative prices. You can’t look at a modern shopping basket and say, “Well, these strawberries have come all the way from Spain in a refrigerated truck and they cost me £2.00 – how much would they have cost in 1887?” because people in 1887 simply wouldn’t have been buying foreign-grown out-of-season strawberries. They’d have bought strawberries grown within a day or so’s travel of where they lived, and only in season, when they’re cheap and plentiful.
London was (and still is) a special case that adds a further complication. In 1887 it was the centre of a global empire based on trade, and the hub of an efficient national rail network that could bring fruit from Scotland to market in London within a day, at affordable prices. Distance travelled doesn’t necessarily equate directly to cost, particularly for dry bulk items that can survive a long sea voyage. If you think tea and sugar were expensive, you don’t know the British Empire.
Many cross-cultural calculations are specifically conducted with this very problem in mind. The usual indicator - one that makes a lot of sense - is to try to calculate what percentage of overall salary would go to various critical items like food or housing.
When done this way, the percentage is almost universally favorable to our modern, western lives. We pay a much smaller percentage of our income for food than urban dwellers did at any other place or time. And we can see the result in our consumer culture, because not having to put so much money into basics allows us the range of luxuries that we now take for granted. (And have redefined into basics, which helps explains the rage that is so visible from people who can no longer afford what they had assumed to be basics.)
Victorians may have invented the middle-class as we know it today, but we would find most items in their lives intolerably expensive, given their income. Doyle’s £1,000 was ten times a middle-class yearly salary. Think of it as $500,000 today. The price of strawberries no longer matters at that level.
The problem with percentage of salary is the salary comparison. In the modern era of many two-income families, percentages are different than in the past. And, of course, the relative status of a position could change, hence their salary’s relationship to others. In short, it’s a thorny problem with no clear or untarnished comparison. Probably should be a subject for a staff report.
As long as you’re not vexed. That would be a shame.
I read once that Conan Doyle thought he’d written his last Sherlock Holmes story when The Strand magazine begged him to write ten more. He really didn’t want to, preferring to focus on historical fiction, so he named some exorbitant price thinking they’d tell him to take a hike. Instead they immediately said, “Fine, when can we expect them?”
You said in your article there was no mention of drugs after the Reichenbach Falls incident, but you are forgetting ‘The Adventure of the Missing-Three Quarter.’
“Things had indeed been very slow with us, and I had learned to dread such periods of inaction, for I knew by experience that my companion’s brain was so abnormally active that it was dangerous to leave it without material upon which to work. For years I had gradually weaned him from that drug mania which had threatened once to check his remarkable career. Now I knew that under ordinary conditions he no longer craved for this artificial stimulus; but I was well aware that the fiend was not dead, but sleeping; and I have known that the sleep was a light one and the waking near when in periods of idleness I have seen the drawn look upon Holmes’ ascetic face, and the brooding of his deep-set and inscrutable eyes. Therefore I blessed this Mr. Overton, whoever he might be, since he had come with his enigmatic message to break that dangerous calm which brought more peril to my friend than all the storms of his tempestuous life.”