What’s that worth?

1 year ago

As I write this column inflation is at an all-time high, prices soaring skyward, product shortages common, people flinch as they fill their cars and we’re all making nips and tucks to our budgets.  

We’re not alone. Our ancestors rode out hard times, too. Throughout America’s history there have been a series of economic disasters including bank failures, recessions, inflation, and most infamously the Great Depression, where a quarter of the population or more were unemployed. 

In my part of Maine hard times are often the norm. 

Genealogists will inevitably have questions about money as they do their research. In almost every census, for example, you will find an estimated value for family property.  In the 1950 census you’ll learn what your ancestor earned in the prior year.  But how much is that in today’s dollars? When the census reveals the estimated worth of a family farm in 1920 as $800 or the family’s income in 1949 as $4,000, what does that mean in today’s dollars? How do you find out?

If you search online for dollar comparison charts, you’ll be deluged by online investment offers (ignore these) but you can find some reliable sites to aid you. 

According to one online source, a 1920 farm valued at $800 would be worth $11,801 today. With today’s high real estate prices, this hardly means the farm was a mansion. But you need to take this kind of quote with a large grain of salt. What a house or land sells for is almost always higher than tax estimates or what a straight dollar comparison chart makes it out to be.   A dollar spent at the grocery store is not a dollar spent on land. When you see numbers like this in terms of property value, take into account what a real estate agent would be able to sell a home for today.  It would surely be far above the dollar value quoted.

And how about income? The same site tells us that a family earning $4,000 in 1949, as reported in the 1950 census, would be earning $46,274 in 2022. That’s not a huge amount for a family today.  But we also have to take into account where the family lived in 1950 and what the item costs were, as well as the standard of living a family expected.  It’s safe to say that today’s families want more than their ancestors did and expect a higher standard of living. Also, if your ancestors lived on a farm you can bet they raised most of their own food. Many farms, even in 1950, had no utility bills to deal with, either.  

Explore online for useful conversion tables that will aid you as you try to discover an ancestor’s earning levels or the value of family-owned land. And, if you’ve been told that “dollars went further years ago” it isn’t necessarily true. Money is worth more, but costs are higher, too. That’s inflation at work.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com.