Jun 092015

In a recent post  (‘Who Read the County Surveys?’) I wrote about the insights that book reviews can give into historical reception and reading practices. Another interesting way of exploring reception is through researching the price of a book: for the amount that booksellers charge can give clues not just to the perceived value of the text but also the levels of disposable income available to the target markets.

The prices of the County Surveys varied, usually between 7 and 12 shillings, when they were sold on boards (this was common at the time, purchasers would then arrange for binding according to their own tastes and budgets). Using the great calculators provided on the brilliant Measuring Worth website we can see how much this equates to in today’s money (2013 is the most recent data available), as well as how it compares to the average income of the time and the labour costs of the time.

The surveys were published between 1794 and 1817, so let’s use the year 1806 in the middle of the range, as our point of comparison.  Seven shillings in 1806 equates to a real price in 2013 of £24.77. Twelve shillings equates to a real price of £42.46.  On this information, the surveys seem to be priced fairly reasonably, not particularly expensive although one would not call them cheap. This apparent affordability may be deceptive however: for, in order to really benefit from the instructive comparisons between counties that the surveys were intended to reveal, purchasers would have to buy multiple volumes.  Moreover, the real price really only indicates the relative cost of the volume, and must be read against the incomes of the time.

The average male agricultural worker in 1806 earned somewhere between £24 7s and £38 7s* per year. Let’s base our calculations on the lower end of the spectrum. There were 20 shillings to the pound, so £24 7s was 487 shillings per year, or 40.5 shillings per month: so 7 shillings is roughly 17% of the average workers monthly wage.  The contemporary income value of £24 7s is £26,710. This gives a monthly wage of £2225.83. 17 % of this is £378. This changes the picture quite significantly, suggesting the relative value of the book to a worker is much higher than the ‘real price’.  Would you spend £378 on a single book? What kind of person would have the means to do that?

We know that ‘improvement’ was the pursuit of landowners and that—notoriously in the case of the Scottish clearances—changes could be instituted at the expense of smaller tenant farmers. The figure of £378, which is for one volume rather than a set, suggests that the practical knowledge that the set of Surveys represents was only really affordable only to the relatively wealthy, rather than common agricultural labourers who likely could not have afforded the books. It thus raises interesting questions about the politics of Enlightenment improvement. To explore this further, it would be very interesting to research other reading contexts such as borrowing books: were the surveys acquired by libraries of the time (such as Innerpeffray for example), and did their members borrow the volumes?

As Measuring Worth is at pains to point out, establishing value is far from an exact science and involves subjective interpretation and, in the case of historical values, there is obviously some speculation involved. I think these figures are interesting none-the-less, and although they do not lead to reliable conclusions, they do give a bit of a sense of the historical circumstances in which the Surveys were produced and consumed.


*This figure comes from taking the average in 1832 (the closest historical match I’ve found, from this paper by Gregory Clark, University of California, and using the measuring worth calculators to get the comparable wage for 1806.

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