I have posted about the cost of a shirt in fifteenth-century England, and the price of a tunic in the time of emperor Constantine. That is not the earliest date which we can explore! Writing on scraps of stone from Egypt and clay tablets from Ugarit tell us how much a garment cost in the Late Bronze Age around 1500 to 1100 BCE.
Many short everyday documents survive from the village of Deir el Medina. The village was built to house workers for the Valley of the Kings, then abandoned in the Late Period when it became clear that burying all the kings along the same wadi would not keep them safe. The villagers had access to scribes who managed the King’s work, but they also lived in the Red Land of the desert where texts painted or scratched on potsherds and limestone fragments did not wash clean or sink into the mud when the Nile flooded. And so we know all kinds of things about these ordinary Egyptians which we don’t know about farmers and carpenters who lived in the Black Land along the Nile and in its Delta.
At Deir el Medina, a simple garment of rough linen cost about 5 deben (a weight, usually of copper). Janssen suggested that the families which built tombs in the Valley of the Kings were paid 12 to 15 deben per month in goods and services, including grain worth 9 deben. It is pretty typical of the world before the 20th century that 60-75% of most people’s incomes was spent on food and drink. The workers were probably a bit wealthier than the average person in an agrarian society (and certainly in New Kingdom Egypt). Their houses were built on plots about 5 × 15 metres which would be very familiar to medieval townsfolk or villagers. If we assume that a month has 20 working days, then paying 5 deben out of a month’s income of 12 to 15 deben was 6.66 to 8.33 days’ income for that garment of rough linen.
We have more prices from the Bronze Age city of Ugarit in Syria. The people of Ugarit wrote a unique alphabetic cuneiform script. Their city was destroyed in the disorders at the end of the Bronze Age, so many everyday documents were baked in burning houses and buried in mud-brick rubble. In these documents, a garment which is probably a tunic (ktn, probably the same root as Greek chiton and possibly English cotton) cost 1.5 to 2.5 shekels. Interpreting these prices is hard because we don’t have evidence for wages and incomes. In 1975 it was not even clear whether a shekel at Ugarit was 1/50 or 1/60 of a pound! The traditional standard in Babylonia was 1 shekel of silver to feed, fuel, and clothe a family for a month but that may have been optimistic. These garments were probably woollen, whereas the medieval shirt, Late Roman linen tunic, and New Kingdom Egyptian garment were all linen. But the prices from Ugarit are the first which I have seen where the price of a basic garment might be one or two months’ income for a family.
I am not sure where to find prices for garments from Old Babylonia or Old Assyria, but it might be possible to work out prices for garments in those cultures. That period around 1800-1500 BCE is probably as early as we could estimate prices from contemporary documents.
I wrote this post from the fragments of old notes so I can’t give exact page numbers. Projects like Jansen’s are unfashionable because there are so many unknowns and so many factors that can affect quality. Readers of Terry Pratchett novels or shoppers at retailers in Canada know that not all boots or cotton slacks last equally long and work equally well. In the 20th century, it was more fashionable to construct price series for basic commodities such as a bushel of wheat or the wage of a country thatcher. But I still think that prices for clothing in historical documents give a feel for the past, and are more reliable than guessing how long hobbyists today would need to make the same garment. When you have a spindle put in your hand before you can walk, or spinning and weaving is the only way you can feed your children, you get good! Today the old tailors of Naples tell anyone who listens that by the time someone has graduated from university they are too old to learn the art of tailoring.
Jac J. Janssen, Commodity Prices From the Ramesside Period. E.J. Brill: Leiden, Netherlands, 1975.
Robert R. Stieglitz, “Commodity Prices at Ugarit, ” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 99, No. 1 (1979), pp. 15-23 especially page 19
Colin Clark and Margaret Haswell, The Economics of Subsistence Agriculture (1970)