Cost of Living, 19th century

Source: adapted from Portable Press.

1840s, Philadelphia.

In the nineteenth century there were few labor laws and even fewer laws to protect consumers from shady business practices. The average work week was 60 hours (10 hours a day, six days a week, with Sundays off). Example salaries

  • Masons earned 22.5 cents an hour ($13.50 a week, or $700 per year)
  • Blacksmiths made 18 cents an hour ($10.80 a week, or $560 per year)
  • Laborers made about 10 cents an hour ($6 a week, or $300 per year)
  • Privates in the Union army earned $11 a week, or $572 per year.
  • Farmhands: 8 cents an hour ($4.80 a week, or $250 per year).
  • Slaves: $0


Seats Roebuck and similar companies revolutionized shopping for lower-income residents.

For most of the century the working class could not afford to buy ready made clothing or even fabric.  In some areas people grew, harvested and beat flax into linen. Quotes on the cost of a yard of fabric vary wildly.


A cord of firewood, still the primary method of heating a home, cost around $7. How much wood is a cord? A lot. It’s 128 cubic feet worth—enough to heat a home for about a month.


TIn 1860 the Henry rifle, the first repeating rifle, was introduced.  It cost $20, but quickly paid for itself with all the free meat it could generate.


A standard fee for seeing the town doctor—not including any medicine or surgeries—was about $2.


In 1863, one-third of the South’s population was still slaves, and only the wealthy could afford to own them. Starting price: $800 minimum. A male field hand in his 20s would run about $1,500, and a skilled laborer, such as a blacksmith, would be about $2,500.


A $2,500 rent on an apartment may be considered reasonable in Brooklyn today, but in 1860 that same amount would buy you a two-bedroom house in Brooklyn. Renting instead? A four-room house in most eastern cities ran about $4.50 per month. Outside of the city, land cost around $3 to $5 an acre.


Then, as now, a lot of a household’s budget went to food. Here are the costs of some dietary staples of the 1860s:

  • Rice: 6 cents a pound
  • Beans: 6 cents for a dry quart
  • Sugar: 8 cents a pound
  • Beef: 9 cents a pound
  • Cheese: 10 cents a pound
  • Bacon: 12 cents a pound
  • Butter: 16 cents a pound
  • Eggs: 20 cents a dozen
  • Potatoes: 40 cents a bushel
  • Coffee: $1.20 a pound (for coffee beans, which you then had to roast and grind yourself)

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