What Was it Like Living During George Washington's Time?

Posted by Mike Tirone - Friday, February 10th, 2012

The holiday of President's Day has a bit more significance this year in the United States because it would mark President George Washington's 280th birthday. So in honor of such a momentous occasion, Wealth Wire has asked you to fasten your seat belts and lift your tray table to the upright position because we are going to lift off in our time machine and shoot you back to 1789, Washington's first year in office as America's very first president.

The cost of living during Washington's time was obviously much different than it is in 2012, but as one colonial historian, David Walbert, says making the comparison between the two times “is really apples to oranges.”

Based off of Washington's average salary – which he originally refused to take-- of $25,000, he was one of the richest men in the nation. The average salary of the rest of society at the time was – using crude conversion, around $2,900 to $4,925. Georgie Boy was not a one-percenter but rather a two-percenter, as his salary equaled 2% of the total U.S. budget in 1789.

According to 24/7 Wall Street's research of estimated president's net-worth, Washington's worth was about $525 million in today's money, making him among the wealthiest presidents. Factors such as land, estimated lifetime savings and money paid for services were used to generate this list which Washington clearly tops.

But remember the price of living and currency being used at the time has changed dramatically since Washington's time. Currency was not everywhere as it is today. There simply was not enough to go around to each person throughout each colony. Taxes couldn't be paid by simple currency so other ways of trade were established. Purchasing something might cost you a few days of manual labor or service or even just some of your tobacco or alcohol. When currency was used in exchanges it was operated off of the British system of pounds, shillings and pence. And that currency broke down into smaller denominations, which became a headache to do business with. Therefore basic bartering and agreements were made with services or products, which were much better for the colonists.

colonial currency

As for work and housing, it was pretty haphazard for many years as the United States started to get it's feet underneath them. Many of the colonists, who came over from England, were quite poor and found themselves becoming indentured servants for several years to get enough land to have of their own.

Unlike today, the amount of available land and timber is still incomprehensible so once you got some land to live on, your community would throw the equivalent of a Tupperware party, but isn't of casual plastic containers, people would bring their tools and labor to help build your house.

“There was not a lot of manufacturing going on in the colonies because it was actively discouraged by the British government,” says Walbert.

Furniture was also built by the homeowner, unless of course you were President Washington. He furnished his Mount Vernon estate to the most extravagent proportions. He had large desks, fine armchairs, and a harpsichord. All of which he paid for with 20 guineas, also referred to as gold pieces worth 21 shillings. After the conversion and factoring in the value of the dollar the total sum looks to amount around $508, making it quite an expensively furnished home.

Such a home like Washington's would, without question, contain quite a lot of alcohol. Back in the late 1700's, alcohol consumption of distilled spirits was up to 3.4 gallons per capita per year, making each person's weekly average of consumption around 3 pints. And these folks were not drinking Miller Lite...these were some heavily distilled liquors.

And with such high quality alcohol came incredibly low prices, as a gallon of domestic rum sold for as little as one shilling and 8 pence. This meant anyone and everyone could enjoy their libations like the rest of society, just about at anytime they would like. According to many historian documents, beer was even cheaper than the liquor at the time, because many colonists brewed their own beer from anything that could ferment and yield adequate buzz.

colonial drinking

So getting hammered during colonial times was as easy as possible, but what about clothing yourself? Granted with enough alcohol in your bloodstream you might not feel the need to be clothed anyway, but for those less timid wearing their birthday suit, clothing would cost your a pretty penny.

“Clothing was extraordiniarly expensive by today's standards,” Walbert says. “Wool had to be spun into thread by hand and then woven into cloth by hand, creating a lot of labor.”

A yard of fabric – typically of very meager quality-- sold for about $5.60, which was quite a lot of money when making just a few thousand dollars are year. The Old Land didn't help with any of these prices as well, as bedsheets were even more expensive as they had to be shipped over from England at up to six times the cost of the bed itself.

And what about the stereotypical powdered wigs that we all know and love about our forefathers? Well those were not cheap, which shows why only Washington and his fellow wealthy friends were the ones who donned the wigs. At $145 per wig, the average colonist could only dream of such a pretentious top.

So there you have it, life during Washington's time was filled with hardworking men who could barely afford clothing but enough to get drunk off their own alcohol each day after building their own house or furniture. No trust fund kids, no ATMs to dispense wads of cash, no online banking. It was more than a different time for America, it was practically a different planet.

colonial stocks

That concludes our trip back to 1789, we hope that you've had a pleasant journey back in time. So the next time you need to complain about paying for high taxes or losing your credit card, just think that back in the 1700s. If you couldn't afford the taxes you needed to pay, you could always work out in the fields for weeks on end to pay the difference or you could become a servant to neighbor in order to feed your family. As Archie and Edith Bunker say, “Those were the days!”

*Quoted excerpts from Bankrate.com


More like this...

Presidential Words of Wisdom
In honor of President's Day, here are the words of a few of them on money, governance and wealth...

Presidents and Their Debt: From FDR To Obama
The debt ceiling debate continues as August 2 creeps closer. Obama's debt is of serious concern, but looking back at the other debt-ridden presidents may ease the pain a bit...

The Top 100 Statistics About the Collapse of the Economy that Every Voter Should Know
The U.S. economy is dying and most American voters have no idea why it is happening. Here's a crash course...

GRAPHIC: U.S. Debt Accumulation by President
U.S. presidents have added to our total national debt for generations. But which presidents have really put the country's finances in a bind?

Obama Has Prosecuted Less Financial Fraud than Reagan and Both Bush Presidents
With the trust in the U.S. financial and banking systems waning, the country demands for a president to prosecute those institution who are fraudulent. Obama has not...

Silver Pandas