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.
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.
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.
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.
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: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B071W5YNMB/
There’s also a giveaway for them on our site, running until June 11th with the winners announced on June12th: http://www.renatamcmann.com/news/giveaway/*
*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!