What could you afford if you were of “middling station” in England in the 1760s and 1770s? You would have plenty of beer, ale, meat, and soap, but no wine, according to a detailed budget in Madam (Mary) Johnson’s book on household management. She suggests the mistress of her middle class home will spend £16 a year on her own clothes, and acknowledges this does not allow for “very fine laces”.
Mother and children have pocket money for fruit and toys, and may occasionally go to a “country-lodging” for “health and recreation”. Yet this hypothetical family of two parents and four children have only one live-in maid.* This surely means Mother will have to work hard in the house, on top of the “lying-in” (childbirth) which is budgeted for every other year.
The largest sums go for savings, rent and taxes, clothing for four children, and money set aside to cover bad debts. The bad debts give us a clue that this 18th century “middling” family is a tradesman’s family. Other costs confirm this, like the “expenses of trade with customers”.
Some of the smallest items are the most unfamiliar to us. Who puts sand, fullers earth, whiting, smallcoal, and brickdust on their shopping list today? All these were for cleaning jobs except the smallcoal, or charcoal.
The haberdashery (sewing bits and pieces) expenses were essential then, but more like hobby accessories now. By the way, when she says worsted I think she means worsted wool thread for darning socks etc., not worsted woollen cloth.
Buying two and a half pounds of candles a week seems a lot to most of us. In England day lengths vary hugely between winter and summer so the candle budget would fluctuate accordingly. When she says candles cost 1s 3d “per week the year round” she means on average.
A chaldron of coal was 36 bushels. Five chaldrons might have filled between 60 and 80 sacks, all delivered to the house, of course. A ferkin or firkin of small beer would have been about 8 or 9 gallons. Small beer was fairly weak, for everyday drinking, and considered inferior to ale.
The soap for “family occasions” was not for special occasions or events! Occasions here just means needs.
- l … pound
- s … shilling (20 in a pound)
- d … penny (12 in a shilling)
- f … farthing (4 in a penny)
*The mistress of the house had other help as well as the live-in maid: a washerwoman would have needed the soap bought for use “abroad” (away from home), and a wet-nurse would be employed for “nursing a Child abroad”. And it looks as if repair costs covered work that would have been done by live-in servants in much bigger houses.
There’s no perfect way to adjust the prices to today’s values. This website suggests multiplying by somewhere between 75 and 100. That would mean the family’s annual expenditure was equivalent to £30,000+ in today’s world – maybe $50,000. All very rough estimates.
The first edition of Mary Johnson’s book (1753) says she was “for many Years a Superintendent of a Lady of Quality’s Family in the City of York”.
Want to compare prices, incomes etc. over the years?
This page on “changes in the value of money over time” has links to many useful resources.