April 5 – 12 is Money Smart Week, designed to help people learn more about their personal finances. Did you know that you can also learn about your ancestors’ financial well-being? You probably don’t have access to their checkbooks (or the jars of cash buried in the back yard), but there are some common records you can use to get a general idea of your ancestors’ wealth.
The 1850, 1860, and 1870 federal census asked for the value of a person’s real estate (land and immovable objects like houses and barns). In 1860 and 1870, the census also asked for the value of personal property. You should take these values as estimates. The census taker didn’t verify the values and it’s possible that the person might have been less than truthful with his or her answers. (Would you tell a complete stranger how much your property is worth?)
My ancestor Samuel Ramsey lived in Hopewell Township, Perry County, Ohio in 1870. According to the census, Samuel had real property worth $5,850 and personal property worth $1,000.
That’s good information, but what does it really mean to have $5,850 of real estate in Hopewell Township in 1870? There are a couple of ways you can put this into more context. First, you can convert those dollars into “today’s money” using a inflation calculator. One of my favorites is WolframAlpha. On there, I can type in “How much is $5850 in 1870 worth today.” It calculates that an equivalent sum today would be $109,800.
Another way to look at your ancestors’ property values is how they compare to others in the neighborhood. For my Samuel Ramsey, I looked at the property values of the heads of household on his page and the two pages before and after his. Here’s the rundown of the real estate of those 42 heads of household:
- 12 had no real estate
- 5 had real estate valued less than $2,500
- 5 had real estate of $2,500 – $4,999
- 12 had real estate of $5,000 – $7,499
- 4 had real estate of $7,500 – $9,999
- 4 had real estate of $10,000 or more
The average real estate value of all the heads of household was $4552; the average value among just the landowners was $6,374. So my Samuel and his $5,850 in real estate was above average in one way, but definitely wasn’t among the larger landowners in his neighborhood. Seeing this helps me put that $5,850 in better context.
You can do the same type of analysis and comparison with the values on the agricultural and industry/manufacturers schedules. These can be found for selected states in Selected U.S. Federal Census Non-Population Schedules, 1850-1880.
Newspapers can also give an idea of the cost of living. Check out the classified section for the cost of house rentals. Advertisements will give you an idea of the cost of common items, so you can see how far a dollar would have gone.