A guest post from Marie Concannon. Head, Government Information and Data Archives Research & Information Services Division, University of Missouri Library 

Most people are deeply interested in economics, whether or not they are aware of it. Our librarians see this every day in the questions posed by visitors to our library and our website, Prices and Wages by Decade. And FRASER is a part of the answer to many of their questions. Our service points information seekers to prices for common items and to average wages by occupation in historic documents found in the FRASER and HathiTrust digital libraries. Our site draws nearly a million visitors each year who are searching the web for answers to questions like these:

  • What was a good wage in 1970?
  • How much was a bike in 1919?
  • How much did a house cost in 1860?
  • What was an average day’s pay in the late 1700s?

Those who come to find just a price or a wage will quickly see that the exchange of money has meaning only within its historical context. For instance, knowing the price of a loaf of bread is a relatively simple thing; knowing how long it took to earn that money and under what conditions is just as important. 

Some begin their search by seeking wage rates at a certain point in history, perhaps to compare with today’s wages. Once they dive into FRASER’s tables however, they may find details they hadn’t considered, such as a longer work week (in some settings, laborers worked 60 or more hours per week). Or the researcher might discover that early jobs provided living quarters and/or meals that did not have to be paid out of wage earnings. Today’s compensation packages are less likely to include rent and groceries, but they may offer other items of value such as medical insurance, vacation pay or pension plans. FRASER provides context for the wage data and helps researchers better understand a worker’s experience.

Other visitors to our site begin by looking for the price of a common item in certain years. We frequently see questions about the cost of housing, and it is indeed important when studying the history of family finances. Yet the way we live today has fundamentally changed since the founding of our country. A colonial dwelling having little more than four walls and a roof can hardly be compared to the “smart” homes we live in today, and building costs would certainly reflect that. Economists know that items selected for pricing must be precisely defined so that similar items are being compared across time. We remind visitors how important this is by pointing to lists of specifications, such as this one from the 1950s

Whether researchers start with prices or wages, the context provided by FRASER generates a genuine appreciation for economic tools such as price indexes and inflation calculators, market baskets, and time series data showing actual consumer expenditures. When they are ready to read about how such tools and methods are derived, they will find it in FRASER as well. Some interesting titles include Average Retail Prices: Collection and Calculation Techniques and Problems and History of Wages in the United States from Colonial Times to 1928.

The first government agencies to collect and publish wage information rarely went into detail about the social setting that gave such figures context. Fortunately, the FRASER digital library includes reading material that reveals the legal and social backdrop to economic data. FRASER’s Women’s Bureau series are especially rich in this regard. 

We invite you to explore Prices and Wages by Decade; we are confident that you will stumble upon (rather than stumble over) the fascinating, multi-dimensional changes in consumer economics over time. 

© 2020, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect official positions of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis or the Federal Reserve System.

Category: Librarian Life
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