American money in 1897 was counted in dollars and cents:
1 dollar = 100 cents
Ordinary people started to write bank cheques in the 1890s, but for the most part money still took the form of gold and silver coins. There was paper money, but it did not become widely used till a generation later.
The following were the coins in common use (along with their rough value in metric pennies, which have 0.5 grams of silver):
$20.00 double eagle (2110) – gold
- $10.00 eagle (1054) – gold
- $5.00 half eagle (527) – gold
- $2.50 quarter eagle (264) – gold
- $1.00 dollar (105) – silver
- $0.50 half dollar (53) – silver
- $0.25 quarter (26) – silver
- $0.10 dime (11) – silver
- $0.05 nickel (5) – nickel
- $0.01 penny (1) – copper
So the American penny in 1897 had about the same value as Shakespeare’s penny! Or Leonardo’s soldo. About $0.20 in current money.
Most coins had a woman’s head on one side (Liberty) and an eagle on the other. Most day-to-day money was silver, not gold.
Even though the dollar had 48 metric pennies of silver (24 grams), by this time its value had more than doubled to 105. There was not enough silver and gold to keep up with the growth of industry. Money became more valuable and prices went down, not up. This hurt debtors, like farmers in the west, but made creditors rich, like the bankers in the east.
But 1897 brought some good news for the farmers: wheat sold at 40 pennies a ton, high for those days, and gold was discovered in the Klondike. It was the beginning of good times for everyone.
What people made (in pennies a day):
133 a day's work for most men, give or take
Most men made a bit more than a dollar a day, working more than nine hours a day and part of the day Saturday. Sundays off. Making more than two dollars a day was rare. Most had never finished high school.
Prices, many from the Sears catalogue itself (given in pennies):
8000 surrey (horse-drawn carriage) 2500 graphophone (yes, an early sort of phonograph) 1995 Encyclopaedia Britannica 1530 camera 1150 telephone 1050 bed for two (iron frame) 950 overcoat 800 man's suit 295 boots 240 gold ring (14k) 195 Complete plays of Shakespeare 195 Bible 175 eyeglasses 165 shoes 168 Webster's Unabridged dictionary 135 vest 125 trousers 75 a metre of velvet 60 book 55 tea, kg 53 butter, kg 50 dress shirt 50 record (1 song) 47 belt 40 denim overalls 40 a ton of wheat (high for those days) 39 underwear 35 scissors 31 flour, kg 31 potatoes, kg 25 a metre of cloth (to make a dress) 24 cheese, kg 22 pepper, kg 21 cap 19 eggs, dozen 12 beef, kg 12 lock 12 sugar, kg 10 strawberries, kg 10 dozen buttons 10 magazine (Harper's Bazaar) 8 pair of socks 8 knife 7 milk, L 5 subway fare 3 newspaper (New York Times) 2 send a letter 1 candle 1 8 cups of tea
– Abagond, 2007.