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Counting the Cost

Posted by Dirck on 18 April, 2013

I was fixing a spleling arrer on my site this morning, and while I was at it, I had a look at the page for any other mistakes.  There weren’t any… but there was a problem.

On most of the pages, I put down the original price, or at least as close to a sensible guess at the original price as I can make.  Because telling the world that a pen made in 1925 cost $3.00 isn’t extremely illuminating, I generally put down what these guys say that works out to in modern funds– in the current example, that’s nearly $40.  My problem, though, lies in the word “current”.

Inflation hasn’t been as big a problem since the Big Dumb Incident of 2008 as in some times, but it remains an element in our lives.  Currently, that 1925 three bucks is $40, but a year and a half ago when I was working up the site’s current incarnation it was a little over $38.  That means that just about everything on my site speaking of “current value” is a little bit out, and it’s just going to get worse.

…Unless I constantly update every blinkin’ page.  As a fellow with a real house that needs constant maintenance, I’m not in love with the idea of devoting that much effort to repainting something virtual on a regular basis.  This presents me with a choice:

  • Abandon the contextualization of historic pen prices, or;
  • Find a non-variable means of doing so, make one sweeping update, and be content forevermore (on this specific front).

I really don’t like the first option.  It’s all well and good to say “That cost $10!” in tones of wonder, because in 1931 that was a pretty fair pile of cash, but to the modern ear is sounds like “That cost as much as two or three comic books!”  Yawn.  Big deal.

The problem with the second one is figuring out something that is consistently available throughout the past century.  I was thinking bread, but on reflection, saying a Waterman 52 cost 27 loaves of bread, while a Sheaffer Snorkel Crest cost about 100 loaves… well, to me it gets a little hard to visualize that much bread, and it seems apt to lead to a certain amount of snickering.

I know that I usually just spout off here, but now I am posing an honest, non-rhetorical question as to what I might use as my context-token.  What is there that has been in use since 1880 or so, which is still common enough in the  present day that most people will find it familiar, and which is worth in current terms somewhere between $5 and $10?  I’m having trouble settling on something, and a nudge in the right direction would be greatly appreciated.

Today’s pen: TWSBI Mini
Today’s ink: Pelikan Royal Blue

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9 Responses to “Counting the Cost”

  1. SheilaM said

    Could you do something like, the pen cost $X at a time when a typical car (or name a make and model) cost $Y, typical house cost $Z, the average monthly earnings was $A?

    • Good candidates, but I’m not sure about them. Up to the point where Ford started to popularize cars, they were a rich man’s toy, so the first few decades of pens would be skewed. Housing better, but the flourish of stupid housing speculation in the past decade might produce a similar effect, plus there’s the difference in housing regionally. This occurs in my bread example, too, but I don’t think it’s quite as pronounced; a loaf in NYC versus Pahrump, Nevada will be less shocking than the difference between 750sq.ft. single detached dwelling in each (a reader in the Yukon will, of course, upbraid me on the subject of bread cost). Average wages might be the thing…

      …except there’s this horrible graph that haunts my imagination; does the modern average wage really reflect the same buying power as the average wage of 1962? null

      • SheilaM said

        I see your point. If I had to guess, that guess would be that there is nothing stable enough on this earth to serve as a truly absolute, worldwide, fixed reference point over the amount of real estate and time that you will want to be able to cover. (A good example, in fact, exists in your comments below with regard to gold. And an argument could be made that the bread example wouldn’t serve well in some post-war European areas, and perhaps even in modern-day Greece.) With that in mind, perhaps the best one can do is put the price at the time in context of what opportunity cost it meant to the original buyer, by referencing an item or items that the reader could relate to in the current day within his or her personal budget, and with a current understanding of buying power. Inexact, yes, but it would help convey the relative monetary worth of the pen at the time. That’s what my suggestions were tending toward.

        Good luck, sir, and I look forward to hearing what you choose to do!

      • I’ve been thinking of the 10,000,000RM bread of depression-era Germany since I put down that note about gold’s fluctuation. A fella could go mad(der) trying to get the perfect item of context.

  2. awc26 said

    What about gold? e.g. this pen is worth this weight of gold. Given that the price of gold follows inflation you should never need to change the number.

    • Does it? I remember an insane spike in gold prices in the 1980s, and the current mad prices seem slightly out of step with what we’re told is the inflation rate (although the failure of my most recent raise to keep pace with food prices suggests you may have something). I’m also not quite verse enough in the matter to comprehend what the US detachment of its dollar from the “gold standard” in the 1970s means for that relationship on either side of the event.

      …plus there’s a sort of inversion of my bread problem; rather than ridiculous piles of bread, there’s the problem of being able to visualize milligrams of gold.

  3. maja said

    I don’t see a problem. Readers of your blog can always plug in the original pen price, (with the year, of course) into the fields on this site http://www.usinflationcalculator.com/ to find out what it would cost in today’s dollars. $3.00 USD in 1925, for example, would work out to about $40 USD in today’s money.
    Of course, this doesn’t tell you the item’s worth to a collector, but I don’t buy pen reference books for that kind of information, because it changes so often. A vintage pen that might be “hot” one decade might cool off in the next one.

    • Gosh… a link to the calculator in question. Gordium lies at your feet. 😉

      I’m not intensely concerned about the current collector’s “value” of the pens. As you point out, it fluctuates wildly and often over much shorter periods, and then one has to ponder the vexed notion of condition’s effect on the ideal value. I’m happy to keep out of that.

  4. […] out of eBay for the next forty minutes or so is to act upon the rather good advice generated by last week’s question, “How to give a modern context for vintage prices?”  That rather good advice was to […]

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