I’ve mentioned it before, but I can’t plug the Inflation Calculator often enough. It’s a Web site that allows you to adjust for inflation any given amount of money (in American dollars) in any year between 1800 and 2002, in either direction. If that sounds boring, think again. I use the Inflation Calculator at least once a week in my work, and I can’t tell you how many times I used it in writing The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken.
Here’s an example: I was reading a biography of Benny Goodman this morning, in which it was mentioned in passing that Goodman paid Cootie Williams, one of the top trumpeters of the Swing Era, $200 a week in 1940. O.K., fine–but go to the Inflation Calculator and within seconds you’ll know that in today’s dollars, Williams made $2,493.29 a week, or $129,651.08 a year. That’s pretty serious money now, even more so for a black jazz trumpeter playing with a white dance band in 1940…and you didn’t really know how good a salary it was, did you?
That’s what makes the Inflation Calculator so useful to anyone writing about the arts. Unless you’re an economist, you’re likely to have only the haziest notion of what a dollar was worth in 1940, or 1840, or even 1975. (What cost $200 in 1975 cost $701.80 in 2002. Surprised?) Yet that kind of information is indispensable to understanding the implications of, say, a novel about life in 1940, or a biography of a painter that tells how much a particular canvas sold for in 1928. It changes the way you think about the past.
Enough said? Bookmark the Inflation Calculator today. Use it. You can always find it in the “Sites to See” module of the right-hand column.