Historical Conversion of Currency

Studies of book history invariably involve determinations of monetary value, and even though we all know how imperfectly historical values are correlated with contemporary ones, it doesn’t stop us from trying. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread! I’ve always been unhappy with attempts to establish contemporary equivalents for historical values, but I reached a tipping point when giving a series of lectures on Jane Austen some years ago.

My American students were bewildered first by an unfamiliar currency but even more by its disconnection from values that they understood. How much is Mr Darcy’s £10,000 a year in ‘real’ money? Or more to our point, if someone spent a guinea for a copy of Emma when it was first published, what is that worth today? It’s a tantalizing problem, and there’s no perfect way to solve it, especially since there are more factors than currency that determine value.

My breakthrough as a dilettante in economic history came when I lit upon the work of Sir Henry Phelps Brown and Sheila Hopkins whose A Perspective of Wages and Prices (1981) contains two related indices drawn from data in southern England over seven centuries. One index was of a ‘composite unit of consumables’, a sort of rudimentary version of the Consumer Price Index. Through some simple math which I explain on a related page (A Method for Determining Historical Monetary Values), I devised a convenient web form to convert English currency from 1264-1983 into US currency in any target year from 1913 to the present: Pounds Sterling to Dollars.

The website is updated annually with new data and feedback is gratefully received.

Eric Nye, Hon. Treasurer for America