Just how expensive were books for the average Philadelphian in the 1780s? I’ve read they were a luxury, however learning an edition of The History of Ancient Greece, from the earliest time until the time it became a Roman province, by William Robertson, Esq. with a map of Greece was priced at over sixteen shillings wasn’t helpful. Was that price comparable to what one would pay for a week’s groceries? Or was it closer to the cost of a season’s worth of firewood?

In 1787, publisher Thomas Dobson placed ads in the Pennsylvania Gazette publicizing  a variety of printed matter for sale. Several poems listed were priced at one shilling (Pennsylvania currency). A number of books were listed at prices from two shillings to twenty shillings or more (a pound was twenty shillings). A book on the elements of English Grammar was also listed, priced at “only one dollar.” A dollar in 1787 translated to approximately 7.5s  (Pennsylvania shillings). I mention this one only because I thought it odd to mix currencies within one advertisement.

Were these prices “expensive”?

Billy Smith, in The Lower Sort, estimates that a fully employed laborer in 1787 Philadelphia might have earned £61.67 over the course of a year.  It would be rare that a laborer was fully employed—that he never got sick, the economy never slowed, and inclement weather never prevented work—but I’m proceeding under the assumption the laborer was fully employed.

Smith also estimates that the minimum annual cost of food, rent, firewood and clothing for a family of four in 1787 was £81.49. This didn’t include incidentals such as candles, soap, medicine, rum, whiskey, furnishings, etc. If the laborer’s wife worked, she typically could earn half of what her full-time laborer husband could earn, and her wages might cover the shortfall and some of the incidentals.

So, yes—books were expensive. At an average weekly cost of living of £1.5, it’s more than likely a family at the lower end of the economic scale would deem a book costing £1 a luxury item. If it were my family, I can safely predict my husband would prefer I patronize a lending library instead.

Eighteenth-Century Luxury

Old books. Basking Ridge Historical Society

Voices BeckonA journeyman such as Robert Store in Voices Beckon might consider buying an occasional book. At a wage of $6.00 a week, Robert was earning approximately £117.00 a year.

Mr. Oliver’s home was cluttered with books, some of which were Liam’s. How could Liam possibly have afforded them?

First, he was very skilled at cards and won much more than he lost. Oft as not, he’d use his winnings on books. Second, he was Mr. Oliver’s ward. Mr. Oliver’s gift of choice was always a book.



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Billy G. Smith, The “Lower Sort” Philadelphia’s Laboring People, 1750-1800 (New York, NY  1990)

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