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Typical wages in 1860 through 1890

Found a great resource that provides a frame of reference for wages in the last half of the 1800s. It is from the National Bureau of Economic Research:

Wages and Earnings in the United States, 1860-1890: Wages by Occupational and Individual Characteristics (update: link was broken; works now; document is downloadable)

(Update:  Each chapter in the book is  downloadable :Wages and Earnings in the United States, 1860-1890

Perhaps there are better resources. I’ll go with this.

In table 39, you can find average daily or hourly wages in five skilled occupations. Count this as skilled tradesmen.  In table 43 you can find the average wages for common labor. Count this as unskilled labor, perhaps equivalent to minimum wage today.

I will go with the Aldrich report data which is hourly wages. It appears the standard is 10 hours a day. I will go six days a week to get weekly income.

Here is the average hourly wage:

  • Occupation 1860,  1870,  1880,  1890
  • blacksmith, 0.178, 0.304, 0.259, 0.271
  • carpenter,    0.182, 0.410, 0.276, 0.322
  • machinist    0.158, 0.260, 0.227, 0.243
  • laborers,      0.098, 0.156, 0.135, 0.151

Here is the average weekly wage for 60 hours a week:

  • Occupation 1860,  1870,  1880,  1890
  • blacksmith, 10.68, 18.24, 15.54, 16.26
  • carpenter,    10.92, 24.60, 16.56, 19.32
  • machinist,     9.48, 15.60, 13.62, 14.58
  • laborers,        5.88,   9.36,   8.10,   9.06

Update:  Check out the comments below. Good discussion.

Update 1-31-15: Found another interesting resource: History of Wages in the United States from Colonial Times to 1928. Written in 1929, updated in 1934, and republished in 1966. It has been preserved by the Google Books project. Copy linked is downloadable.

I’ve just started looking at it. Lots of historical narrative on the labor market. Good descriptions on why interpreting the limited data is difficult. One tiny example: early in US history, laborers were often (usually?) paid by providing room or board or both.  Researchers need to figure out whether monetary wages included or excluded room or board.

Lots of good stuff to read. Will take a while to absorb.

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27 thoughts on “Typical wages in 1860 through 1890

  1. Pingback: Travel cost by stagecoach in 1870s – part two « Outrun Change

  2. Pingback: In terms of hours labor it took to pay for a stamp, what was the cost to send a half-ounce letter cross-country on the Pony Express? Would you believe about half the cost to send yourself across the country now? « Outrun Change

  3. I UNDERSTAND Civil War pensions were about $24.00 a month in 1890 after the veteran had fought for thirty years to get compensation.

  4. Darrell Blobaum on said:

    Do not ignore personal testimony of workers of that era. As I recall, Jack London, famous writer, stated that ca. 1890–age 14– he worked in a pickle factory and other jobs for .10/hr, sometimes working shifts of 24 plus hours, at times making $50/month. 1893 he shoveled coal for $30/month, working horrendous hours, seven days a week, I believe. This may have been typical of many workers, and in Depressions such as 1893, wages were often reduced, perhaps 50%, and often hours were cut drastically.

    • Hello Darrell:

      Thanks for the extra data points. Thanks for the reminder to consider the working conditions. We can easily forget those wage rates were probably all for 10 hour days 6 days a week. Often the work was in horrible conditions. I don’t even want to think what shoveling coal was like in 1890s. When depressions hit, you took what you could find.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.


      • Darrell Blobaum on said:

        Thanks Jim, Jack finally learned that he had replaced 2 workers each making $40 a month–one committed suicide, as he could not support his wife and 4 children. Jack quit in disgust and pain. Both his wrists were sprained, and he wore sprints for a year until they healed. Child labor was widely practiced. Call it criminal! Such conditions and low wages were common among workers and caused them to fight for Unions. Improvement for workers was slow.

  5. Scott Wilson on said:

    I am wondering how accurate those wage rates are, as they seem quite high.
    Maybe those were the rates for some who worked on very large commercial projects, or government projects, but not for most of the available work which is always small private commercial and residential. I am basing my thoughts on 2 things.
    1.) Because of my being a life long builder and also former finish carpenter, so I know how long it takes to do the work. If those labor rates were accurate for the small commercial and residential work, then most buildings and houses would have been cost-prohibitive to construct, especially given the methods of construction, amount of materials used, and the fact that there were no power tools used, etc.
    2.) I have often seen prices quoted (on historical- related websites and other places where I have done research over the years about Victorian architecture), for the total cost of a certain house or building built during that time. Based on my experience in construction, it would have taken much lower wages than the ones in the data you have furnished above, to have been able to construct for the prices quoted.

    Well, those are my thoughts….

    • Hi Scott:

      Thanks for your thoughts. I have no frame of reference other than often reading a soldier in the Union Army made around $11 (or is it $13) a month. That is why this source is so helpful for me.

      Have you ever quantified what you’ve seen for the prices mentioned and the number of guessed hours it would take to build a house? Might be an educational project.

      Thanks for taking the time to share your ideas.


      • $11 to $13 per month is likely closer to what most construction trades were making at that time. That would make more sense based on what I have seen as the cost of many items in magazines and catalogues from that period.
        I also know that materials were more valuable than labor. For instance, pine was often used for interior trim and then was ‘grained’ to look like oak. Graining is very labor intensive to do.
        It would be hard for me to quantify the hours it took to build back then because I have only built with modern materials and methods. But to build as ornate and with the high quality of materials used at that time, it would still take a very long time even with today’s modern tools and equipment.

      • Hi Scott:

        Let’s go with $12 a month. That would be $3 a week. For 6 days at 10 hours a day that would be about $0.05 an hour, or a nickel an hour. In rough order of magnitude, that is somewhere near what this source suggests is hourly rate for laborers.

        I’ve also read that in the 1700s, old unneeded buildings would be burned down in order to salvage the nails.

        Thanks for taking time to comment.


      • Not too long ago I read a book about Hendrick Meijers, founder of Michigan’s wealthiest family in the same business as Walmart. He arrived in United States in about 1903 and he could get jobs at will that paid a $1.50 a day which he indicates was a substantial pay increase from Holland where he immigrated from. He also indicates that a 1.50 a day was considered a lousy wage once you got used to the richer life style America provided.

      • Hi Tom:

        Thanks for the extra data point.


  6. Scott Wilson on said:

    The chart shows a carpenter in 1890 at a little over 32 cents per hour and $19.32 per week. Laborers are shown at just over 15 cents per hour and $9.06 per week, so laborers are shown to make more than 3 times the wage of a soldier.
    Since much of the labor to construct would have been skilled labor (carpenters, etc., not laborers) because of the ornate and elaborate way things were built back then, I think 32 cents per hour for skilled carpenters as shown in the chart, is too high.
    I have been trying to find info on construction wages for that time period but have been unsuccessful so far. I have also been looking for images of building construction during that time period, but I have not found much.

    I have also heard about buildings being burned to save the nails. Nails were very hard to produce with the technology of the mid 1800’s. Technology for mass producing building materials really didn’t get good until the 1870’s. That is what got the Victorian era ornate building styles going and made it affordable for most people.

    • Hi Scott:

      Thanks for your comment. From traffic count I see on my blog, this post is extremely popular. That tells me there is an interest in the topic of what wages were a long time ago. If you find more info, please share!


    • I would love to get some information on the materials cost of a simple home circa 1880s, such as a farmer might build for his family – maybe just two or three rooms or so. (Not the ornate Victorian home.) I present Living History programs, one of which is of Clara Barton. I have one anecdotal data point from her Red Cross work in the Ohio River valley after the floods of 1884. A family (mother and six children) lost their home to the flood, and was surviving in the corn crib with their 3 remaining hogs and a couple dozen chickens. When offered $100 to rebuild a new home the mother cried in disbelief at the gift, assuring that this would be enough to build a good home for her family. How does this match with your understanding?

      • Hi Susan:

        I don’t have any frame of reference for what a modest house might cost to build. The amount in the story ($100) would be about 6 or 7 weeks wages for a skilled laborer and about 12 weeks wages for a laborer, according to the data linked above.

        Anyone else have any ideas it might have cost in the late 1800s to build a modest home?


  7. Darrell Blobaum on said:

    Don’t forget the militancy of some workers and Unions back then. The AF of L was fairly successful in organizing tradesmen in the late 1800’s and at times may have raised the wage scale. Further, if some construction was seasonal, wages may have been raised so that workers could survive during down times, since there was no unemployment insurance. When Henry Ford started paying $5 per day in 1914, this also may have forced wages for tradesmen up.

    Corollary, employers may have used the speed up at times, which would supposedly lessen labor costs. Article in ENGINEERING AND CONTRACTING, March, 1921 cites the # of brick laid per 8 hr day per worker in four similar industrial buildings in the Chicago area:

    1. 1 year ago 400 brick
    2. 10 mos. ” 875
    3. 5 ” ” 950
    4. 90 da ” 1300

    Concluding that 400 brick is not a days work, 1300 is approximately such.

    Industry standard is 400 brick per day in Australia (2010). One chat room indicated a super-bricklayer might lay ca 1000 per day, with a helper of course. Speed up might result in more mistakes, more musculo-skeletal injury/disease, as well as lay-offs due to high production. Employers may have used similar tactics in the 1800’s. Scott, you no doubt will have an opinion on my input.

    • Hi Darrell:

      Did the 1921 article cite any major changes in technology in play at the time?


      • Darrell Blobaum on said:

        No Jim, only enthusiastic cheering from the editor that greater effort from workers will lead to prosperity. Darrell

    • The best way to increase productivity in construction is to pay ‘piece work’ (paying per piece installed). It is the industry standard in most trades. Paying by the hour will put a contractor our of business quick unless they are doing huge commercial or government jobs. Maybe that’s what contractors began to figure out early in the 20th century and were able to increase productivity that way.

      Laying 1000+ bricks per day might have been possible 80+ years ago because buildings back then had walls that were 2 or more courses thick (now they are only one course thick), so only the front course showed and needed to be perfect and would have all the ornate corbling, etc. The back courses didn’t show, so they were laid crudely and would give a brick layer a higher average rate of bricks laid per day. Also, most buildings only had fine brick work on the facade, and the sides and back walls were crudely laid on all courses, so again raising a brick layers rate of bricks laid per day.
      The averages for today’s brick layers is likely more like 500 to 700 per day if the building is not too ornate. That is only laying brick, and does not include the laborers mixing and hauling up the mortar, setting scaffold, stacking the bricks on scaffold, etc.
      The going pay rate here in Texas for residential brick work by an insured brick subcontractor is $325 to $350 per 1000. That’s what I pay my brick crews to do a house. That includes everything except the cost of the bricks, the mortar, and the sand. They provide a complete job, including all tools, scaffolding, final acid cleaning of the brick, and all scraps loaded into dumpster.
      I think if you add in all additional labor needed to complete a typical brick job, the average number of bricks laid per day ‘per man on job’, might actually be around 400 per day.

      Technology had really increased productivity in the building trades over the years, but brick laying is one of the few trades that has not benefited much from it, except for the introduction of the gas powered mortar mixer.

      • Hi Scott:

        I’m an accountant so know practically nothing of the trades. Thanks for taking the time to explain. It now makes sense that technology changes over the last 100 years probably haven’t changed brickwork much.

        I am amazed when I look at old buildings, say from around a hundred years ago. The brick work is so complex it has an amazing beauty. Probably silly of me, but I think the buildings shown in my post Old buildings in downtown Williston, are works of art. Check out the church, the IOOF building, and the armory.


        Seems like that artwork, especially three stories in the air, would really slow down a crew.

        Thanks again for sharing your experience.


  8. Scott Wilson on said:

    Those buildings are a work of art, as are were most things made before the 1930’s.
    Unfortunately most people now days don’t have the work ethic nor the integrity to create such things anymore….

  9. I updated the article. Link wasn’t working. Added the full document and another I found. Good stuff.

  10. Pingback: Laborers in Colonial Times – thekrizclass

  11. Phillip Mendelsohn on said:

    fwiw, W E B Du Bois says that in Summer, 1884, he was hired as timekeeper by contractors “building blue granite mansion in Great Barrington [MA] for the widow of railroad tycoon Mark Hopkins,” and worked on site for a year “at wage of one dollar a day.” W E B Du Bois, Writings, Nathan Huggins, ed., at p. 1283 (1986).

    • Hi Phillip:
      Thanks for the data point.
      At $1 a day for a typical 10 hour day that would be $0.10 per hour. For a six day week, that would be $6 per week. For a 52 week year, that would be $312 per year.

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