NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Real Prices Fall Over Time

March 9, 1998

Before the Industrial Revolution took hold, a book cost as much as a personal computer does today.
  • When Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations was first published in 1776, it cost the equivalent of $615.38 in 1997 terms.
  • Average U.S. income in 1776 was $86 per capita annually -- worth about $1,600 today -- compared to about $25,000 recently.
  • As the Industrial Revolution gained momentum, the price of bestsellers dropped dramatically -- with Uncle Tom's Cabin commanding the 1997 equivalent of $30.44 in 1852 and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer fetching $41.06 in 1877.
  • Even as late as 1935, a bestseller cost over one day's wages at the average income level -- dropping since then to two hours' average wages today for nondiscounted books.

Back in 1776, The Wealth of Nations cost more than a month's average personal income -- roughly as much as a personal computer costs the average wage-earner today.

Source: Peter Brimelow, "Why They Call It Harvard College," Forbes, March 9, 1998.


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