What Did Folks Earn in 1880?

This post first appeared in 2011, after Price of Truth released. See more Andi’s Journal posts (and A Blast from the Past posts) in Andi’s Attic >>

Jobs and Wages

I was trying to scrounge up enough money to buy my mother a music box for her birthday (Price of Truth). It cost $11.95. Maybe you think that’s pretty cheap for a fancy music box, but not if you don’t make much money. Here are some jobs in 1880 and how much the person got paid (by the month).

  • train engineer – $100
  • carpenter – $37
  • teacher – $40
  • house servant – $8
  • ranch foreman – $115
  • ranch hand – $30 (plus food and housing)
  • sales girl – $12
  • factory worker – $35
  • child factory worker – $8
  • washer woman (laundry) – $12
  • soldier – $13
  • streetcar driver – $43

Someone would have to wash clothes for a whole month before she could afford one music box. In 2011, that would be the same as the music box costing $800 (if you made $2,000 a month).

Are you ready to try a little math? How did the average wage-earner feed, clothe, and house his family? The rent for a small dwelling was about $4.50 a month. In addition, it cost about $5 a month to clothe and feed each member of the family. Below are five families and their wages. Use the list of wages above to figure out the family’s wages and how much they spend on the cost of living. After you figure out their wages, decide if they will have enough to make it through the month. Or will they need to borrow money from relatives or friends? Answers are below. Did you get them all right?

  1. John is a carpenter; Sally stays home and cares for their 4 children.
  2. José  is a ranch hand; Nila works as a house servant. They have 2 kids.
  3. Tom is a train engineer; Mary washes rich folks’ clothes. They have 5 children. 
  4. Paul and Judy are both factory workers; they have six children. Three kids work in the factory, while one stays home to care for the younger children.  
  5. Sam is a soldier; Jane does the laundry for the fort. They have 3 children.


  1. This family has $2.50 left at the end of the month. Not much for “extras.” What if the baby gets sick and they need a doctor?
  2. This family has $18.00 to spare. They can afford a little extra at times.
  3. This family is very well off, having an extra $72.50 at the end of the month. If someone gets sick, they can afford to call the doctor.
  4. This family is also doing “OK,” with $49.50 left over after living expenses. Maybe a new dress for one of the children is in order.
  5. This family is coming up short by -$4.50. Maybe Jane can pick up some extra laundry.

Published by Andi Carter

I'm the main character in the Circle C Adventures series. I live on a huge cattle ranch in 1880s California. These are my adventures.

13 thoughts on “What Did Folks Earn in 1880?

  1. That’s interesting how much things cost today and how we get paid so much more now than back in the 1880s. Things have really priced up!! Thanks for sharing Mrs. M!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Really interesting I just have one question if Sam is a soldier and his wife Jane and children stay with him at the fort why would they have to rent place to live

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very interesting! Enjoyed the post, Mrs. M! I have the same question as “Anonymous” how much would a normal, healthy horse cost? Would I be able to afford one? 😄

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent information. Interesting Note. My first job at age 16 was working in a school office. I earned the fantastic (not) amount of $60 a month, before social security and retirement was taken out!


  5. Great information. In1962, I was 16 for the first month on my first job–working in a school office in my hometown.I as paid $A60 a month before social security and retirement were deducted. It seemed like a fortune!

    Liked by 1 person

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