Saturday, January 08, 2011

The Cost of Traveling Coast to Coast in the U.S.: 1850 versus Today

An interesting item caught my attention while reading Gen. Sherman's memoirs.

In 1850 the U.S. Army reassigned Sherman from San Francisco, CA to the east coast. In his memoirs he mentioned that the passage from San Francisco back to the east cost $600.

What struck me is that even in nominal terms, the price of a airplane ticket from San Francisco to just about any east-coast city in the U.S. today is likely around $600. Actually less. I just priced a ticket from SFO to DCA for a February flight. It came in at $360 on

So today, we can get from one end of the country to the other end of the country for less money and a lot less time -- several hours instead of several months.

The qualitative improvement would be impressive enough. But there's more. Annual income in the U.S. in 1850 (in 2005 dollars) was around $2,500. So it took about a quarter of a year's oncome (around 88 days at average wages) to pay for the travel from San Francisco to the east coast of the U.S.

Today average income in the U.S. is around $45,000 (in 2005 dollars). It takes the average worker about three days of wages to pay for a ticket to cross the U.S. in a matter of hours.

The difference in cost and quality between 1850 and today seems pretty amazing.


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