Saturday, April 22, 2017

Calculating the Cost of Carpet

 by Ian Mumpton

Brussels carpet in the restored Green Chamber
at Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site.
 A while back on the blog we posted a short article on the  reproduced Brussels carpeting in the Yellow Parlor of  Schuyler Mansion (you can read it by clicking here if you  missed it). Carpeting of this sort was not only stylish and  colorful, but provided a luxurious and warm environment for  socializing in refined company. Its message lay not in its  mere cost, but in the genteel lifestyle that it communicated to  guests of the family.

 But still, it cost a lot.

Just how much is “a lot”? Well, in 1800, Philip Schuyler paid £68, 8 shillings for enough carpeting for five rooms of the house. In 1800, £68 8s was roughly equivalent to $275, or $5,136 in 2017 money. This basic calculation for inflation doesn’t truly convey the prices we’re talking about here. To get a more accurate idea of what $275 meant in 1800 in Albany, we need to look at wages and buying power.
"Threshing Grain" from
Diderot's Encyclopedia, 1762

According to figures provided by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in New York State in 1800, an agricultural wage laborer would have to work for just over a year and seven months to make $275. Again, that’s direct wages, not savings after housing and living expenses, making carpeting of this sort a luxury that very few people could ever even dream of.
What else could the Schuylers have purchased for £68 8s in 1800? According to a New York Senate report, you could buy a bushel of wheat in Albany for 12 shilling and 6 pence at that time, so £68 8s would give you just a hair under 66.75 bushels of wheat, or enough to make over 6,000 one-pound loaves of bread. This would keep a family of eight in bread for a year. If you weren’t looking for bread, you could always buy 820 fowl for the same price.

For the Schuylers, this luxury carpeting was more than simply another part of the trappings of their high-society lifestyle, but something which enabled it. The incredible expense of furnishings like Brussels carpet not only served to create a genteel environment for the Schuyler family, but was part of a fantastically exclusive lifestyle utterly unattainable for the vast majority of the population, including those whose labor generated that income. To their peers, such materials indicated wealth, refinement, and prestige, all of which culminated in the social power and authority which Philip sought for himself and his family.


  1. Spelling correction needed: "genteel," not "gentile."

    1. Brain lapse on my part! Thanks for catching that; though to be fair, the Schuylers DID live a Gentile lifestyle as well as genteel :-)