$100 in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Lapdesk

The Lapdesk Story

A story that always gets me is the $100 lost in the lapdesk as told in On the Way Home. I can feel Laura’s joy and then her desperation and then her jubilation at finally getting the money into the bank to put down on the place. This story always means a lot to me so I thought it would be a good one to explore. Just how much was that $100 worth?

Learn more about the Lapdesk in this video, including the best theory I’ve heard about where the money was:

Calculating the Value of Money

One of the things that people have trouble understanding is how the value of money changed over the years. It’s one of the concepts that I try to get across as a historic interpreter. I thought the $100 in 1894 would be a great example. Using money to measure value across time is a bit like trying to measure something using a measuring tape made of elastic that stretches or shrinks, so to get the best idea possible I consulted my favorite money calculator which gives a range of how you can interpret the changing purchasing power of money.  I’ve included their answers for all the ways you calculate the value of money over time and then sum up down below.

Basically the ways depend on comparing what that initial amount of money could have gotten you in the year you start, in this case 1894. Then you convert back to how much money it would take to get the same amount of the thing today. However, not all prices raise or fall the same and few products are exactly the same over time so you have to make allowances and you can come up with different answers. Also, there is a time lag do the time necessary to collect data and enter it into the system, so today we’ll be comparing the value of $100.00 between 1884 and 2012.

Summary of Value

Laura Writing Close Up

Laura Writing Close Up

So to sum up, depending on which calculation and how much information you want to use, you could ballpark it as roughly $2500-3000 in today’s money although the full range is greater than that. The labor values below are figured using the same philosophy that Father Wilder uses to explain the value of 50 cents to Almanzo when he decides to get Lucy the Pig rather than a lemonade.

The Full Calculations

In 2012, the relative value of $100.00 from 1894 ranges from $2,480.00 to $111,000.00.

A simple Purchasing Power Calculator would say the relative value is $2,750.00. This answer is obtained by multiplying $100 by the percentage increase in the CPI from 1894 to 2012.

This may not be the best answer.

The best measure of the relative value over time depends on if you are interested in comparing the cost or value of a Commodity , Income or Wealth , or a Project . For more discussion on how to pick the best measure, read the essay “Explaining the Measures of Worth.”

If you want to compare the value of a $100.00 Commodity in 1894 there are three choices. In 2012 the relative:
real price of that commodity is $2,750.00
labor value of that commodity is $13,500.00(using the unskilled wage) or $21,500.00(using production worker compensation)
income value of that commodity is $24,300.00


If you want to compare the value of a $100.00
Income or Wealth , in 1894 there are three choices. In 2012 the relative:
historic standard of living value of that income or wealth is $2,750.00
economic status value of that income or wealth is $24,300.00
economic power value of that income or wealth is $111,000.00


If you want to compare the value of a $100.00
Project in 1894 there are four choices. In 2012 the relative:
historic opportunity cost of that project is $2,480.00
labor cost of that project is $13,500.00(using the unskilled wage) or $21,500.00(using production worker compensation)
economy cost of that project is $111,000.00

Sarah S. Uthoff is main force behind Trundlebed Tales fighting to bring the History, Mystery, Magic and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation.Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, and find her on FacebookTwitterGoogle+,LinkedIn, and Academia.edu. She is currently acting President of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association. Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.

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One Response to “$100 in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Lapdesk”

  1. Melanie S. Says:

    You did a really thorough job of explaining this, Sarah. I need to share it with my skeptical brother who doesn’t at all understand this concept or how there isn’t anywhere near a single, correct answer for translating the value of money from one era to another. My other brother and I tried to explain it to him at Thanksgiving, to no avail. Now we can just point him here!

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