1856 - Our daily bread: prices and wages

An overview of the US economy between 1843 and 1857 can be found here.
The Dahlonega, Georgia US mint in the 1850s

  • Almost ten times richer today than in 1856

      United Kingdom:
    In 2002, £1 from 1856 is worth:

    6014.35/107.71 = £55.84 using the Consumer Price Index
    29949.54/57.72 = £518.88 using Average Nominal Earnings
    498.0/53.1 = £9.38 using Average Real Earnings

    This crude estmate implies, that average labor is 9.38 times better off in 2002 than 1856, in terms of how much "comparable" consumer goods can be bought with one's work.

      United States:
    In 2005, $1.00 from 1856 is worth:

    $22.90 using the Consumer Price Index
    $17.95 using the GDP deflator
    $166.88 using the unskilled wage

    This crude estmate implies, for example, that unskilled labor is 166.88/22.90 = 7.3 times better off in 2005 than 1856, in terms of how long it takes to earn "comparable" consumer goods.

Occupational trades

circa 1856

The Farm

In 1856, agriculture was important everywhere in the country and dominated the economy of the South. Cotton plantations based on slave labor provided half the dollar value of US exports. Revisit these plantations and their aftermath from the perspective of an online 10-minute film made in 1950, The Plantation System in Southern Life. (Contrast the movie with the depiction of US cotton cultivation during slavery here, including the testimony of runaway Georgia slave John Brown.) Then see what a small Georgia freehold farm looked like 64 years ago (before mechanization and electrification) - often little changed from life in the 19th century - via an online 11-minute film from 1942, Henry Browne, Farmer.


Estimated rural agricultural workforce of Haralson County (per 1860 census)

Lee Craig and Thomas Weiss (1998),
Rural Agricultural Workforce by County, 1800 to 1900, University of Kansas.

Symbol employedNumberStatisticWork rate
UrbanPop 0Population, urban [pop 2500+]
RrlFree 2810Population, rural free (all ages)
RrlSlaves 229Population, rural slave (all ages)
TotPop 3039Total population
RrAgPopM15 249Population, M 10-15 [free]
RrAgPopM16 696Population, M 16+ [free]
RrAgPopF15 221Population, F 10-15 [free]
RrAgPopF16 724Population, F 16+ [free]
RrAgPpMS10 71Population, M 10+ slave
RrAgPpFS10 79Population, F 10+ slave
RrAgLFM15 107Ag workers, M 10-15 [free]43%
RrAgLFM16 507Ag workers, M 16+ [free]72.92%
RrAgLFF15 12Ag workers, F 10-15 [free]05.31%
RrAgLFF16 32Ag workers, F 16+ [free]04.4%
RrAgLFMS10 53Ag workers, M 10+ slave74%
RrAgLFFS10 58Ag workers, F 10+ slave74%

Daguerreotypes from the 1850s follow






More than three - fourths of our population are engaged in the cultivation of the soil. The commercial, manufacturing, and navigating interests are all to a great extent dependent on the agricultural.
- State of the Union Address by President Millard Fillmore (December 2, 1850)

In 1856, the products of [manufactures, mining and the mechanic arts] in Massachusetts had increased to something over $288,000,000, a sum more than twice the value of the entire cotton crop of all the Southern States!
- The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It
by Hinton Rowan Helper, of North Carolina (1857)

[According to Bicentennial Edition: Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970 (US Dept. of Commerce, 1975). the US exported 1,351 million pounds of cotton worth $128 million in 1856.]

  • 1856 postal stamps and rates

  • A generation before 1856
    : US prices (1838 Massachusetts) and US wages (1830s) et alia
    (The inflation-correction engine here asserts that the 1838 dollar had lost only 9% of its power to buy consumer goods by 1856.)

  • Daily wages on the Erie Canal by trade, circa 1856

  • British agricultural wages, including 1856

  • Wages and prices in United States, for many years within 1752-1856
    (Excel spreadsheet, HTML version here)

  • Increasing labor productivity: the Industrial Revolution delivers.

    Tooke and Newmarch, in their book "A History of Prices From 1792 to 1856", publish extracts from a report issued by the City Chamberlain of Glasgow in 1856. This records that in 1856 wages of skilled labor in the building trades (masons, carpenters, and joiners) increased 20 per cent from the level of 1850-1, and wages of unskilled labor 48 per cent in the same period. He attributes this principally to increased production in consequence of improvements in machinery.

    It must also be borne in mind, he adds, that weavers and spinners worked 69 hours per week in 1841 and only 60 hours in 1851-6, and hence received in 1851-6 more money for less labor. He also notes at another point that in 1850: The number of hours per week worked by masons, carpenters and other artisans employed in the building trades was 60 hours, or six days of 10 hours each, with a deduction of 1 hours for meals. Since 1853, the weekly time has been reduced to 57 hours.

  • Eight-hour workday (and striking) emerges:
    Rising prosperity leads workers to favor leisure over pay
    The Stonemasons Society in Sydney [Australia] issued an ultimatum to employers on 18 August 1855, that after six months masons would only work an eight-hour day... Although opposed by employers, a two week strike on the construction of Tooths Brewery on Parramatta Road proved effective, and stonemasons won an eight-hour day by early March 1856, but with a reduction in wages to match.

  • 1856 presidential campaign cartoon: Shall I vote for ten cents a day?
    Buchanan can be seen addressing a working-class gathering. "Gent[leme]n," he harangues them, "if you put me in, why I promise that you shall be on the same plan as the laborers of Europe, Ten Cents a Day."
    John Davis, a Whig U.S. senator 1835-1841 and 1845-1853, was a strong opponent of the administrations of Jackson and Van Buren, and took a conspicuous part in the debates as an advocate of protection for American industry, replying to the free trade arguments of southern statesmen in speeches [that] were considered extremely clear expositions of the protective theories. A declaration in one of his speeches, that James Buchanan was in favor of reducing the wages of American workingmen to ten cents a day, was the origin of the epithet 'Ten Cent Jimmy'... - source

    From their founding in the 1850's, until after the Great Depression, Republicans tended to defend the protectionist sentiments inaugurated by Alexander Hamilton and common among Whigs. Today the large bulk of both Democratic and Republican leaders tend to favor free trade, while minorities in both groups lean more toward protectionism. An extreme modern attack on protectionism and its 19th century acoltyes is available here.

  • A radical new perspective emerges: Marx-Engels 1856 correspondence