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.

58 thoughts on “Typical wages in 1860 through 1890”

  1. 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.

    1. 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.


      1. 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.

  2. 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….

    1. 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.


      1. $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.

      2. 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.


      3. 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.

  3. 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.

    1. 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!


    2. 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?

      1. 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?


    3. It is not unusual for military personnel to receive relatively low wages, especially when they are drafted.

      For example, in 1970 a person conscripted into the US army for the Vietnam War received $124.50 per month as an E1. Meanwhile, in the lowest paid sector of the US economy, agriculture, the average monthly US salary was $358/month. In other sectors of the economy, it could be more than twice that.

      Admittedly, I am comparing average salaries in the private sector with starting salaries for the army.

      However, the federal minimum wage for non-agricultural workers in 1970 was $1.45, which works out to about $240/month at 40 hours/week, or almost twice the minimum soldier salary.

      Of course the draftees had additional benefits, free food, occasional 24 hour work days, and funeral benefits.

      Some soldiers from economically depressed and low-cost parts of the US where agriculture was the norm actually could consider an army gig as economic promotion from their previous possibilities.

  4. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.


  5. 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….

  6. 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).

    1. 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.

      1. The historical era had its version of “crack whores,” who were unemployable alcoholics with bad hygiene and could be had in an alley for the price of a drink of hard liquor. Let’s put it this way: men desperate for booze could dress the part convincingly. (TMI: The alley intercourse wasn’t actually fully penetrative.) But your run-of-the-mill streetwalker with an upstairs room somewhere made between 2 and 4 times as much as she would at a factory. High class courtesans were paid more in jewels, housing, clothes, etc

      2. Hi MimiR:
        Thanks for the additional info. Most useful tidbit there is the relative compensation, specifically that a streetwalker could earn 2 or 4 times a much as someone working in a factory.
        For further education of the person asking the question, anyone else so interested, can you point to any sources for further info?

  7. I finished reading the posts and thinking about the comments about workers conditions, I can’t forget Upton Sinclair 1906 “The Jungle”. For anyone villifying workers unions today, we must read the Homestead strike of 1892 and the abuse of Carnegie and Frick with the support of Pinkerton detectives as strike breakers. Tragic!

  8. On Victorian slum house they said their rent was 8 pounds a wèek. This doesn’t sound right for the 1870’s. According to accounts people (laborers) were paid 9 pence a wèek. What was the real story?

    1. 8 pounds a month is a correct figure for rent in the city, or 4-6 for a 2-4 room country cottage. 8-12 SHILLINGS per week would be a poor laborer’s pay.

      1. Hi MimiR:
        Background for those who don’t understand the pound system (like me):
        1 pound is 20 shillings
        1 shilling is 12 pence
        Thus 1 pound is 240 pence
        Per Shilling article at Wikipedia
        8-12 Schillings per week is 32-48 schillings per month, or
        Poor laborer would earn between 1.6 pounds and 2.4 pounds per month and could in no way be able to afford rent in the city at 8 pounds a month
        Thanks for your comment.

  9. I was watching “Northanger Abbey” in one scene it mentioned 400 pounds a year for inheritance for a young couple getting married, is that good salary in the year of the early 1800’s ?

      1. I should think that would be a very nice sum to live on. Here is a reference point from the book “The Godwins and the Shelleys.” This book gives the family histories of Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein) and husband Percy Bysshe Shelley. It states that in 1793 (almost 1800), “For those too young to remember the old money, there were twelve pence in a shilling, twenty shillings in a pound. A guinea was twenty-one shillings. The average weekly wage was about ten shillings.” That translates to 520 shillings a year (with zero time off), or 26 pounds a year, as an annual wage. So to have an income of 400 pounds a year, one would be able to have servants.

      2. Hi Susan:
        Thanks so much for that data point.
        A bit more analysis (I’m an accountant after all):
        26 pounds – annual wage (10 hour days, 6 day workweeks) for average income earner
        400 pounds – inheritance data point
        15.4 years – inheritance in terms of years pay for average worker
        A one-time inheritance of 400 pounds, or over 15 years average pay, would be quite nice.
        That much every year would be really nice.
        Thanks Susan!

      3. Ah, the original query used the words “400 pounds a year for inheritance.” The words “a year” suggests it was an amount to be given per year, though the word “inheritance” perhaps implies a one-time payout. Not having seen the original that spawned this discussion, I don’t know which it was. I do appreciate your observation that that “average” worker would have been working 10 hrs/day and 6 days a week!

  10. Thank you for information. My dad was one of the “last” cowboys. Born in 1903, one of,nine, greenbroke horses on a ranch out of,Craig, co. when he was only,15.

    1. Hi Patricia:

      Thanks for sharing that info.

      Had to look up ‘greenbroke horses.’ For everyone else, that the greenbroke phrase describes a horse that has just learned to accept a rider. I’ll guess that means he either broke horses or finished their training just as soon as they would accept a rider.

      Quite a job for teenager. On the other hand, 15 was a lot older then than now.


      1. To green break a horse is to mount the horse for the initial time. The rider will usually mount several times, but it refers to this first act of riding, usually implicitly including the initial subsequent mountings. The horse may be “wild” or pasture bred.

      2. Hi:
        Thanks for the info. As a city boy my entire life, I have no clue about such things. The ‘net, this blog, and helpful readers makes it so easy to keep learning. Thanks for sharing.

  11. My Grandfather was a Confederate soldier who made a living on a 40 acre black dirt farm. He worked that land with a mule drawn plow.
    He worked alongside black laborers and drew the same wage as they did.
    How much would he have made in the years after the civil war?

    1. Hello Billy:
      I have no idea. Did he own the land or was he a laborer? I’m not sure based on your brief comment.
      If laborer, I’ll guess he was at the low end of that scale. A pittance, in other words.

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