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Colonial Economics – More or Less
by Karl Schultheiss

When I fell into Living History during the American Bicentennial of 1976, I was tall, trim and 30 years old, so I adopted the persona of a continental soldier, turned veteran, turned long hunter. I envisioned myself scouting the Ohio Valley with men like Boone, Butler, Hamar and Kenton, doing battle with the Shawnee and Miami Indians. Now in my sixties, I’m long belt instead of long hunter, and clearly need a new and more appropriate persona. So what shall I be: trader, merchant, craftsman, or shady land-speculator?

I realized that all of these required a knowledge of colonial economics which I didn’t possess, so I began a research project to enlighten myself. I soon discovered that I could write a book about the difficulties of finding accurate information about colonial prices and wages. Although hundreds of articles have been written in which prices or wages are mentioned, the only thing they have in common is that they have nothing in common!

One learned researcher stated that a Philadelphia laborer in 1774 earned “X” number of pounds a year, while another puts the figure four times higher. Another historian puts the price of a pig in Massachusetts at twice the price of a pig in New York, while another puts the New York pig at three times the value of a Massachusetts pig!

There are many reasons for the lack of accurate information; most Americans were illiterate and kept no written records, each colony produced its own money which differed in value, there was no banking system, and the Revolutionary War produced inflation of twelve thousand percent!

Theoretically we were under the British monetary system:
2 Farthings = a Haypenny (1/2 pence or 1/2d.)*
4 Farthings = a Penny or Pence (d.)*
12 Pence = a Shilling (s)
5 shillings = A Crown
20 shillings = a Pound Sterling (L ) “Sterling” means “British”
21 Shillings = a Guinea (a gold coin)
*The symbol for a penny or pence is a “d.” – it has something to do with Latin.

It was illegal for gold or silver coins to leave England, so our trade was conducted with letters of credit. Since almost no British money was coming to America the colonies were forced to mint their own coins, and there was always a shortage of hard money. Since we had no silver deposits we could only mint low value copper coins.

For silver coinage we depended on the Spanish dollar (piece of eight) received from trade with the Spanish Colonies in the Caribbean and Florida. The Spanish silver dollar had a value of 8 reales in the Spanish monetary system, hence its nickname.

Since the colonies grew at different rates, so did the value of their coinage, which defeated efforts to establish a fixed rate of exchange that lasted for very long.

Shortly before the revolution, the Spanish dollar had a value of 4˝ shillings sterling, 5 shillings Virginia money, 6 shillings Massachusetts money, and 8 shillings New York money, just a small example.

With a coin shortage and no banks, merchants often cut silver coins into pieces in order to make change. One quarter of a Spanish dollar is worth 2 reales or “two bits”. The use of cut money continued into the 1800’s.

What follows is my best guess on wages and prices, which I came up with by focusing on the 1765-1775 period in the area of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York. I discarded the highest and lowest conflicting figures that I found, and tried to average out the remainder.

A price or wage of 2 pounds, 6 shillings and 4 pence would be written: L 2, 6s, 4d.

WAGES

PER DAY

PER YEAR

Royal Governor

 

L  3000

Judge

 

L  300

Small Farmer (Yeoman)

 

L  30

Country School Teacher

 

L  20-40

Indentured Tailor or Shoemaker

 

L  12

Tailor

4s.

L  62

Shoemaker

3s, 5d.

L  53

Carpenter

3s.

L  46

Bricklayer

3s.

L  46

Craftsman

2s, 5d.

L  38

Seaman

1s, 8d.

L  30

Merchant’s Clerk

3s, 9d.

L  58

British Soldier

8d.

L  12, 3s.

Minister with house

2s, 6d.

L  45

Storekeeper – with room and meals

1s, 6d.

L  25

Maid – with room and meals

6d.

L 7, 15s.

Laborer – with room and meals

9d.

L 11, 12s.

Laborer – October  to March

Laborer – April to September

1s, 6d.

2s, 3d.

L  29

Woman sewing at home

9d.

L 11, 12s.

Woman spinning at home

5˝d. per skein

 

Woman weaving at home

5d. per yard

 

 

 

Seventy-five percent (75%) of the population worked in agriculture. With the end of the “Little Ice Age” around 1700 A.D. the North American climate was warming, and agriculture was booming. The unemployment rate was zero for people who wanted work and were able to do so.

It appears that the average American was knocking down about 2 shillings (24 pence) a day, which provided a good income by European standards.

Note that while the Royal Governor had a huge income, he was expected to maintain a luxurious house, entertain lavishly, and dress his family in the height of fashion. Note also, that while the small farmer appears to be little better off than a laborer; he was all ready self-sufficient in food and housing.

Most people worked from dawn to dusk 6 days a week. I show a winter and summer rate for laborers in order to keep it simple. Most Colonies appear to have divided the year into 6 segments of 2 months each, with a different pay scale for each segment based on the hours of daylight.

PRICES

We live in an age of inexpensive consumer goods, mass-produced on high-speed machinery. It’s easy to forget that in an era where products were hand-crafted one at a time, their cost was astronomical by modern standards and people got by with only a minute fraction of the possessions that we enjoy today.

FOOD AND LODGING

A small house cost about L 35, so the majority of commoners would have rented lodgings at 16 to 20 shillings per month. A well-to-do merchant or lawyer might pay up to 3 pounds a month for better accommodations.

Food cost per pound would have been approximately: Butter 4d., flour 2d., cornmeal 1d., rice 2d., beef 8d., pork 6d., sugar 6˝ d. and codfish 3d.

The cost of feeding an adult would have been 9d. per day or 4s. per week. That’s L 10 per year.

A young Englishman who arrived in Boston in early 1775 made the following notes in his journal of how much he paid at a tavern his first day in America: bed 7˝ d., breakfast 7˝d., lunch of bread and cheese 1˝d., supper of bread and roast beef 5d., and ˝d. for each pint of ale.

I would like to know if he had to share the bed, and what his breakfast consisted of since it was his most expensive meal. Alas, he did not say.

SELECTED RETAIL PRICES

 

Gentleman’s wig

L 1, 14s, 6d.

 

Pound of lead

6d.

Unlined Penniston coat

14s.

 

Blanket

13s.

Better coat

L 1, 16s.

 

Flannel cloth

1s. per yard

Waistcoat

L 1, 2s.

 

Small knife

6d.

Breeches

18s.

 

Grubbing hoe

5s, 6d.

Stockings

5s.

 

Axe

3s.

Men’s shirt

12s.

 

Razor

9d.

Rough shoes

11s.

 

Mirror

3s.

Musket

L 3

 

Tobacco

2d. per pound

Trade gun

L 2

 

Whale oil

2s, 4d. per gallon

Pound of gun powder

3s.

 

Coal

2s. per bushel

Ship’s passage back to England was

L 12, 10s.

 

 

 

A single man would have spent about L 3 a year on clothing. Married men would naturally have had their clothing made by the goodwife. With a yard of cloth costing a half-day’s wages, the purchase of cloth, thread, needles, pins, etc. would have been a significant economic decision.

Today’s low paid worker ($8.00 per hour) can go to Wal-Mart and completely outfit himself with shoes, jeans, work shirt, package of socks, underwear, T-shirts and a light jacket for $90.00. That’s 1-1/2 day’s wages. In Colonial America it would have taken 40 day’s wages to be properly attired. Researchers seem to agree that most people would have had 3 changes of clothing; a good “Sunday go to Meeting” set and two sets of work clothes. These would have been patched and repaired for as long as possible.

CONTINUE TO PART II

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