Concept: Paige Morgan

This project is supported in part by the facilities and staff of The Center for Advanced Research and Technology in the Arts and Humanities (CARTAH) at the University of Washington (http://www.washington.edu/cartah), Chris Ozubko and Richard Karpen, Directors

Visible Prices is a database, currently in development, of price information from a mix of literary and historical sources, encompassing fiction and nonfiction, for texts from 18th and 19th century Great Britain. Users will be able to enter a price, good or service, region, and/or time frame, and return entries that match their original queries. For example, a user who starts with the knowledge that the annual tuition for sending an orphan to the Lowood School in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is £15 will be able to retrieve entries for other goods or services priced at £15 in 1847, or the surrounding years. Each entry will consist of a brief quote and narrative to provide context, in keeping with fair use guidelines; and entries link directly to the source and/or provide bibliographic citation data, allowing users access to the necessary information to obtain the original source text. Literary researchers might use this tool to investigate the ways that authors were using prices as significant details in imaginative writing; and to examine prices recorded in novels, poetry, letters and diaries against a larger historical backdrop. Historians could use the database to explore how the prices of two different goods (for example, the annual wage of a governess, and the price of a pianoforte, both of which are listed in sources as approximately £15 in 1847) change over time, or to examine trends in goods and services being offered in a given period or location. These are only a few of the ways that the database might be a productive tool.

I hope to collect as many examples as possible of specific prices being offered for specific goods or services, drawing on pamphlets, essays, letters, diaries, poetry, novels, invoices, ledgers, newspaper articles, and classified advertisements as source material. The only requirement is that the listed price be clearly associated with a specific commodity; and the commodity might be a staple resource (wheat, barley, oats), a luxury (china, books), or a service (education, construction, tailoring, landscape architecture). While users of the database will be able to construct queries that exclude either literary or historical data, I am constructing this resource in part to show that we can gain new knowledge by combining the two; and that we will be more able to see how individuals used prices as specific information by examining both fictional and nonfictional sources.

I am currently identifying data sources and making decisions about the best platform and framework for Visible Prices. My intention is to create it as an open source, open access information repository to which individuals and organizations can, and will want to, contribute, either by importing large amounts of data, or via a simple data entry form. Economic historians have produced records of price data for various time periods, and have often made this data freely available online in spreadsheet form. What Visible Prices will offer is a means of making this data more conducive to query-based searches, and a central location that will make it easier for researchers to collaborate and compare data. My intention is also to make it a resource that could be easily integrated into academic classrooms, both as a useful source of information, and as a tool to which students could contribute while learning about research methodology.

I would welcome comments, questions, and suggestions about platforms, programming languages, and potential sources of data for Visible Prices. I would also be delighted to hear how you think it might be structured to be an effective resource for your own work. At present, I am assembling data from source material associated with Great Britain and Ireland from approximately 1700-1900, as that is my own area of specialization, but I hope to be able to expand the scope of the regions and time periods while insuring that it grows as a focused and useful resource for potential users. You can reach me at paigecm@uw.edu.

You can currently test Visible Prices here.


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