Income inequality, 1820 vs. 2017

Georgette Heyer (pronounced "hair") was a prolific British novelist, writing over 50 novels beginning in the 1920s.  She is credited with creating the genre of Regency Romance, lots of fun for a quick read.  (The Regency period was 1811 to 1820, but the term is used loosely for a more expansive epoch.)  Her books are meticulously researched.  She was and still is enormously popular, especially in the U.K.

Incidentally, she loathed the taxman: "She once wrote to a friend, 'I'm getting so tired of writing books for the benefit of the Treasury and I can't tell you how utterly I resent the squandering of my money on such fatuous things as Education and Making Life Easy and Luxurious for So-Called Workers.'"

In Heyer's April Lady, the Countess Cardross spends £330 on a single dress.  For those more comfortable with figures not taken from fiction, good essays on the cost of living in Regency London can be found here and here: "Even renting a carriage and pair (two horses) with a coachman cost £200-£300 a year."

How expensive would these items be in today's money?  Estimates of wages in the U.K. for the last 800 years may be found in "Average Earnings and Retail Prices, UK, 1209-2010."  From the table of male wages on p. 23 we learn that a farm laborer in 1820 earned about 20 pence per day.  Assuming a six-day week, 50 weeks a year, or 300 days, he would have earned roughly £25 annually.  Lady Cardross's dress would have been 13.2 times a farmer's annual wage, while the rented equipage would have been 8 to 12 times a farmer's annual wage.

For comparison, the median personal income in the US in 2015 was about $30,000.  Multiplying that number by 13.2 yields about $400,000 equivalent for a single dress, or $240,000 to $360,000 annually to hire a carriage, horses, and coachman.

We gasp when a politician's wife or other celebrity spends $10,000 for a dress.  By the standards of 1820, that is modest.  Yet income inequality is suddenly a crisis the government must "do something" about.

Henry Percy is the nom de guerre of a writer in Arizona. He may be reached at saler.50d[at]gmail.com.