A frequent question is "how much would a specified amount of money at a certain period of time be worth today?" The sources listed below are useful in attempting to answer this question.
Comparisons of purchasing power are only reliable over short periods. A typical computer today is a very different machine from its counterpart of 5 years ago. Indices of inflation fail to take proper account of improvements in quality.
Even in the essentials of life there are significant changes over the years. A typical diet in most advanced countries will be rather different today from what it would have been before the refrigerator became a common household item.
Furthermore it has been argued that anthropometric measures of well-being, e.g. people's height, are a far better measure of a nation's standard of living than such conventional indicators as gross national product or per capita income.
Therefore over long time spans, changes in prices give only the very roughest and most approximate idea of changes in the value of money.
An EH.Net service providing calculators for the purchasing power of the US dollar and the British pound sterling, US and British inflation rates, US commercial paper rates. It also gives information about exchange rates, earnings and prices in Britain and the US, and the price of gold back to 1257.
A website created by Lawrence H. Officer, Professor of Economics at University of Illinois at Chicago and Samuel H. Williamson, Professor of Economics, Emeritus, from Miami University. The site has a number of calculators using different methods for measuring worth, but also contains descriptive material expounding the pros and cons of these methods using examples ranging from the cost of Big Ben to the cost of putting a man on the moon.
An article with graphs showing the relationship between the increase in quantity of currency and the decline in purchasing power of the US Dollar, the British Pound, the Canadian Dollar, the Australian Dollar, the Japanese Yen, and the Swiss Franc for the same period (1971-2008).
The US National Bureau of Economic Research maintains this database that includes some datasets for the United Kingdom, France and Germany, although the main focus is on the United States. Interest rates and prices are among the topics covered.
This article has a number of graphs displaying historic data, including Venetian prices 1300-1500, European interest rates for the period 1200-1800, US stockmarket returns from 1790 onwards, UK short and long-term interest rates 1800-1900, and British consol and US bond rates for 1900-2000.
A list of prices of various items in Southampton in 1625, and also a list of prices of common items for would-be emigrants to New England. The source of the data is the book Coming Over by David Cressy, Cambridge University Press, 1987.
An analysis of 55 series of prices by Joshua S. Goldstein who is an advocate of "long wave theory", i.e. that there are discernable, fairly regular, cyclical patterns in economic phenomena. It is chapter 9 of his book, Long Cycles: Prosperity and War in the Modern Age. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.
This web page actually features two calculators. One is for comparing the value of British money in every decade from 1270 onwards. The other provides information about the purchasing power of money in terms of the amount of wool or wheat or the number of days of a craftsman labour that be bought for any particular sum of money.
EH.Net calculator for comparing the purchasing power of money in Great Britain from 1264 to any other year up to the 21st century. It is one of a number of calculators for comparing wages, prices and relative values at the website How Much is that?
The Office for National Statistics developed this web-based tool that allows users to calculate an inflation rate based on their personal expenditure patterns, rather than the averages used in published statistics.
An article by I C McManus, professor of psychology and medical education Department of Psychology, University College London, published in BMJ 2005;331:1520-1523 (24 December). The objective was to assess changes in the wealth of distinguished doctors in the United Kingdom between 1860 and 2001 and the author concluded that a substantial decline had taken place.
This is part of the economics section of the Victorian Web a huge website about literature, history and culture in the age of Victoria maintained by Professor George P. Landow and colleagues of his at Brown University in the United States.
In Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility Mrs John Dashwood argued that her in-laws family would not know how to spend half their money if they had £500 a year. This article gives information about prices at that time.
An article by Richard Colyer, National Library of Wales journal. 1974, Summer. Volume XVIII/3. It contains quite a lot of information about the expenses incurred by cattle drovers, e.g. tolls at gates on their routes, and expenditure on accommodation and beer!
Instances of wife Selling occurred in Britain until late in the 19th century. It was regarded, particularly by the poorer sections of society, as an alternative to divorce. This account of various cases includes prices. The most famous account of wife selling is in Thomas Hardy's novel the Mayor of Casterbridge. It was based on real cases of wife selling reported in the press.
A list of prices of some common items. They were normally more expensive in the "Tommy shops" as company shops were called. The table is about a third of the way down the page. Search for the Truck system and Tommy Shops.
Adam Smith. (1723-1790). Wealth of Nations
The most influential book on economics ever written. Book I, Chapter X, Of Wages and Profit in the Different Employments of Labour and Stock includes details of wages in typical occupations in Smith's time, and also in Ancient Greece. Book I, Chapter XI Of the Rent of Land has information about prices and is accompanied by a set of tables of data.
Chronicon Preciosum or, an Account of English Gold and Silver Money; The Price of Corn and other Commodities; and of Stipends, Salaries, Wages, Jointures, Portions, Day-labour, &c. in England, for Six hundred Years last past: &c.... London: Printed for T. Osborne, in Gray's-Inn. 1745.
This work, originally published anonymously, was written by William Fleetwood, the Bishop of Ely. Chronicon Preciosum was one of the earliest works on changes in prices and its data was used by many later writers on the same subject. A facsimile copy is available online but it requires the DjVu Browser Plug-in which can be downloaded from Lizardtech.
This paper by Professor John H. Munro, University of Toronto, ends with a set of tables showing the purchasing power of a London craftsman's wages in 1438 - 1439. The tables cover a wide range of commodities, not just spices.
This calculator, provided by the Bank of Canada, uses monthly consumer price index (CPI) data from 1914 to the present to show changes in the cost of a fixed "basket" of consumer purchases. These include food, shelter, furniture, clothing, transportation, and recreation.
The value of money in Nouvelle France (New France, the French Colony in Canada) in the 17th and 18th centuries. Prices of everyday goods and typical salaries are given. By way of comparison some figures for France and Britain are also included.
Performs calculations for any period between 1800 and the present. The pre-1975 data are the Consumer Price Index statistics from Historical Statistics of the United States (USGPO, 1975). All data since then are from the annual Statistical Abstracts of the United States.
This site, maintained by by Robert Sahr at Oregon State University, not only provides data on the dollar's value over three centuries but also has data on many other related topics, e.g. prices of commodities such as gold, gasoline and movie tickets, government expenditure, the pay of presidents and members of congress, and much else besides.
A survey of retail prices advertised in the Daily Record newspaper from 1900 up to the present. A wide range of common goods and services is covered, e.g. automobiles, clothing, food and beverages, furniture, household goods, newspapers, personal care and health, real estate and recreation as well as items from more specialized categories, e.g. garden equipment, professional services etc.
The Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives contain a wealth of information on emigration and immigration in the age of the passenger steamship. In addition to this section of tickets other information about fares can be found by using the website's search engine to search for "fares".
This page is part of a large website devoted to Norwegian emigration to America but since some Norwegians travelled via Britain or Germany it contains information about the costs of travel via those routes too.
A calculator giving exchanges rates between the US dollar and a wide range of other currencies, going back to just before World War I for many of the European countries, and all the way back to 1791 in the case of the British pound.
This old version of the Wikipedia article on the Rupee contains a table giving the exchange rate of the Rupee in British pence. At that time there were 12 pence or pennies to a shilling and 20 shillings to a pound. The source of the information is the book by B.E. Dadachanji. History of Indian Currency and Exchange, 3rd enlarged ed. (Bombay: D.B. Taraporevala Sons & Co, 1934), p. 15.
A Wikipedia article about the talent as a unit of measurement. It includes information about the value of a talent of gold or silver from the time of the Ancient Greeks up to the medieval Byzantine period.
This web page, maintained by Thayer Watkins of San José State University Economics Department, includes a table of showing the cumulative import of treasure, from Mexico and Peru after the conquest of the empires of the Aztecs and Incas, and the corresponding price level at 5 year intervals. The source of the data is:
Earl J. Hamilton, American Treasure and the Price Revolution in Spain, 1501-1650, Harvard University Press 1934.
A list of (mainly) printed sources in one of London's major business libraries.
Pick, Franz and Sédillot, René
All the monies of the world : a chronicle of currency values. 2nd ed. New York, Pick Pub. Corp., 1971.
Raw data, such as prices of gold and silver, to compare values of all imaginable countries for all imaginable eras.
The purchasing power of money : its determination and relation to credit interest and crises / by Irving Fisher ; assisted by Harry G. Brown. rev.ed. New York, N.Y. : A.M. Kelley, 1985. - xxiv,515p. : Reprint. Originally published: New York : Macmillan, 1931.
This book, the first edition of which was published in 1911, is a detailed treatment of the problems of determining purchasing power and its historical changes.
A guide to inflation and the value of everyday objects.
McCusker, John J.
How much is that in real money? : a historical price index for use as a deflator of money values in the economy of the United States. 2nd ed. Worcester : American Antiquarian Society, 2001. ISBN 1-929545-01-0.
This edition not only has information for the United States going back to 1665 but also has comparable tables for Great Britain going back to 1600.
Cooper, James C. and Borden, Karl
Public representation of historical prices.
Essays in economic and business history 14 1996, p. 465-485
Cooper and Borden compiled three indexes for the years 1774-1994 (U.S. only):
Consumer Price Index
Index of Money Wage Rates (Unskilled labor)
Labor Cost of Living Index.
They compiled the data from Paul David and Peter Solar, "A Bicentenary Contribution to the History of the Cost of Living in America," Research in Economic History 2 (1977). The 1975-94 data came from the Federal Reserve Bulletin and Handbook of Labor Statistics.
Retail prices index. London: The Stationary Office. (Business monitor MM23).
Recent issues of this monthly publication have a table showing the internal purchasing power of the pound from 1980 onwards and a longer-term indicator of the prices of consumer goods and services from 1914 onwards. Unfortunately there is a gap for the years 1939-1945 which is surprising as data for those years has long been available in other publications, including British Labour Statistics
Great Britain. Department of Employment
British labour statistics : historical abstract, 1886-1968. London : H.M.S.O., 1971. ISBN 0-11-360802-0
This includes data on the cost of living for the period 1886-1968.
Back to an age of falling prices?
The Economist vol. 252, 13 July 1974, p 62-63.
Data on prices changes over the period from just after the death of Cromwell until the mid 1970s are included.
Chronicon Preciosum London: Printed for T. Osborne, in Gray's-Inn. 1745. [Facsimile reprint 1969 by Augustus Kelley].
This work was used by many later writers on the changes in the value of money. A facsimile copy can be read online if you have the DjVu Browser Plug-in. See the note in the section on online sources above.
Mitchell, Brian Redman
British historical statistics. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1988. - 886p ; 23cm. Includes index. - 0-521-33008-4
Provides exchange rates for the British Pound Sterling, the French Franc, various German currencies and the US dollar going back several centuries.
Newman, Oksana and Foster, Allan (editors)
The value of a pound : prices and incomes in Britain, 1900-93 Andover : Gale Research International, 1995. 306p ISBN 1-873477-31-7
Officer, Lawrence H.
Dollar-Sterling mint parity and exchange rates, 1791-1834 Journal of Economic History vol. 43 no. 3, 1983, p.579-616.
Perkins, Edwin J.
Foreign interest rates in American financial markets: a revised series of Dollar-Sterling exchange rates, 1835-1900. Journal of Economic History vol. 38, no.2, 1978, p. 392-417.
Mitchell, Brian Redman
European historical statistics, 1750-1975. - 2nd rev. ed. London : Macmillan, 1980. - 868p. 0-333-29215-4
Contains information on indicies of wholesale prices and cost of living.
United States. Bureau of the Census
Historical statistics of the United States, colonial times to 1970. Washington : US Government Printing Office, 1975. - 2 v. - LC75-038832
Beveridge, William Henry
Prices and wages in England : from the twelfth to the nineteenth century. - vol. 1: Price tables: mercantile era. London : Cass, 1965. - 756p. 1st ed.originally published,Longmans,1939.
Gibson, Alex J.S. and Smout, T.C.
Prices, food, and wages in Scotland, 1550-1780 Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1995.
The death of inflation: surviving and thriving in the zero era London: Nicholas Brealey, 1996. 244p ISBN 1-857881-45-1
This has some data on UK prices spanning the period 1264-1995.
Morgan, E. Victor
The study of prices and the value of money. London : George Philip for the Historical Association, 1950. - 27p. - (Helps for students of history series/Historical Association ; 53). -
This little pamphlet has details of prices of a few commodities going back, in the case of wheat, to 1260.
Brown, H. Phelps and Hopkins, Sheila V.
A perspective of wages and prices. London: Methuen, 1981.
The book contains data on British wages and prices going back (for southern England) to the 13th century.
Brown, H. Phelps and Hopkins, Sheila V.
Seven centuries of the prices of consumables, compared with builders' wage-rates. Economica vol. 23, no. 92, November 1956, p. 296-314.
This paper compares the wages of builders in England with prices over the period 1260-1954. It is reproduced in the above-mentioned book by the same authors.
Braudel, Fernand P. and Spooner, Frank
Prices in Europe from 1450 to 1750, in The Cambridge Economic History of Europe Vol.4: The economy of expanding Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries / edited by E.E. Rich and C.H. Wilson. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1967, pages 378-486.
The last 29 pages of this chapter contain many graphs showing variations in the prices of several commodities over a long periods.
Tooke, Thomas and Newmarch, William
A history of prices, and of the state of the circulation, from 1793 to 1837 : preceded by a brief sketch of the state of corn trade in the last two centuries / London, Printed for Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1838-57. (6 volumes).
Stanley Jevons described this as a "unique work, of which we can hardly over-estimate the importance", quoted by Gregory (below).
An introduction to Tooke and Newmarch's A history of prices and of the state of the circulation from 1792 to 1856. London : London School of Economics and Political Science, 1962. - (Series of reprints of scarce works on political economy ; no. 16) Reprint of edition first published 1928 by P.S. King, London.
A history of the cost of living. Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1969. ISBN 0-14-021020-2
The book deals with Britain from the middle ages, onwards. Burnett said his work addressed "questions which the lay public has the right to ask the historian, and the historian a duty to try to answer".
Inquiry into the history of prices in Holland. Leiden : Brill, 1946. Vol.1 Wholesale prices at the Exchange of Amsterdam 1585-1914; Rates of exchange at Amsterdam 1609-1914.
Hamilton, Earl J.
Money, prices, and wages in Valencia, Aragon, and Navarre, 1351-1500 / by Earl J. Hamilton. Philadelphia : Porcupine Press, 1975. - xxviii,310p. - (Perspectives in European history ; 6) Reprint of the ed. published, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936, which was issued as no.51 of Harvard economic studies
Hamilton, Earl J.
War and prices in Spain 1651-1800. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1947.
An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations / by Adam Smith ; edited by Edwin Cannan ; with a new preface by George J. Stigler. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1976. 2 vol. Reprint of the 1904 ed. published by Methuen & Co., London. ISBN 0-226-76374-9
Chapter XI has an extensive discussion of variations in prices of various commodities, especially corn, over long time spans. At the end of the chapter there are statistics of corn prices from 1202 - 1750, a span of nearly five and a half centuries! The complete text is available online.
Keynes, John Maynard
A treatise on money. London : Macmillan, 1930.
Vol. 1 chapter 4 The purchasing power of money p. 53-64 and chapter 5 the plurality of secondary price-levels have a lot on index numbers.
Africa counts : number and pattern in African culture Westport, Conn. : Lawrence Hill, 1979.
The book has several pages about the use of cowrie shells as currency, including some information, on page 226, about typical values in terms of Sterling. In the 1860s these were:
40 cowries = one string = 3/4d.
5 strings = one bunch = 3-6d.
10 bunches = one head = 13/4 shillings.
10 heads = one bag = 14-18s.
Later, because of inflation, these values changed drastically.
"Two obols were the day's pay of a labourer, while the architect of the Erechtheum temple on the Acropolis earned about three times as much, a drachma a day. As a rough but useful guide as to the value of such coins, the average day's pay for a manual worker in Great Britain in 1982 was over £27, while a first-rate consultant architect (not necessarily of the quality of those that built the Parthenon) would expect to earn at least £200 a day, worth in today's inflated currency some 25,000 drachmae."
Keynes, in volume 2, pages 156-158 of his Treatise on money (cited above) discussed the historical importance of Drake's booty. Although illustrating the power of compound interest this example may also be of interest to those concerned with changes in the value of money.
"the booty brought back by Drake in the Golden Hind may fairly be considered the fountain and origin of British Foreign Investment. ... In view of this, the following calculation may amuse the curious. At the present time (in round figures) our foreign investments probably yield us about 6½ per cent net after allowing for losses, of which we reinvest abroad about half - say 3¼ per cent. If this is, on average, a fair sample of what has been going on since 1580, the £ 42,000 invested by Elizabeth out of Drake's booty in 1580 would have accumulated by 1930 to approximately the actual aggregate of our present foreign investments, namely £ 4,200,000,000 - or say 100,000 times greater than the original investment. ..."
"Returning to the last quarter of the sixteenth century in England, the reader must remember that it was not the absolute value of the bullion brought into the country - perhaps not more than £ 2,000,000 or £ 3,000,000 from first to last - which mattered, but the increment of the country's wealth in buildings and improvements being probably several times the above figures. Nor must we overlook the other side of the picture, namely the hardship to the agricultural population, which became a serious problem in the later years of Elizabeth, due to prices outstripping wages; for it was out of this reduced standard of life, as well as out of increased economic activity (tempered by periodic years of crisis and unemployment), that the accumulation of capital was partly derived."
The people whose names are listed below suggested sources or made useful comments on the problem of comparing sums of money over long time periods. I apologise if I have omitted anyone.
Jonathan Bean, Mason Clark, Glyn Davies, Ron Haller-Williams, Anthony Hoelscher, William F. Hummel, David Lloyd Jones, John Lehman, Helen Liebel-Weckowicz, Darren Lubotsky, Paul Marks, Wade Neitzel, Geno Pinero, John A. Lane, Jane Howells, Cal Schindel, Bill Goffe and Stuart Taylor.