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[As of August 4, 2014, this page is under construction — watch for changes soon!]

 

Introduction

Visible Prices (VP) is a digital humanities project, currently in development, for a collection of prices drawn from literary and historical sources in 18th and 19th century England. Users will be able to search for information relating to a specific good or service, or a specific amount of money. For example, a query for 3 shillings in 1789 reveals that in London, that amount would purchase a bushel of wheat, a quarto of translations from Diderot, or a day’s services of a crippled or deformed child as a companion to an adult beggar. My intent is for the database to make use of the influx of printed texts onto the web in facsimile format, in databases like Google Books, the Hathi Trust Digital Library, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, the British Newspapers Collection, and the London Times Online Archive, to name only a few. Though entry privileges are currently restricted, the goal is to eventually make it possible for registered users to enter data in the process of individual research or classroom activities; and thus to make it possible for researchers specializing in other time periods and regions to extend the scope of the database.

 

Background

As I read and taught 18th and 19th century English literature, I noticed that references to specific prices for specific incomes, goods, services, and experiences appeared regularly in a variety of genres; and also, that these prices were all but invisible in the texts, and difficult for my students to understand, except in the most basic sense: Mr. Darcy makes more money than Mr. Bingley, and both men are better off than Jane Eyre. Though inflation calculators exist, like this one, created by the Bank of England, and based on the Consumer Price Index, such calculators communicate something that most users already know: that the value of money changes over time, and that our salaries today would be worth even less in 1750.

bank of england calc

Illustration: Bank of England Inflation Calculator.

Visible Prices is the tool that I wished for to help students grasp the economic content of literature, and to provide researchers with a means of studying how authors used prices in their texts. In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Jane’s salary as governess to Mr. Rochester’s ward is £30 per annum. This database makes price back into a visible part of the reading experience by allowing students to discover what £30 meant in purchasing power, or to see how the salary that Bronte chose compared with those being offered at the time of composition and publication.

Economic historians have, in the past, gathered price listings for staple goods and raw materials, such as wool and wheat. These records of the changing prices of a specific commodity have been formatted as excel spreadsheets, or as .txt files. They are readable, but not manipulatable, and are able only to track specifically focused inquiries, i.e. “What was the price of wheat recorded in France from 1825-1913?”. As printed documents have migrated onto the web, researchers have gained greater access to economic data, though the challenges of making it easy to combine and manipulate remain.

The sources of economic information has also become more complex, because specific price and wage information for specific goods and services are distributed widely across all genres, including fictional genres. The use of factual information in literature is a major facet of the development of the novel in the 18th and 19th century in England. It is also a source of controversy, because to consider how writers used economic information in their texts raises questions about economic knowledge and authority, particularly because what we think of today as the formal discipline of economics emerges chaotically during the 18th and 19th century. The purpose of this database is to explore those questions of authority, as well as to explore how the use of economic information in genres like fiction and poetry changes over time. It should also be useful in tracking specific queries about how a particular author used price in his or her works.

Visible Prices is intended to be a flexible and dynamic resource, designed to help students, and researchers at all levels, in multiple disciplines see, combine, and use economic information in a way that would have been impossible before the migration of historical texts into digital environments. Currently, its focus is a single decade in the 18th century (1785-1794), and a 19th century decade will be added in the near future. Both these collections will focus on the United Kingdom. But ideally, researchers focusing on other geographical areas and working with other historical periods will be able to expand the collection according to their interests. Currently, the number of people who can enter data into the database is strictly limited, but in the long-term, the goal is to make it possible for registered users to enter data in the process of individual research or classroom activities.

Because economic research (especially as a subfield of literary or historical criticism) is a fairly advanced topic, the target audiences for Visible Prices include senior scholars, advanced researchers, and graduate students in these fields. However, one of the guiding motivations for the database is to make economics a more accessible field for less-experienced students, and to challenge conventional assumptions that literature and money are disciplines that have no relevance to each other.