Was a College Degree Worth More a Hundred Years Ago than it is Now?

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Monday, October 13, 1913:

10/13 – 10/17: Nothing worth writing about for these days. Don’t go any place or do anything of much importance.


Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Some days are just like that—they barely seem worthwhile. Today I hear so many recent college graduates worrying about whether it was worthwhile getting a college degree since the job market is so tight.

Was a college degree worth more a hundred years ago than it is now?


According to a 1913 book called Rural Arithmetic by John E. Calfee:

A business  man who has studied the productive power of intelligent labor in New York reports that the man with a common-school education is able to produce one and one-half times as much wealth as the illiterate man, the high-school man two times as much, and the college man four times as much.


According to Frontline on PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), today:

The average dropout can expect to earn an annual income of $20,241, according to the US Census Bureau. That’s a full $10,386 less than the typical high school graduate, and $36,424 less than someone with a bachelor’s degree.


There’s more of an income benefit of earning a high school diploma today than back then—and the value of getting a college has also increased slightly.

In other words, today someone with a high school diploma earns on average 1.5 times as much as a high school graduate and someone with a college degree earns 2.8 times as much.

This can be compared to 1913 when (after the base was converted to 1 for a high school dropout), a high school graduate on average earned 1.3 times as much as the dropout,  and the college graduate earned 2.7 times as much as the dropout.

For those who care about the details–

I assumed that the benefit of a college degree didn’t change much between 2012 and 2013. The data I used was from a 2012 article.

Rural Arithmetic is a math textbook. A subheading in one of the chapters was “Educated Labor”.  The quote above was pulled from the introduction to that subsection. It was followed by a series of word problems about the value of education.

The 1913 book used the term “common school graduate” to refer to someone who had completed 8 years of education.  For the purposes of this analysis I considered a common school graduate to be a high school dropout.

And, here is a chart that contains a crosswalk between the base (salary of illiterate person=1) used in the 1913 book, and the base (salary of a high school dropout = 1) that I used in the chart at the top of this post.


An aside–We must be doing something right with education today since we no longer even think about what the salary would be for an illiterate person.


1913 Birdsell Farm Wagon Advertisement

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Monday, October 6, 1913:

10/6 – 10/8: I’ve husked about ten loads of corn by this time. My hands are sore and roughened, but I didn’t care very much. I’m thinking of what I’m earning.

Farm Implement Magazine (November, 1913)
Farm Implement Magazine (November, 1913)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Yeah, Grandma. I’m glad that you’re happy about how much money you’re earning. Ten loads sounds like a lot.


I asked my resident expert (aka, my husband) how many bushels of corn the wagon in the picture would hold. He estimated that if it was 10 ft. long by 3 ft. high by 4 ft. wide that it would hold about 100 bushels of corn.  So if Grandma husked about 10 loads of corn, she husked about 1,000 bushels.

Grandma probably actually wrote this entry on the evening of October 8, 1913. She started husking corn on September 25 (14 days prior to this entry). She did not work on either Sunday, and I think that she didn’t husk corn on the day that her father went to the fair—so I believe that it took her 11 days to husk 1,000 bushels. In other words, Grandma husked about 90 bushels  a day.


Love Sonnets of a Shop Girl (Sonnet XIII)

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Friday, October 3, 1913: Working for wages.

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Grandma worked long days on her father’s farm husking corn.  Did she ever wish that she had a job in town—maybe as a clerk in a store?

Postcard showing Marsh Shoe Store, Milton a hundred years ago (postally used December 1910).
Postcard showing Marsh Shoe Store in the nearby town of Milton a hundred years ago (postally used December 1910).

It wasn’t all fun and glamor working in a store. Here’s what one of the sonnets published in 1913 in  Love Sonnets of Shop Girl had to say:

Sonnet XIII

That floor-walker’s getting’ too breezy;

He hangs around me all the time.

I’ve wanted to let him down easy,

But he doesn’t get wise—he’s a lime.

I don’t like the way that he treats me –

You’d think that he owned me, the slob!

You’d think, by the way that he meets me,

I owed him my life—and my job!


He’s got to quit callin’ me “Baby”

And “Sister” and “Honey” and “Pet.”

I’ve quarreled with Terence; but maybe

He wouldn’t be tickled to get

A chance at this floor-walker Willie,

Who tried to get merry with muh!

Oh, wouldn’t he wallop him silly!

And then for the ambulance—huh?


But I won’t tell Terence; I merely

Will speak to this floor-walker gink,

And tell him, quite plainly and clearly,

Exactly the things that I think.

I don’t want to act at all shady,

But if he get uppish—the yap!—

I’ll lift up my hand like a lady

And bounce him a biff on the map.

Love Sonnets of a Shop Girl by Berton Braley was published in a 1913 book called Sonnets of a Suffragette.  The entire book is available on the Internet Archive.


Fairs A Hundred Years Ago

 18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Wednesday, October 1, 1913:

October comes with the colder days.

Dresses the trees in gayest attire.

Garners the harvest in fields far and near

Into great heaps that all may admire.

This is Fair Week but not so the weather. Not going this year, so I won’t take it as hard as some.

Milton.Fairground_ferris_wheel_Milton Fairgrounds (This picture may have been taken a few years after Grandma wrote this diary entry). Photo source: Milton History. org.  Used with permission.

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Grandma –

Why aren’t you going to the Milton Fair? You had so much fun last year and even saw an airplane:

Saw a flying machine whirling aloft in the air for at least 10 minutes. I think twas quite a sight to see.

October 3, 1912

There are so many reasons people attend fairs. Here’s what the October, 1913 issue of Farm Journal said about the purpose of fairs:

The word fair, as now used in America, has lost much of its Old world meaning. In this country the fair, whether we call it a world’s fair or a state fair, a county fair or district fair, is an industrial exhibition. And this is as it should be.

It places the fair on a strictly business basis; it makes of it a practical, helpful thing. Conducted on an industrial, practical line, the fair is designed to help both the farmer and the city resident. It is the common meeting ground of all classes. At the fair the man who produces and the man who buys, the grower and the manufacturer, get together. They learn what each is capable of doing, and ascertain each other’s need.

It is remarkable how much benefit we can get out of the fair when we attend filled with a desire to learn—to gain something worthwhile.

The farmer who is seen “taking notes” at a fair—jotting down the name of this big apple, the weight of that monster pumpkin; who writes down all the information he can get about caring for hogs, poultry raising, feeding; who investigates the new kinds of machinery, and secures all available figures about up-to-date methods—that farmer will make his trip to the fair a valuable thing. He can do this and still have plenty of time to accompany his family to the side show, to take a whirl on the merry-go-round, or throw a ball at the doll babies.

Monthly Poem

For information about the monthly poems sees this previous post:

Monthly Poem in Diary


Making the Farm Pay

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Monday, September 29, 1913:  

9/29 – 30: These days have come and gone. They ground me working on my job.


Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Grandma must have been too tired to write anything a hundred years ago today (and tomorrow).  She was spending long days out in the field harvesting corn—but past entries have indicated that she was pleased to be making some money:

I’m on duty now out in the corn field. The beginning took place this afternoon. Somehow or other I imaged I would accomplish more than what I did. This is an opportunity to earn some money of which I always seem in need.

September 25, 1913

I assume that Grandma was working for her father—and that he was paying her.  She was happy about the money; but was her father happy or worried about the profitability of the farm?

Did he worry about rainy weather that might prevent completion of the harvest before the snow flew? . . . or low market prices that would prevent him from recouping the cost of growing the crop?

Maybe he read a 1913 book called Making the Farm Pay by C.C. Bowsfield.  Here’s an abridged version of what the first page said:

The average land owner has a great deal of practical knowledge, and yet is deficient in some of the most salient requirements. He may know how to produce a good crop and not know how to sell it to the best advantage.

Worse than this, he may follow a method which turns agricultural work into drudgery, and his sons and daughters forsake the farm home as soon as they are old enough to assert a little independence.  The farmers are deprived on the earnest, intelligent help which naturally belongs to them, rural society loses one of its best elements, the cities are overcrowded and all parties at interest are losers.

You may also enjoy reading (or rereading) a previous post that I did on the Country Life Commission. A hundred years ago the federal government sought to make farming more profitable, and to make farm life more appealing for young people, by appointing the Country Life Commission.


1913 Publisher’s Weekly Bestsellers

 18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Sunday, September 28, 1913: Went to Sunday School this morning. Most of the people went away this morning leaving Ma and me at home. I got pretty lonesome for awhile, but afterwards got company.


Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

I suppose Grandma and her mother had to stay home to feed the livestock and milk the cows. Where did everyone else go?

Before the company came, what did Grandma do? Maybe she read a book. When I’m lonely I often read books.

A few weeks ago, I gave you a list of 1913 books that are still popular according to Goodreads.

I’ve found another list of books—the Publishers Weekly list of 1913 bestselling novels.

The lists are very different—many of the 1913 bestsellers were written by authors I’ve never heard of –and many of the books that stood the test of time were sleepers a hundred years ago.

Bestselling Novels in 1913

1. The Inside of the Cup by Winston Churchill

2. V.V.’s Eyes by Henry Sydnor Harrison

3. Laddie by Gene Stratton Porter

4. The Judgment House by Gilbert Parker

5. Heart of the Hills by John Fox, Jr.

6. The Amateur Gentleman by Jeffrey Farnol

7. The Woman Thou Gavest Me by Hall Caine

8. Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter

9. The Valiants of Virginia by Hallie Erminie Rives

10. T. Tembarom by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Hmm. . . I read Pollyanna when I was a child. I think that it’s the only book of this list that I’ve ever heard of.  I wonder if people still read it.

I googled The Inside of the Cup by Winston Churchill, and discovered that there were two Winston Churchill’s—the British statesmen and the American novelist who wrote this book.



1913 Nestle’s Food (Baby Formula) Advertisement

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Tuesday, September 23, 1913:  Don’t know how to express myself.

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Since Grandma didn’t write much a hundred years ago today, I’m going to share an advertisement for a baby formula, Nestle’s Food, that appeared in the October, 1913 issue of Ladies Home Journal. 


A few days ago I did a post that showed several pictures of the “right” and “wrong” way raise a baby.  Readers’ comments about that post led me to do this post.  It contained pictures from the October, 1913 issues of Ladies Home Journal where both the “right” and the “wrong”  way showed the baby drinking from a bottle.  Several people commented that it was interesting that breastfeeding wasn’t mentioned.

After reading the comments I looked at the magazine again–and I discovered that this ad was positioned right next to the picture article about the right and wrong ways to raise a baby.


Maybe I’m in a cynical mood today, but somehow it feels like the magazine was trying to please the advertiser, and that the advertisement drove the content.