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Journal Article

The Value of Money in Eighteenth-Century England: Incomes, Prices, Buying Power—and Some Problems in Cultural Economics

Robert D. Hume
Huntington Library Quarterly
Vol. 77, No. 4 (Winter 2014), pp. 373-416
DOI: 10.1525/hlq.2014.77.4.373
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/hlq.2014.77.4.373
Page Count: 44
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The Value of Money in Eighteenth-Century England
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Abstract

Robert D. Hume offers an empirical investigation of incomes, cost, artist remuneration, and buying power in the realm of long eighteenth-century cultural production and purchase. What was earned by writers, actors, singers, musicians, and painters? Who could afford to buy a book? Attend a play or opera? Acquire a painting? Only 6 percent of families had £100 per annum income, and only about 3 percent had £200. What is the “buying power” magnitude of such sums? No single multiplier yields a legitimate present-day equivalent, but a range of 200–300 gives a rough sense of magnitude for most of this period. Novels are now thought of as a bourgeois phenomenon, but they cost 3S. per volume. A family with a £200 annual income would have to spend nearly a full day's income to buy a four-volume novel, but only 12 percent for a play. The market for plays was naturally much larger, which explains high copyright payments to playwrights and very low payments for most novels—hence the large number of novels by women, who had few ways to earn money. From this investigation we learn two broad facts. First, that the earnings of most writers, actors, musicians, and singers were generally scanty but went disproportionately to a few stars, and second, that most of the culture we now study is inarguably elite: it was mostly consumed by the top 1 percent or 0.5 percent of the English population.

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