Wednesday, September 10, 2014

How Much Things Cost--Then and Now


How much does it cost? It’s an oft-used phrase, an oft-asked question. The cost of living affects every part of our lives. We make choices based on an item’s cost.

I’ve always been fascinated with how much things cost in the past. Much of the time, the items seem ridiculously cheap. And yet . . . and yet . . . when taken in relation to income, often what seems cheap isn’t.

For instance, in a Bloomingdale’s 1886 catalog a pair of women’s boots costs $1.75. We can find similar boots today for $49.95.

Yet considering the income of many unskilled city-dwellers was only $740/year . . . They worked 10-12 hours a day, for $.20/hour, six days a week. It’s said that a dollar in 1886 is worth $23.50 now ( ). Let’s make it x 24 to make it a nice number… $740 in today’s money is $17,760. It seems about even-steven. Even the cost of the boots is commensurate: $1.75 x 24 = $42. It’s actually kind of amazing.

The day dress on the left—with a lot of embellishments—cost $4.75 in the Bloomingdale’s catalog. The one on the right, with a lot of lace, was $12.75. Although it’s hard to find a present-day outfit that uses an equal amount of yardage or trim, if we take the 1886 price x 24, that brings up a modern-day cost of $114-$306 for an outfit with a lot of detail. Again, not out of line. 

Let's look at something fancy. A silver-plated napkin ring cost $.29 each (or $1.16 for 4). Now? $27.84 for 4 (but note the modern ones are simple, with no fancy etching.)

A baby carriage cost $11.50. Now? A collapsible stroller with extra storage and cup holders costs $249. Close to the $276 inflation number.

So where is the discrepancy in what things cost then and now? Or is there one?

A basic not-so-nice apartment rented for $15/month. Times 24 = $360. Can people find any type of housing for $360/month anymore? And only the rich owned carriages while almost everyone now owns their own car.

The cost of living in 1886 was pretty basic: lodging, food, and clothes. No charges for cell phones, computers, cable TV, air conditioning, internet, insurance, gasoline . . .  And no income tax or sales tax. 

We have more to spend our money on nowadays. More bottom-line items in our monthly budgets. Our lives are more varied and comfortable. And complicated. But we work shorter hours, spend more time and money on entertainment and recreation, and have something most 1886 people did not:  FREE TIME. We have more options in every aspect of our lives. Is that a good thing? Are we happier?

It still comes down to the fact that money—and buying things—shouldn't be the source of our happiness. The things that have no monetary cost are the things that are priceless: our family, friends, faith, and freedom//Nancy Moser

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Labor Day

A post about Labor Day 
by Stephanie Grace Whitson

How did your family celebrate Labor Day this past Monday? Were you able to spend the day the way you wanted to, or did someone in the family have to go to work? I was racing toward a September 15 deadline, and so I worked. But I did take a few minutes to learn a bit about the origins of Labor Day. I didn't know that it was a result of the "Labor Movement" at the end of the 19th century, and that it became a national holiday in 1894.

The American Worker deserved to be celebrated. Long hours and what we call “sweat equity” did a lot to develop the tradition that a strong “work ethic” is a virtue. But along the path to developing a healthy work ethic, there were many missteps that the Labor Movement would address over the years.

Child labor was one reality that needed changing, and it raised issues that weren’t necessarily “black and white.” After all, any child raised on a farm will tell you that they learned to work hard and long at a young age, because farming families work together. Children can provide meaningful help, and they feel good when they contribute to the family. That’s a good thing. But prior to the enactment of child labor laws, children could easily be exploited. During the Industrial Revolution, entire families often went to work in a factory where the “work week” was 68-72 hours long in dangerous conditions. Even after labor laws were enacted, they didn’t always apply to immigrant children.

The photograph at right shows a group of "Breaker Boys," who were employed in the coal industry early in the 20th century. According to a 1902 study, nearly 18,000 persons were employed as slate pickers in the anthracite coal industry. "The majority of these are boys from the ages of 10 to 14 years."

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” and just as photographer Jacob Riis did much to call attention to the plight of immigrants in the city of New York, so did a photographer named Lewis Hines do much to decry the plight of child workers when, in 1909, he published the first of many photo essays showing children working in potentially dangerous places. See some of his copyrighted work here:

Here’s a photo that reminds me to be thankful for the hard work of others. Because Grayson Irvin (shown here in the uniform he wore to work) spent long hours behind the wheel of a truck, hauling freight for Yellow Transit, I had a childhood free from hunger. I had the freedom to study and to get a high school diploma (Daddy never got beyond the 8th Grade, because he had to drop out and got to work to help feed his siblings).

I'll end this blog post on a happy note. The photograph on the right is my favorite "Labor Day" photograph. Why? Because in September of 1982, I labored (literally) to bring a little boy into this world. And here he is today...a hard-working husband and father and a superb fisherman. My truck-driving Daddy loved to fish. He'd be proud, and so am I.
  • Has a photograph ever inspired you to make a change for the better, either in your own life or in the life of another person?
  • When did you get your first job?
  • Belated Happy Labor Day!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

I'll Take Thirty Dresses

 A Note From Nancy *

I've been sewing since I was a little girl.  It's in my blood.  As such I like fashion, and I like to write about dressmaking...

Made-to-order workroom in Stewart's
My novel An Unlikely Suitor begins in a dressmaking shop in New York City in 1895. Off-the-rack clothes were no longer a novelty and could be purchased at a myriad of department stores (Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Stewart’s, Bergdorf-Goodman…) Many stores offered both custom made clothing as well as ready-to-wear, which was often sewn to fit on the premises. Women could also order clothing from catalogs. But with all these options, most high-society ladies still had their wardrobes custom designed and sewn, often in small dress-shops. In my book it’s Madame Moreau’s Fashion Emporium. The “Madame Moreau” in the store’s name is in reaction to a fascination with all things French. Actually, the woman who runs the store is named Mrs. Flynn, who had the uncanny ability to adopt a French accent when dealing with her clientele. These dressmakers often imported Paris fashion—to copy, although in the 1890's they were taking more and more pride in their own developing American fashion.
Bloomingdale's 1888 catalog

Although the complexity of the bustle-era was gone (illustration at left is 1888), dresses in the mid-1890’s were far from simple. The focus moved from the back of the dress to the sleeves—or actually to the waist. For by making the sleeves ridiculously huge, a woman’s waist appeared tiny in comparison. And in the everything-old-is-new-again phenomenon, it should be noted that these sleeves were also popular in the 1830’s. But during that time, skirts were also wide, making women look as if they were swallowed up by their clothes!  Too much.
Fashion is all about silhouettes. To create the hour-glass silhouette of the 1890’s, a wide top and small middle was needed. 

bodice pattern
The over-sized puffy sleeves were called gigots, or leg-o-mutton sleeves. They were often made from four separate pieces of fabric (most sleeves nowadays are cut from one piece), and they could be stuffed so they kept their shape. Skirts were often four or six gores, or had insets of gathers at the thigh-level (as a seamstress myself, I know these insets would be difficult to do.) Even though the patterns to ,make these clothes were still far from simple, it was a big step for women’s fashion to lose the bustle.

Note the inset flared skirts on the right
To herald the new style came the “shirtwaist”. It became the uniform of working women everywhere: a relatively plain skirt with a leg-o-mutton blouse that had a standing band collar and buttons up the back. A simple petticoat was all that was needed—except for the dratted corset, of course. It would still be twenty-five years before women rid themselves of that awful contraption. Wearing this relatively simple ensemble women were able to go to college, work, and enjoy sports such as golf or tennis.

But forget shirtwaists for the rich patronesses of the dress shops. They wanted custom designs that made them stand out from the masses of women wearing the simpler styles.

The dressmaking shops were often staffed by immigrants, first or second generation Americans. They created the intricate patterns for the dresses, cut the fabric (which was purchased in varying non-standardized widths. Now, we basically have 45”, 54”, and 60” widths to choose from), and sewed the garments on machines and by hand (I’ll be blogging about the evolution of the sewing machine next week.) The elite of society kept these shops busy with their need to showcase their family’s successes and wealth through their fashion. To walk the streets of New York City in elegant finery, to take a promenade through Central Park, to go to the opera or Delmonico’s, to attend a ball or dinner at the Astor’s or Vanderbilt’s, demanded fashion that wowed the viewer. Has much changed today? Don’t we also long to be thought of as fashionable?

Now here’s an age old question: did women dress for men or women? Do we dress for men or women now? The fashion of the late nineteenth century tried to emphasize a woman’s figure (even if it was completely covered). But I still think most women dress for the appreciation of other women. For do men really know if something is fashionable or not? Women notice. Women know.

Another reason the dressmaking shops kept busy was the summer season. Many of the members of the Four Hundred of New York society went to Newport, Rhode Island for six to eight weeks at the end of every summer. There, amid the cool ocean breezes, they created another version of society, with as many rules and standards as they had in the city. Each woman needed nearly thirty new outfits for this season.

That’s the starting point in An Unlikely Suitor. A mother and daughter enter Madame Moreau’s in need of an entirely new wardrobe…only the daughter suffers from an infirmity that causes her dresses to hang oddly. Enter the heroine, Lucy Scarpelli to find a sewing solution. And so a friendship between immigrant seamstress and wealthy heiress is born . . . and continues as Lucy gets a chance to join Rowena in Newport. It’s a classic premise of friendship between a poor girl and a rich girl, set amid the lavish opulence of Newport, with the breeze blowing off the Cliff Walk, and handsome young men with time on their hands . . . Trust me, the story is well . . . sewn.//Nancy