Converting money from Jane Austen’s Time to Today’s Dollars

Converting money from Jane Austen’s Time to Today’s Dollars

It can’t be done. At least, it can’t be done accurately.

I’ve read many versions of the exchange rate between the times, and there is no way a single exchange rate can explain the differences.

Let me give an example from people I knew. My husband had parents who were very intelligent but not well educated. After returning from World War II, my father-in-law got a reasonably well paying blue collar job. For a time, he supplemented the family’s income by working weekends at a gas station. My mother-in-law took in sewing. She didn’t earn much by it, but even a little helps. But that wasn’t the extent of it.

Are these modes of transportation worth the same portion of your income?*

She told people how much fabric to buy. They usually didn’t believe her and bought what the package with the pattern said. She used the scraps to clothe her daughter and to make quilts. She also made most of her own clothing. This was a time when clothing was relatively more expensive than it is today and sewing clothing saved money.

Are these outfits worth the same portion of your income?*

They grew a large vegetable garden. She froze and canned vegetables, but also gave away strategically. The man who ran a sewing store received two bushel baskets of vegetables every year. He serviced her machine for free. The man who lived behind her had apple trees. He received vegetables and they got apples. My father-in-law had a container of homemade applesauce in his lunch every day. My father-in-law’s recreation was hunting and fishing. They ate what he hunted and what he caught. He generally brought home a deer every fall. He would cut it up himself and freeze it.

When he got too old to hunt or fish, some neighbors who fished received vegetables. They didn’t freeze their catch; my in-laws were happy to receive their excess.

Trying to find out how much money would support their lifestyle would be difficult. If they didn’t live in Montana, where hunting and fishing were close by and easy to do, their budget for meat would be greater. If they didn’t have a large yard and water rights to the small stream that was next to their property, gardening would not have been as practical.

They had skills that not everyone had, even then. She was an excellent seamstress and he knew how to hunt. They both grew up on farms and composted before it was fashionable. They knew how to grow vegetables. She grew up canning and freezing, because her parents grew and raised their own food.

It would likely take a dissertation to explore the nuances of various food values, then and now, and between countries.

In Jane Austen’s time, a small cottage in the country might have just as much space inside as an apartment in London, but what they could grow could make a huge difference in quality of life for those who lived in it. But the people in the country would probably not be able to hunt, since hunting rights were very much controlled. My father-in-law would not only buy a hunting license, but would go to a farmer and ask permission to hunt on his property. The farmer was happy to have one less deer eating his crop and my father-in-law was happy to have a grain-fed deer. The state was happy to get the fee for the hunting license.

If this example from my family seems far fetched, consider a current example. When trying to find the relative financial status of people in different countries and how that effects access to healthcare, they don’t simply use the exchange rate between the currencies. Because my son works with this kind of data, I asked him to give me some information about it. It’s too long an explanation for this blog post, but it is available here.

Now let’s consider trying to find the exchange rate between the modern dollar and the British pound about 200 years ago. Food and clothing cost a higher percentage of someone’s income than they do today, but the food was less varied and took more work. Most people had much smaller wardrobes, but most people made their own clothing. Labor was very cheap. Female servants cost little more than what it cost to feed, board, and clothe them.

Can we equate these?*

Medical expenses were much cheaper, but you got less value. Travel, postage, paper, and books were more expensive. Much of what we spend money on today, didn’t exist. Letters aren’t as efficient as email. The basic utilities didn’t exist. There were no phones, electricity or running water. Women were taught accomplishments partly because they could then fill their households with art and music. Music is now cheap and a quick search of Amazon found a reproduction of a two foot by three foot Van Gogh poster for $4.93.

To decide how many dollars are equivalent to a pound from 1813 in Great Britain, it depends on what that pound or dollar is used to buy. What would be worth it to you to buy in Regency times? I would love to get the services of a maid at Regency prices. I would even throw in meals for the day she cleaned.

*Thank you for images borrowed from Austen Author’s Media Library

Summer here – On a moderately unrelated note, I have a new Regency (non-JAFF) series of Half Hour Reads out, published by Scarsdale Publishing, called Ladies Always Shoot First. It’s my first attempt at Regency alone. They’re fun and I hope you’ll try them! Here’s a link to the series page on Amazon:

There’s also a giveaway for them on our site, running until June 11th with the winners announced on June12th:*

*If you enter the giveaway, I’ll add your email to our email list, if it isn’t on there already. Actually, it’s the only way I can send you the email saying you won, as the service we use doesn’t let me send emails to people not on our list. As an aside (an aside inside an aside . . . is that logically sound?), while you’re there you can always sign up for our email list and get our thank you gifts!


18 Responses to Converting money from Jane Austen’s Time to Today’s Dollars

  1. Finally, some one says it like it is. There are all sorts of comparison charts around. One is How rich was Mr. Darcy?” Ten thousand a year was considered rich in Jane Austen ‘s day and the dowries of twenty and thirty thousand were rich dowries ,indeed. I think even Jane Austen’s original audience would have translated these figures into rich and a very nice sum , indeed, rather than into specific life styles. For one thing, they would be aware that the men usually had the interest of such sums and that the ten thousand pounds wasn’t necessarily net income.
    As you right point out, it is difficult to compare a car to several teams of horses, or a stately home to a mansion in Scarsdale or Atlanta.

    • Jane Austen gives us the incomes of many men and the net worth of many women in her novels. I can’t help trying to understand what those numbers mean, and I know I’m not successful.

    • Thank you.

      I enjoyed the process of analyzing my difficulty in trying to find a way to convert the value of today’s money with the money in Jane Austen’s time.

  2. Fascinating post! Indeed, it isn’t a simply matter of doing a math conversion rate, not that even this “simply” equation is easy. Whenever I see post where someone tries to evaluate what Mr. Darcy’s 10,000 pounds a year would mean in today’s money, the results are all over the place. No one agrees on the basic pound for pound, let alone pound for dollar, between the early 1800s and now. Factoring in how different life was makes it nigh impossible! I think we forget just how different our way of life is from even 50 years ago, let alone over 200!

    Thanks for a wonderful study, Renata. 🙂

    • You are welcome. Obviously, I’ve given it some thought, but I consider it less of a study than as an explanation as to why I can’t come up with an answer.

      I can’t even come up with an answer for today and fifty years ago in the U.S. Yes, you can Google it and find that an average new car cost $2,750, but the car might not have rear passenger seat belts and certainly wouldn’t have airbags.

  3. Great post Renata. 🙂 I was laughing that you added a picture of Trabant in comparison to a hackney. A lot of interesting points. 🙂

    • Yes, there is much more to consider. I am not an economist and don’t know how one would handle it, but I suspect no simple formula would be sufficient.

  4. Your post was really interesting and it is hard to compare the prices of things from the past to the present because of how different lifestyles were and like you said they did not have a lot of todays conveniences or mass production. Thanks for including the link for the giveaway as well.

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