My investigation on changes in the price of going to the prom in the Wall Street Jorurnal (see here) got a number of comments and emails. The most interesting email came from Marie Concannon. She is one of the head librarians at the University of Missouri. Ms. Concannon created a web site called “Prices and Wages by Decade” (click here). It contains links to the retail prices for all sorts of things that people buy like food, clothing, transportation, housing and education.
For example, I didn’t know there is an online collection of restaurant menus (click here) that show what was served and the price of items. Delmonico’s is a very famous steak restaurant that started in New York City. While it has been through various incantations and owners, there has been a high end restaurant by that name on Beaver Street for a long time. You can compare their online menu (click here) of today, with the menu from 1899 (click here).
Two things jumped out at me comparing the menus. First, today Delmonico’s focuses on steak. The current dinner menu has at least nine steak items ranging from the Prime New York Strip for $49 to the olive fed Japanese Wagyu Rib Eye for $150. For those outraged by the $150 price, check out my post about eating and paying for Wagyu beef (click here). In 1899 the menu has just two steak items; the sirloin of beef with mashed carrots, for the bargain price of just 75 cents, and the tournedos of beef for $2.50. While I was not alive in 1899 to try the tournedos, my best guess is this was like today’s filet Mignon.
While today’s menu is steak focused the Delmonico’s from over a century ago was the place to eat duck. The menu has five duck entrees and some were more expensive than the steak. You could go cheap and eat either the Ruddy duck or the Mallard duck for $1.50. This was double the cost of the sirloin! You could spend a bit more and have the Duckling for $2.50. If you were a high end duck eater they offered Red-headed duck for $3.50 or Canvas-backed duck for $4. The current menu doesn’t have even a single duck entry. I enjoy eating duck and have been to many restaurants but I have never seen a choice of duck on a modern menu, never mind seeing five types.
The second thing that jumped out was that the cost of eating in a fancy New York City restaurant has not changed dramatically since 1899. While official government consumer price indexes only go back to 1913, numerous economic historians have constructed series which cover a longer time frame. Using data in the Historical Statistics of the U.S. shows overall consumer prices have increased about 28 times since 1899. This means something that cost $1 in 1899 should cost around $28 today.
Adjusting the 1899 menu by multiplying all the prices by 28 shows some things are cheaper than their modern day counterparts. In general the cost of eating poultry in a nice restaurant appears to have come down. For example in 1899 Delmonico sold a half-chicken for $1.25, or $35 in today’s prices. The current menu has chicken for $30. The $1.50 Ruddy or Mallard ducks would cost about $41 today, while the high end Canvas-backed duck would cost about $112.
Today the filet mignon costs $49. Multiplying the tournedos price of $2.50 by 28 means dinners 100+ years ago paid $70 for their beef in today’s terms. The low end sirloin used to cost 75 cents. After adjusting for price changes today it would go for about $21. Without eating either steak it is impossible to say if steak’s price went up or down, because the quality and quantity of beef likely changed over time.
In general it doesn’t matter if you a beef eater, duck lover or even vegetarian. If you are looking some information on prices over time, Marie Concannon’s “Prices and Wages by Decade” website is a great resource.