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What Does It Cost? Wages and Expenses in Historical Context Lesson Plan
Overview
The segment "A New Industrial Landscape" of the narrative The Great Migration recounts how the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated in 1919 that $43 was the minimum weekly wage for a family of five. Students are often curious about how anyone can live on $43 per day, let alone a family of five for a week. So, this lesson, What Does It Cost?, is designed to help students understand the relative value of a historical dollar. Students will research through old newspaper ads to find prices for food, housing, clothing, transportation, and recreation. Then, they should calculate how many minutes, hours, or days a worker being paid about 91 cents an hour for a 47-hour workweek would have to work to purchase the five items they have priced and to rent an apartment.
Grade Levels:Middle and high school, grades 6-12
For use with:The Great Migration
Concentration Area:History
Concentration Area:Economics
National Curriculum Standards met by this lesson
The following standards have been taken from the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McRel) standards.
Students will understand

  • The challenges diverse people encountered in the late 19th century American society (e.g., the role of new laws and the federal judiciary in instituting racial inequality; arguments and methods by which various minority groups sought to acquire equal rights and opportunities; experiences of African American families who migrated from the South to New York City in the 1890s).
  • How racial and ethnic events influenced America during the Progressive Era.
  • The conditions affecting employment and labor in the late 19th century.
Time required
One 50-minute class period if students read the narrative outside of class
Materials needed
Anticipatory Set

  1. Poll students to determine if they know what the current minimum wage is. Ask students to multiply the minimum wage by 40 to determine what the minimum weekly wage for a 40-hour workweek is at the present time.
  2. Then, ask students what the current government estimates the minimum income necessary for a family of four is to remain above the poverty level.
  3. Tell students that the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculated that $43 was the minimum weekly wage for a family of five.
  4. Ask students to read the segment "A New Industrial Landscape" of the narrative The Great Migration.
Procedures

  1. Explain to students that they will be researching historic prices for the year 1919 either in old newspapers and catalogs or at online web sites that also contain such information. They should record the information they retrieve under five categories: food, clothing, transportation, recreation, and housing. Typical objects they may wish to look for include a winter coat, a trolley or subway fare, a musical concert ticket, apartment rental prices or new house costs, and typical grocery items such as bread, milk, chicken, apples, or a chocolate bar.
  2. After students have spent a period retrieving information, ask them to calculate how many hours a worker being paid, for example, 91 cents per hour, would have to work to purchase one item in each of the five categories for which they have retrieved prices. Please note the following:

    1. To calculate the number of hours necessary to purchase something, students should divide the price of the object by .91.
    2. Once divided, if the answer is less than 1.0, then the student should multiply this answer by 60 to calculate the number of minutes of work necessary to purchase the object.
    3. Once divided, if the answer is 47.0 or greater, students may divide the answer by 47 to calculate the number of weeks of work necessary to purchase the object.

What Does It Cost? Wages and Expenses in Historical Context Lesson

Historic Prices and Values for 1919

Food Clothing Transportation Entertainment Housing

After you have completed your research by locating at least ten items in one category and have located information for all five categories, you will find out not just the price but also the value of these items. Value represents the number of hours an individual must work to earn a particular item.

You will be using, as your basis, the $43 workweek that lasted 47 hours. A worker earned 91 cents per hour. Select one item from each category above and calculate the value (the number of hours of work necessary to purchase the item).

  1. To calculate the number of hours of work necessary to purchase something, divide the price of the object by .91.
  2. Once divided, if the answer is less than 1.0, multiply this answer by 60 to calculate the number of minutes of work necessary to purchase the object.
  3. Once divided, if the answer is 47.0 or greater, you may divide the answer by 47 to calculate the number of weeks of work necessary to purchase the object.
Name of Object Food Clothing Transportation Entertainment Housing
Time needed (Value)

Assessment

1. Ask students to write a paragraph evaluating whether, based on their study of prices and wages, they agree or disagree with the Bureau of Labor Statistics that, in 1919, a family of five could survive on a single weekly wage of $43.

2. Evaluate students' work on a five-point scale (which may be weighted) or five-letter grade rubric as follows:

Grading Elements Points/Grade
No response 0/F
No statement of agreement or disagreement with thesis, shows little understanding, offers few details, and has many technical problems 1/D
Response states clearly agreement or disagreement, may provide some incorrect examples, shows some confusion over concepts, and writing has some technical problems 2/C
Response states clearly agreement or disagreement, provides some examples, shows overall comprehension, and demonstrates most technical elements of good writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation) 3/B
Response states clearly agreement or disagreement, provides specific examples, shows originality and insight, and demonstrates technical elements of good writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation) 4/A

Related Works
Interdisciplinary Links

  • Economics: History and economics teachers may wish to collaborate to expand this unit. Students may be asked to collect prices from a second period, 1930 during the Great Depression, to compare what happened to wages and prices between 1919 and 1930. They should evaluate what historic economic events may account for any differences they note.
  • Mathematics: Students may wish to collect prices for items in each of the five categories out of a current newspaper from their community and, using the minimum wage as a basis, calculate how many hours they would need to work at a minimum wage job to earn selected items in each of the five categories.
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