Pumpkin Spice: 15th Century Edition

It’s pumpkin spice season. That means that not only can you get pumpkin spice lattes, but also pumpkin spice Oreos, pumpkin spice Cheerios, and even pumpkin spice oil changes.

The most important thing to know about “pumpkin spice” things is that they don’t actually taste like pumpkin. They taste like the spices that you use to flavor pumpkin pie. (Notable exception: Peter Suderman’s excellent pumpkin spice cocktail syrup, which does contain pumpkin puree.)

Last week economic historian Anton Howes posted a picture of the spice shelf at his grocery store and guessed that this would have been worth millions of dollars in 1600.

Some of the comments pushed back a little. OK, probably not millions but certainly a lot. Howes was alluding to the well-known fact that spices used to be expensive. Very expensive. Spices, along with precious metals, were one of the primary reasons for the global exploration, trade, and colonialism for centuries. Finding and controlling spices was a huge source of wealth.

But how much more expensive were spices in the past? One comment on Howes’ tweet points to an excellent essay by the late economic historian John Munro on the history of spices. And importantly, Munro gives us a nice comparison of the prices of spices in 15th century Europe, including a comparison to typical wages.

As I looked at the list of spices in Munro’s essay, I noticed: these are the pumpkin spices! Cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and mace (from the nutmeg seed, though not exactly the same as nutmeg). He’s even included sugar. That’s all we need to make a pumpkin spice syrup!

Last week in my Thanksgiving prices post I cautioned against looking at any one price or set of prices in isolation. You can’t tell a lot about standards of living by looking at just a few prices, you need to look at all prices. So let me just reiterate here that the following comparison is not a broad claim about living standards, just a fun exercise.

That being said, let’s see how much the prices of spices have fallen.

Let’s use the prices from Oxford, that way we can get all the pumpkin spices. And to make a fair comparison today, we’ll use a retailer anyone in the US can access: Amazon. Conveniently, Amazon offers a blend of all the pumpkin spices in one bottle. Several options actually. I’ll go with a mid-range one, Simply Organic Pumpkin Spice, which currently costs $7.99 for a 55-gram bottle.

The median hourly wage in the US in 2020 was around $20 per hour. That means it would take about 24 minutes of labor to purchase the pumpkin spice blend on Amazon.

What if we wanted to make a 55-gram pumpkin spice blend in Oxford in the 1430s? Let’s say we make it equal parts of each of the 4 spices (I’ll use mace since nutmeg prices aren’t in the essay). This isn’t the only possible blend, but it simplifies things.

Munro compares the prices of these spices to the wages of master carpenter, and using his figures I estimate it would take about 2/3 of a typical day’s wages to purchase 55 grams of these spices (13.75 grams each). Munro also tells us that for most of the year, carpenters worked 12-14 hours per day. That means it took at least 8 hours, or 480 minutes to purchase the pumpkin spices.

And so, in pumpkin spice terms, we might say that the median wage earner today in the US today is 20 times richer than a typical worker in 15th century Oxford. But returning to my earlier caution, we shouldn’t just look at all prices.

If we look at GDP per capita, which is one way of looking at living standards compared to all prices, we see that it has increased about 25 times in England since the 15th century. If we use GDP per capita a rough proxy for average living standards, then the pumpkin spice standard of living actually understates how much things have improved! And making a very rough comparison between 15th century England and the United States today, GDP per capita is about 35 times higher.

So, enjoy your pumpkin spice latte, or old-fashioned cocktail, or any of 65 other weird pumpkin spice foods that are available in the world today. But know that as an average person, the widespread availability of these spices actually understates how much your living standard has improved over the centuries!

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