Monday, July 11, 2011

How much did a person make in 1880?

I was trying to scrounge up enough money to buy my mother a music box for her birthday. (Price of Truth) It cost $11.95. Maybe you think that's pretty cheap for a fancy music box, but not if you don't make much money. Here are some jobs in 1880 and how much the person got paid (by the month):

~ train engineer: $100
~ carpenter: $37
~ teacher: $40
~ house servant: $8
~ ranch foreman: $115
~ sales girl: $12
~ ranch hand: $30 (+ housing & food)
~ factory worker: $35
~ child factory worker: $8
~ laundress (washer woman): $12
~ soldier: $13
~ streetcar driver: $43

So, basically, you would have to wash clothes (be a laundress) for a whole MONTH before you could afford to buy one little music box. In 2011, that would be like the music box costing $800 (if you made $2,000 a month)

Are you ready to try a little math?
How did the average wage-earner feed, clothe, and house his family? The rent for a small dwelling was about $4.50 a month. In addition, it cost about $5 a month to clothe and feed each member of the family. Below are a few families and their wages. Use the list above to figure out the family’s wages and how much they spend on the cost of living. Will each family make it through the month, or will they need to borrow money from relatives or friends?

A) John is a carpenter; Sally stays home to care for their 4 children.

B) José  is a ranch hand; Nila works as a house servant. They have 2 kids.

C) Tom is a train engineer; Mary washes rich folks’ clothes (laundress). They have 5 children. 

D) Paul and Judy are both factory workers; they have six children. Three kids work in the factory, while one stays home to care for the younger children.  

E) Sam is a soldier; Jane does the laundry for the fort. They have 3 children.

Answers:  (Did you try to figure it out before looking at the answers?)
 A) This family has $2.50 left at the end of the month. Not much for “extras.” What if the baby gets sick and they need a doctor?
B) This family has $18.00 to spare. They can afford a little extra at times. 
C) This family is very well off, having an extra $72.50 at the end of the month. If someone gets sick, they can afford to call the doctor.
D) This family is also doing “OK,” with $49.50 left over after living expenses. Maybe a new dress for one of the children is in order.
E) This family is coming up short by -$4.50. Maybe Jane can pick up some extra laundry


  1. This was interesting! They didn't get paid much. But I supposed food was much cheaper then. I got all the questions right. ;) Except I said Jane could move to the fort & then her family could have free lodging and Jane could work more.

  2. Hi!!! I just came across your blog. I read your "My Family" page and just discovered... we both have the same middle name!!! How cool is that?!?

    So excited to read more of your blog
    Kianna Rose

  3. This is nice data that's hard to find elsewhere. Although these salaries seem low, in 1880 a US $20 Gold piece weighed just about 1 troy oz. A teacher's monthly salary was therefore 2 1oz. gold pieces. In today's dollars that's ~$3500/month or about $42,000/year. This isn't too far off of current salaries. The interesting thing is how much more teachers were valued in comparison to other professions/trades.


Let Andi know what you think!