Sherburne History Center

Sherburne History Center
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Friday, February 26, 2016

The State of The Economy in 1901

News reports published in the Sherburne County Star News on May 5, 1901 noted the sale of the Merchants Hotel in Elk River.  Mrs. V. S. Rubeck sold the property to M. Blanchett for approximately $10,000.  A quick search of the internet for conversion charts, suggested the hotel sold for $269,000 in 2015 money.   
Not a bad price for the time, but that led me to question: What was life like, what was the state of the economy in 1901?  What were the average wages in the United States?  I came to the conclusion that poverty was rampant and life was pretty miserable.  

Research presented at the 1901 Pan American Exposition held in Buffalo, New York, revealed the average annual income was $449.80.  Most workers put in 9 hour work days, six days each week.  Doing some quick math, workers put in 2808 per year on the job.  That averages 16 cents per hour!  In the factories, there were no health benefits.  There was no retirement plan.  A person would work until they were able to save enough to stop working, or more likely, they worked until they died.  

Many factories required workers to live in factory controlled housing, creating full blown company towns.  Rent was charged on a monthly, or weekly, basis.  Company towns also paid their workers in script, employees could shop only at the company store.  The store would extend credit, but that tied the worker to the company even further.  Hence the popular song by Tennessee Ernie Ford was based in truth, “I owe my soul to the company store.”  
Low income, no health benefits, no retirement plans.  I can’t help but conclude life was pretty miserable in 1901.   

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