One Dollar and Eighty-Seven Cents. That’s the opening sentence of O Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi”, first published in December 1905 in a “The New York Sunday World” newspaper (though the title then, if Wikipedia can be believed, was “Gifts of the Magi”).
Until a few days ago, while I knew the story and the author, I hadn’t thought about it that much beyond that. I knew it had been written “a while ago”, but not when. Certainly I didn’t have much of an impression of the buying power of Della’s one dollar and eighty-seven cents. (For those of you who aren’t familiar with the tale of the young couple who each – no, wait, spoiler alert. If you haven’t read the story, go read it now. You can find many versions of it online, some with slightly different text to others. It won’t take you long.)
But when I ran across the story in a book of assorted Christmas themed stories, articles and poetry recently, the first line struck me in a way it never had before. I dug through my collection of assorted coins in many currencies and pulled out as many pennies as I could find. While I couldn’t get close to the 60 or so pennies Della had collected over many bargaining (or “bulldozing”) sessions with butchers and vegetable men, I amassed a small collection. Then I eked this collection of pennies out to the assigned one dollar and eighty-seven cents, using as many coins as possible.
About two thirds of these coins are from the US, the rest are Canadian (I live in a country where neither American nor Canadian change is easy to come by). It gave me a small picture of how much change Della might have amassed. How carefully she had to count it (once, twice, three times) to be sure of the total.
One of my aunts, for whom this is a favourite story, challenged me to find out how much this one dollar and eighty-seven cents might be worth today. This required two pieces of information – where and when was this tale set? I was almost certain of where – the story talks of “Broadway”, and to me that had to mean New York. As for when, sources pointed to December 1905. 110 years ago. Inflation? I could make a guess at 3%, but that’s a lot of years to pick an average target for. The marvellous website “in2013dollars.com” uses more than a stab in the dark to come up with inflation calculators.
Della’s $1.87 in 1905 equates to $48.62 today. That seems to me to be a reasonably respectable amount to spend on a Christmas gift, though perhaps not as much as you might wish to have as a spending limit for your husband.
Out came the collection of change again. Still using as many pennies as I could find (but sticking to a single currency this time), I pulled together a collection of cash to make up what Della started out with today.
For further illustration, using the same calculator, I began converting some of the other figures in the story. James Dillingham Young’s $20 a week salary equates to $520.03 today. Their $8 a week furnished flat, pier glass mirror and all, would be $208.01 a week.
A platinum fob chain (“simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation”) cost Della her hair (which “grows so fast, Jim!”), and $21 ($546.03). Today on the internet I can find antique platinum watch fobs from $495 through twice that and more.
It’s hard to know what Della’s combs cost Jim, other than his watch, because the story doesn’t put a price on them. I found a copy of the script for the musical, where the set of combs, “pure tortoiseshell, with jewelled rims” are quoted as costing forty-seven.
But because you really appreciate them, forty-two.
But because you really love your girl, thirty-seven.
($47=$1,222.07, $42=$1,092.06, $37=$962.06)
With so much fake tortoiseshell available now, it’s hard to link this to a cost in today’s market. One final note from my research – O. Henry was the pen name for William Sydney Porter, and the name of the “Oh Henry!” chocolate bar might be an homage to him.
Ratesjul is an avid reader (of almost anything) and keen amateur (emphasis on the amateur) photographer. She loves looking through collections of family photos and hearing family stories – and is in awe of her aunt’s collection of photo albums.
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