Skip to main content


John Smith’s Bill: Then & Now

April 2024
19min read

In our May/June issue John Steele Gordon established a series of postulates to help determine that most elusive of historical questions, What was money really worth in the past? The question is of particular interest to James B. M. Schick, a professor of history at Pittsburg State University in Kansas, who is now working on a book on the computer-assisted teaching of history. Some years ago he became interested in the same problem—specifically, how much did John Smith’s colonists have to spend to equip themselves for their voyage to Virginia?—and he went about seeking the solution in a heroically direct way. Schick’s hands-on approach to determining the value of currency nearly four centuries ago not only yields convincing results; it also offers us an oblique and informative look at America’s colonial beginnings.


Capt. John Smith published in 1624 “a particular of such necessaries as either private families, or single persons, shall have cause to provide to go to Virginia.” Having often studied that list for what it could tell me about those hardy Englishmen who left home and hearth to venture to the shores of the river James, I also marveled at the cost: twelve pounds (£), six shillings (s), and three pence (d), sterling, to provide a year’s supply of tools, clothing, food, and cooking ware.


As I pondered the inventory, I found myself becoming interested in trying to determine what Smith’s list would cost today. To start with, I made several qualifying decisions:

1. I would select only items readily available in my area or from one of the many general-merchandise and specialty mail-order catalogues.

2. I would get as close an approximation as I could to the item Smith specified, and I vowed I would “buy modern” only when I had to because that item was no longer made. I also decided that I would not slavishly follow the captain’s list; if something would be unnecessary today, I would omit the item and save the money.

3. I would get good quality when I could and opt for durability over fashion or style, and I would pay a little extra for that assurance.

4. I would use no power tools.

5. I would use approximate prices, rounding up or down to the nearest dollar as seemed reasonable in each case.

Most of my in-person price hunting took place at Wal-Mart Discount City, True Value Home Center, Beitzinger Hardware and Furniture Store, Earl Evans Retail Liquor Store, Dillon grocery store, and Consumers Market grocery store—all in Pittsburg. Among the catalogues I used were those of Sears, Roebuck and Company; L. L. Bean; Eddie Bauer; Norm Thompson; Banana Republic Travel and Safari Clothing Company; Rio Grande Jewelers Supply; and Brookstone Hard-to-Find Tools. In addition I made telephone calls to the Pittsburg State University reference librarian, the Pittsburg police department, the Pittsburg Awning Company, International Tours of Pittsburg, and Pittsburg Transfer and Storage Company, the local agent for North American Van Lines. Though I drew some suspicious looks from store clerks as I waded through the list, I met with a good deal of cooperation once I’d explained what I was up to (and, my son tells me, a good many puzzled looks and shaken heads as they returned to their tasks). My telephone contacts were equally courteous and helpful.

Here is my update of Smith’s “particulars.”


A Monmoth cap. 1s. 10d.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this was a “flat round cap formerly worn by soldiers and sailors.” Bauer offers a sailor’s “watch cap” of 85 percent wool and 15 percent nylon with a Gore-Tex “membrane” for $15. [$15]

3 falling bands. 1s. 3d.

Since few men now wear separate collars, this seemed an unnecessary expense. But we do adorn our necks these days with ties, so I picked three hand-woven Pendleton wool plaid ties from L. L. Bean for $16 each. [$48]

3 shirts. 7s. 6d.

I decided to go with one light blue Sears Best work shirt, made of polyester and cotton, for $13.96; a Pendleton wool dress shirt in Manson tartan (red, navy, and forest green) from L. L. Bean for $48.50; and one of the Sears blue oxford cloth dress shirts for $14.88. [$77]

1 waistcoat. 2s. 2d.

Called a vest more commonly now, this garment presented me with several alternatives, but I chose the Sears catalogue’s $19.98 long-sleeve sweater vest of acrylic because it could be worn in most seasons and situations. [$20]

1 suit of canvas. 7s. 6d.

For rain and bad weather Sears has rubber-coated rainwear, coat and pants, for $41.98. Both Bauer’s Ridgeline parka of cotton/ polyester poplin and goose down, with insulated hood, in navy, for $195, and Bean’s Thinsulate Gore-Tex Maine Warden’s parka and hood in navy, for $179.75, provided protection against wind and water. I reasoned that a parka would provide better all-round protection from the elements, particularly since Englishmen found Virginia’s climate much colder than they expected, and the cheaper Bean model seemed a better choice. [$180]

1 suit of frieze. 10s.

This coarse woolen fabric was valued for its warmth. A tweed jacket and wool pants seemed closest to what Smith had in mind. Thompson’s Harris tweed jacket in gray herringbone for $165 was the best value, and I matched the coat with Bean’s wool worsted flannel trousers in dark gray for $58. [$223]

1 suit of cloth. 15s.

Instead of another dress-up suit, I opted for Sears Denim Toughskins (polyester, nylon, and cotton) bib overalls, with double knees, in hickory stripe for $30.99, and a cotton denim “chore coat” in blue for $27.96. [$59]

3 pair of Irish stockings. 4s.

Since I had to outfit for both work and social occasions, I selected from the catalogue two pairs of navy Sears Workforce stockings, made of acrylic and nylon, for $5.99, and one pair of acrylicand-nylon Sears Best quality hose in navy for $1.68. [$8]

4 pair of shoes. 8s. 8d.

Here I decided upon a pair of Bean’s brown Maine Hunting Shoes, twelve inches high, for $66; a pair of eight-inch-high reddish brown Sears DieHard Leather shoes for $71.94; a pair of Sears black plain-toe oxfords at $31.94; and a pair of Sears black blunt-toe boots for $49.94. [$220]

1 pair of garters. 10d.

Stores in my part of the country no longer stock garters, so I decided this was a good place to save money. [$0]

1 dozen of points. 3d.

“A tagged lace or cord, of twisted yarn, silk, or leather, for attaching the hose to the doublet, lacing a bodice, and fastening various parts where buttons are now used.” In this instance a leather belt seemed a wiser choice, so I decided on one from Sears: a reversible (black and brown) split cowhide belt with polished gilt brass buckle for $12. [$12]

1 pair of canvas sheets. 8s.

Two polyethylene tarpaulins from Sears (15 feet 8 inches by 19 feet 6 inches) cost $44.99 apiece. [$90]

7 ells of canvas to make a bed and bolster, to be filled in Virginia, serving for two men. 8s.

When I used an obsolete English unit of measurement equivalent to 45 inches, 7 ells of canvas came to 315 inches, or about 9 yards. The salesman at the Pittsburg Awning Company urged me to consider more modern materials not subject to the dry rot to which canvas is prone. A family-size tent of cotton and polyester (sleeps six adults) priced at $210.64 in the Sears catalogue sounded like a much better buy. I decided to spend a little extra and get two Space Blankets from Bean’s (56 by 84 inches) for $9.75 each. [$230]

5 ells of coarse canvas to make a bed at sea for two men. 5s.

Could Smith have had a hammock in mind? Bean’s features an Outdoorsman sleeping bag with Quallofil insulation for $109 and a Kennebec insulated sleeping bag rated to zero degrees at $129. I concluded Smith would have paid the difference to get greater protection from the elements. [$129]

1 coarse rug at sea for two men. 6s.

The Scots still use the term rug , but we prefer the word blanket . The Hudson’s Bay Point blanket in Bean’s catalogue looked the most appealing, and I settled on the largest (108 by 100 inches), which cost $210, as suitable for two men. [$210]

Total cost of apparel £4 6s. Od. [$l,521]

Victual for a whole year for a man, and so after the rate for more.

A trip to Consumers Market gave me prices for these items, but I was able to get only small packaged amounts and had to calculate the approximate value of the quantity Smith called for. This would include:

8 bushels of meal. £2.

In today’s language Smith was calling for wheat flour. The equivalent of 8 bushels is 256 pounds. I could get a 5-pound paper bag of Gold Medal flour for 99 cents at my local store. I needed a little more than 51 of those bags at a cost of $50.49. [$51]

The armor Smith called for has an equivalent in the bulletproof vest. According to my local police department, an “everyday, walk-outon-the-street type” vest costs $350.


2 bushels of peas. 6s.

For a 17 ounce can of Del Monte sweet peas I would pay 66 cents. Two bushels translates into 120 pounds, or not quite 113 of these cans: $74.58. [$75]

2 bushels of oatmeal. 9s.

The equal of 68 pounds, that much oatmeal would require about 26 cartons of Old Fashioned Quaker Oats in the 42-ounce carton at $2.39 each and cost $62.14. [$62]

1 gallon of aqua vitae. 2s. 6d.

Evans Liquor Store had grain alcohol by McCormick at $24.83 a gallon. [$25]

1 gallon of oil. 3s. 6d.

A gallon of Food Club brand vegetable oil cost $5.69 in a plastic jug. [$6]

2 gallons of vinegar. 2s.

The store priced a gallon of Food Club cider vinegar at $2.29 [$5]

Total cost of victuals £3 3s. [$225]

Grand total £7 9s. Od. [$1,745]


Arms for a man, but if half your men be armed it is well, so all have swords and pieces. 


1 armor complete, light. 17s.

Although armor, light or heavy, did not long survive Smith’s day, what he called for had an equivalent, 1 decided, in the bulletproof vest and protective helmet worn by police officers. According to the Pittsburg Police Department, an “everyday, walk-out-on-the-streettype” vest able to withstand gunshots less than .45 caliber would cost $350. A police helmet fitted to the individual would require an additional $110, plus $35 for the face shield. [$495]

1 long piece five feet and a half, near musket bore. £1 2s.

Both Wal-Mart and John’s Sports Center told me I could rely on paying between $300 and $400 for a good, contemporary hunting rifle. [$350]

1 sword. 5s.

Although I found advertisements for U.S. Army surplus bayonets and Chilean police swords, I doubted they were what Smith had in mind. Also available from several sources were reproductions of Scottish broadswords, battle-axes, and even a Roman gladius, but I suspected these were hang-on-the-wall models rather than military hardware. Both Wal-Mart and John’s Sports Center displayed a Taiwanese machete for $4.96. I decided to go for the Oriental slasher, despite the fact that my Scottish ancestors whispered unkind things in my ear about the selection. Doubtless Smith expected the sword’s use in fighting the natives, but few today would choose swordplay over firepower from that hunting rifle. Since funds would be limited, I opted for what I thought would do me the most good, not what would add swash to my buckle. [$5]

1 belt. 1s.

I found two different types of leather belts for outdoorsmen at John’s, one for ammunition, costing $17.95, and the other, for general purposes, priced at $20. The latter appeared more useful and of better quality. [$20]

1 bandolier. 1s. 6d.

An old Banana Republic catalogue listed a “Swedish bandolier” of leather and canvas for only $24, but I decided instead to get an internal-frame backpack (18 ½ by 11 by 6 inches, from American Camper, for $19.96) as more versatile and roomy. [$20]

20 pound of powder. 18s.

John’s Sports Center carried bulk gunpowder at $12 a pound, so Smith’s supply would have come to $240. [$240]

60 pound of shot or lead, pistol and goose shot. 5s.

John’s Sports Center also had shot in stock, available at $14.99 in 25-pound quantities, though the clerks did ask if I was planning a revolution and suggested that perhaps I needed a little more shot for the amount of powder I was buying. They offered to prorate the cost at a perpound price, so the 60 pounds would come to $36. [$36]

Total cost of arms £3 9s. 6d. [$1,166]

Grand total £10 18s. 6d. [$2,911]

Tools for a family of six persons, and so after the rate for more.

My local True Value hardware store seemed the place to begin on this long list of items, and except where a different source has been indicated, these implements came from that supplier.

5 broad hoes at 2s. apiece. 10s.

A Green Thumb broad hoe retailed for $19.99. [$100]

5 narrow hoes at 16d. apiece. 6s. 8d.

Green Thumb narrow hoes cost $20.99 each. [$105]

2 broad axes at 3s. 8d. apiece. 7s. 4d.

A Master Mechanic Professional broadax ran $24.99. [$50]

5 felling axes at 18d. apiece. 7s. 6d.

A Master Mechanic Professional felling ax sold for $14.95. [$75]

2 steel handsaws at 16d. apiece. 2s. 8d.

Master Mechanic Professional Coarse crosscut saws were $19.99 each. [$40]

2 two-handsaws at 5s. apiece. 10s.

How big a saw did Smith have in mind? If he meant what is now called a bow saw, which is about a yard of crosscut saw and a handle roughly that of a pulled bow, the Master Mechanic bow saw can be obtained at True Value for $15. But if Smith intended one of those large five- or six-foot saws used by loggers, I was out of luck because they aren’t sold around here anymore. One hardware store told me over the phone that it had one and would let me know the price if I came over and helped the clerk get it down from its resting place among the rafters. Soon I was holding in my hands a six-foot two-handed crosscut saw covered with rust and greasy dust. But then it developed the saw had been in the store since it opened forty-five years earlier, and it was not for sale! I reasoned that faced with this situation, the captain would have purchased two of those bow saws and pocketed the rest of the money. [$30]

1 whipsaw, set and filed, with box, file and wrest. 10s.

A whipsaw served much the same purpose as a mitre box and attached saw. A Precision Mitre Box made by Master Mechanic cost $32.79. [$33]

2 hammers 12d. apiece. 2s.

A Master Mechanic Professional hammer ran $25.99. [$52]

3 shovels at 18d. apiece. 4s. 6d.

A Green Thumb shovel was priced at $24.95. [$75]

2 spades at 18d. apiece. 3s.

Green Thumb spades were $24.95 each. [$50]

2 augers at 6d. apiece. 1s.

Originally a drill for soil or wood, the auger is most commonly used now for digging pestholes. The Green Thumb auger I looked at sold for $19.99. [$40]


6 chisels at 6d. apiece. 3s.

The six different Master Mechanic wood chisels I looked at, in sizes of ¼, ½, ¾, 1, 1¼, and l½ inches, ran $5.99, $6.09, $6.29, $6.49, $7.99, and $8.49 respectively. The total came to $41.34. [$41]

2 piercers stocked 4d. apiece. 8d.

Beitzinger Hardware carried a “Revolving Punch” for leather, canvas, and a variety of materials for $8.55. [$9]

3 gimlets at 2d. apiece. 6d.

This hole borer for wood is the rough equivalent of a hand drill. Rio Grande featured a decent-looking hand drill (or $11.99, and one could obtain bits for $1.09 apiece. I estimated Smith would probably want about two dozen bits (two each in assorted sizes). [$49]

2 hatchets at 21d. apiece. 3s. 6d.

Master Mechanic hatchets at True Value run $17.89 each. [$36]

2 froes to cleave pale. 18d. each. 3s.

The wedge offered by Brookstone for splitting logs costs $15. [$30]

2 hand bills 2Od. apiece. 3s. 4d.

A hand bill for lopping off branches led me once more to Beitzinger Hardware. There I found an eight-foot tree pruner for $29.29. [$59]

1 grindstone. 4s.

Foot-powered grindstones are not readily available these days; electric-powered models are. Since I had pledged not to use a power generator, I decided on a good-quality Arkansas Oilstone priced at $30, with two cans of rubbing oil that cost $1.61 each. [$33]

Nails of all sorts to the value of £2.

How much to buy? I decided to get a rough idea of the value of 2 pounds sterling by taking the prices of ten tools still made (broad and narrow hoes, broad and felling axes, handsaw, hammer, shovel, spade, an average chisel, and hatchet) and comparing the value then with that of today. First I totaled the price in pence of the ten items and got 195. Next I added the cost of the modern equivalents and came out with $201.58. Then, in order to get an idea of the worth of one penny in 1624,1 divided $201.58 by 195 pence; the result was 1.0337, which meant that 1 penny in 1624 was approximately $1.04 in present-day dollars. Since 2 pounds in sterling money represented 40 shillings, or 480 pence, Smith’s 480 pence worth of nails would cost $494.40 today, and I decided to round that up to $500.1 then called my True Value man for information on how many nails this would turn out to be. When I told him I wanted $500 in assorted nails, he began to get a husky tone in his voice. But the more he thought and asked questions—nails of what quality, galvanized or cementcoated, for what purpose, and so forth —the more doubtful he became. We finally agreed that what I probably wanted were boxes of four-, six-, eight-, twelve-, and sixteen-penny nails. One pound of each would run $1.10, and my $500 would buy about 454 pounds of nails—probably enough to build a whole village. My estimate was apparently way off, perhaps because mechanization has made nails much cheaper since 1624. But for want of a better method, I stayed with it. [$500]

Since the 96 pence worth of aqua vitae, oil, and vinegar Smith wanted came to $32.81 in today’s dollars, I figured that a 1624 penny was about the same as 34 cents today.

2 pickaxes. 3s.

True Value carried Master Mechanic pickaxes only as separate items, head and handle. The head cost $16.89, and the handle retailed for $9.99. [$54]

Total for Tools £6 5s. 8d [$1,461] ÷ 6 = £1 1s. [$244]

Grand total £11 19s. 6d. [$3,155]

Household implements for a family and six persons, and so for more or less after the rate.

All these items came from Wal-Mart Discount City.

1 iron pot. 7s.

A five-quart iron Dutch oven sold for $15.68. [$16]

1 kettle. 6s.

A twelve-quart aluminum saucepot would serve this purpose. I found one for $17.24. [$17]

1 large frying pan. 2s. 6d.

Prowling around several aisles, I observed that what once we called a frying pan we now refer to as a sauté pan, probably because of recent health concerns. I did find a lidded “chicken fryer”—it must still be okay to fry chicken—for $14.97 and opted for that. [$15]

1 gridiron. 1s. 6d.

Since I had determined to purchase a barbecue grill instead of a spit, buying a separate grid on which to cook seemed an unnecessary duplication, so I skipped this item. [$0]

2 skillets. 5s.

Ten-inch ($5.47) and eight-inch ($3.68) nonstick skillets totaled $9.15. [$9]

1 spit. 2s.

No spits were available, but Wal-Mart did have a Weber Smokey Joe Grill for $21.96 that combined an adequate size of cooking area with portability. [$22]

Platters, dishes, spoons of wood. 4s.

To meet these needs, I found: a Newcor twenty-piece stoneware dinnerware for four at $24.94; twenty pieces of Oneida flatware for four at $12.96; a package of four skewers for 94 cents; a three-piece set of wooden spoons for 97 cents (and I decided we’d need two sets); a spatula from Great Cooks at $1.48; a large (16 by 22 inches) “hardrock” maple cutting board/pastry board for $9.97 that could do double duty as a platter; and a set of five knives—8-inch slicer, 7-inch butcher, 6-inch boner, 4-inch parer, and 3¼ inch paring knife—for $11.98. I decided to include a coffeepot ($6.96) and four cups ($3.84), all of cheap metal. Taken together, these items totaled $75.01. [$75]

Total for household implements £1 8s. [$154]

÷6 = 4s. 8d. [$26]

Grand total £12 4s. 2d. [$3,181]

For sugar, spice, and fruit, and at sea for six men.

12s. 6d. [$51] How much should that be? I consulted Carl Bridenbaugh’s excellent book Vexed and Troubled Englishmen, 1590-1642 (New York, 1976, p. 5), which had the following advice: “Each passenger was usually allowed to take five pounds of provisions, such as salted beef, pork, and fish; also butter, cheese, pease, water-gruel, ‘Biskets, and six-shilling Beere.’ [William] Wood [ in New Englands Prospect (London, 1634)] urged them to take some conserves, good wine to burn, and ‘Sallet-oyl’ in addition—all for seasickness—and for relief from the salt diet, sugar, eggs, bacon, rice, some poultry, and a wether sheep. Most important was lemon juice to cure or prevent scurvy.”

With this weight limit, I wondered about how much money to spend. Only three of the food items (aqua vitae, oil, and vinegar) were available in comparable quantities so as to judge prices. Since the amount of aqua vitae, oil, and vinegar that Smith called for would have cost him 96 pence, or $32.81 in today’s dollars, I arrived at the conclusion that 1 penny of 1624 was about the same as 34 cents in today’s money ($32.81 divided by 96). Thus 12s. 6d. equaled 150 pence, and I had $51 to spend on these food items (150 times .34). In this case, rather than the cost being restrictive, the 5-pound allowance would be limiting, but I decided to get as close as I could, remembering that for six people I could get 30 pounds (480 ounces).

For this shopping I went to Dillon grocery store. I bought Armour bacon ($2 for two 1-pound packages), Armour Spam (two 12-ounce tins for $3.58), Lipton chicken noodle dry soup mix (2 packages, each with two envelopes and weighing 4.5 ounces, for $1.98), Best Choice butter (1 pound, $2.29), Kraft sharp cheddar cheese ($5.97 for 24 ounces), a dozen large Grade A white eggs (89 cents for a carton weighing 28 ounces), Kraft orange marmalade (18-ounce jar for $1.45), ReaLemon lemon juice ($1.33 for 16 fluid ounces), Sun-Maid raisins (15-ounce package for $1.59), raw Trail Mix (consisting of raisins, peanuts, almonds, cashews, sunflower seeds, dates, and coconuts—6 ounces for $1.12), dried banana chips (5 ounces for 93 cents), Creamette vermicelli ($1.09 for a 1-pound box), Pillsbury Country biscuits (four tubes, each with ten biscuits, 99 cents and a total of 30 ounces), Riceland white rice (2 pounds for $1.26), Best Choice Great Northern beans (2-pound bag for $1.19), C & H Superfine sugar (89 cents for 1 pound), Meister Brau beer (carton of a dozen 12-ounce cans, $3.69), Maxwell House French Roast coffee ($3.09 for 12 ounces), and cans of McCormick spices, including ground cinnamon (1 ounce for $1.09), ground black pepper (2 ounces for $1.23), ground cloves ($2.23 for .9 ounce), and ground nutmeg ($1.85 for 1.1 ounces).

The total weight came to 480 ounces exactly. The price for all that food was $41.73, about four-fifths of my allowance, so 1 added one more package of beans ($1.19 for 2 pounds), Budget egg noodles (a pound for $1.05), kielbasa (16 ounces for $2.75), a bottle of K.C. Masterpiece barbecue sauce (original flavor, 19-ounce jar for $1.50), another bottle of ReaLemon juice (more scurvy remedy—$1.33 for 16 fluid ounces), one more pound of Armour bacon ($1), and 2.4 more ounces of raw Trail Mix (45 cents), all of which brought the total to the exact amount required. In weight, however, 1 ballooned to 597 ounces, or about 6¼ pounds of on board provisions per person, a situation I suspect Smith would have permitted. Just how long these would have lasted on the voyage over is questionable, and certainly I would have to rely on my hunting prowess and the Indians for food in America, as did the settlers in Virginia.

In addition, remember that the voyage itself took about five weeks to several months to accomplish. The first expedition of the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery departed London on December 19, 1606, dropped down the Thames to the sea, and spent six weeks there waiting for favorable winds, all the while consuming precious food stocks. Finally the winds changed, and then the ships began the long journey to the Canary Islands, across the Atlantic to the West Indies, and up the coast past Florida to the Chesapeake. They made landfall at the future site of James Town on May 13, 1607, after a trip that took in all about twenty-one weeks. Look again at that food supply and imagine an impecunious landlubber, seasick and terrified, rationing his meager provisions and hoping for a quick end to the ordeal.

Total per man for sugar, spice, and fruit 2s. Id. [$9]

So the full charge after this rate for each person will amount to about the sum of £12 6s. 3d.

The grand total so far amounts to $3,190. Shocking? Many people lived at or below the poverty level in England in 1624, but establishing what that meant in pounds and shillings is not easy. A rough approximation can be made. In 1588 some representative wage rates for skilled workers in the trade companies of London ranged between £3 6s. 8d. and £6 per year, including meat and drink, and while there were modest increases in the actual amount of pay, the years of King James I’s reign, 1603-25, recorded a noticeable drop in the real wages of workers whatever the numbers. At about the time of Smith’s writing, the average daily pay for a skilled workman was about 6 pence a day plus meat; if he labored every day of the year—unlikely in the extreme—the annual pay of this person would come to £9 2s. 6d. An annual wage of around £5 would come nearer the mark. Those engaged in farming might have had even less money as income; they may well have raised little more than enough to eat. Thus the amount set by the captain was much more than, perhaps even twice as much as, an average annual income for most of those thinking about the trip to America. In 1989, however, $3,190 represented less than the $5,469 annual income set by the government of the United States as the poverty threshold for a single individual and less than a third of the $10,989 annual income considered the poverty level for a family of four, probably the more appropriate gauge when we compare the two eras. The conclusion would seem to be that even though we skimped some on food, a situation that today’s traveler would be most likely to remedy, unless there were severe weight limitations, going to another Virginia would be well within the means of at least some “poor” Americans. Put another way, a great many Englishmen had to indenture themselves—to become hired servants for a term of, usually, between five to seven years to the company or the individual who paid the passage to America—in order to make the trip, but Americans of the late twentieth century would probably not have to mortgage a sizable portion of their working years to start a new life. While the impoverished would-be colonist from Smith’s England contemplated a lofty sum twice or more his annual income, an American of today would require somewhat or substantially less than his or her annual income to outfit for the journey.

The total in 1989 terms comes to $6,449. As the amount necessary for surviving in a strange, new, and at times hostile land, it does not really seem like very much at all.

I should also note that Captain Smith left out a few items most of us would think essential: can opener, needles and thread, soap, writing and toilet paper, canteen or thermos, stamps, underwear, family Bible, books, gloves, sweater, scarf, matches, deck of cards, soft drinks, screwdriver and screws, suitcase, mattress, and, of course, countless battery-operated or electric gadgets. Nevertheless, by taking no more than Smith stipulated, a traveler to Virginia would have had enough to set up housekeeping and survive in the New World, provided there were Indians around to show him how to plant corn, fish, and learn the ways of the forest.

The passage of each man is £6.

A telephone call to International Tours of Pittsburg elicited the information that the Queen Elizabeth II was the only regularly scheduled ocean liner still plying the seas between England and the United States. Departing Southampton, not London, bound for New York, not Jamestown in Virginia, that vessel provides her cheapest cabin for about $1,330 per person for two persons one way and $3,657.50 for the same berth as a single. But the QE2 has a standby fare of $999, and reasoning that English ship captains would fill in with passengers after they’d loaded their vessels with goods bound for Virginia, I concluded that going standby would have suited Smith perfectly. With this lower figure, that makes a 1624 penny equal to about 70 cents today ($999 divided by 1,440), a moderate rate compared with other exchange values found in this survey. Instead of the five weeks and more of the earlier century’s passage, the modern luxury liner takes just five days. [$999]


The fraught of these provisions for a man, will be about half a ton, which is £1 10s.

According to the North American Van Lines agent, shipping a half-ton of personal effects from the James River area to London would cost $226 per 100 pounds of weight, or $2,260. This included packing and labor charges by the agent to pick up, pack, and crate, as well as surface transportation, for door-to-door delivery. Though I could save money by delivering these goods already crated, I decided to go with the full-service rate. [$2,260]

So the whole charge will amount to about £20.

The total in 1989 terms comes to $6,449. For each 1624 penny the modern voyager would have to spend about $1.36 ($6,449 divided by 4,800 pence), a sizable amount perhaps, but probably less than one might expect after nearly four hundred years. As the amount necessary for surviving in a strange, new, and at times hostile land, $6,449 does not really seem like very much at all.

Now if the number be great, [not only] nets, hooks and lines, but cheese, bacon, kine and goats must be added.

This surely seems a good idea even if no one else were to be joining our expedition, but since Smith gave no value, I can omit this from the computation.

And this is the usual proportion the Virginia Company doe[s] bestow upon their tenants they send.

If the U.S. government were to outfit an expedition to a new colony, say one on Mars or in a satellite in fixed orbit around the Earth or Moon, I doubt if the expenditure for provisions would average only $6,449 per person. Perhaps $64,000. Of course, the Virginia Company did send additional supplies during those early years. Yet for this modest fare the company received the services of the planter and established a colony that was to prove of significant benefit to England, if not to the company itself. Many of those sent to America would die, but still they came. By the time of the Revolution, Virginia was not only the oldest of the British colonial settlements in North America but also the most populous and the wealthiest. Capt. John Smith would have been proud.

NOTE: For those interested in how prices have changed over time, the present survey follows a similar one done in 1985. According to the U.S. government’s calculations, over the 1985-88 period (1989 figures are not yet in, of course) the consumer price index rose 14.4 percent. Four years ago the total came to $5,259, or $1,190 less than the current total cost, an increase of 22.7 percent, not too far from the official rate of increase.

In fact, the rise was not uniform. In apparel, for instance, thanks in part to recent price reductions at Sears, today’s prices were $68 less than four years ago. Victuals were up 17.2 percent, from $192 to $225. Arms were also advanced, from $850 to $1,166, or 37.1 percent. Tools for six showed only a modest increase of $15 over the four years, $1,460 to $1,465. Household implements for six declined a modest $7, from $163 to $156, or 4.3 percent. Sugar, spice, and fruit and provisions for six for the voyage rose $4 from $47 to $51, or just 8.5 percent. There were some oddities in foodstuffs: The bacon was 78 cents cheaper; the Lipton soup cost a nickel more, but each box contained an additional ounce of the product; Kraft marmalade was a nickel less; the beer was 50 cents cheaper, but the beans rose from 57 cents to $1.19, a jump of 108.8 percent for those beans. Because of the new standby fare, the QE2 showed a decrease of $191, down to $999 from $1,190 or 16.1 percent, but using the same type of accommodation as before would register an increase of $2467.50, or 207.4 percent! Apparently the QE2 hopes to encourage couples (the per-person fare for them is up only $380, or only 32 percent). By far the biggest jump occurred in the cost of transporting goods across the Atlantic. While the 1985 rate was $1,218, four years’ time saw a jump of $1,042, or 85.6 percent. This unscientific sample also included some alternative goods where earlier items had been discontinued, and in some cases a much cheaper product was substituted. Nevertheless, the unevenness of the changes over this four-year span was a surprise.

Walter Karp, 1934–1989

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.