The 1863 New York City Draft Riots—The Relative Worth of the Relief Supplied*

On July 13th, 1863, one hundred and sixty years ago, one of the more violent riots in New York City history took place. It began as a reaction to the draft (conscription into the Union Army) lottery that had started two days earlier.

While they are known as the New York City Draft Riots, much of the violence was directed at the black residents of the city. A particular target was male longshoremen and laborers who competed for jobs with Irish (and other) immigrants.[1] Women were not spared even though the vast majority of them were day workers or live-in servants of white families. While an official estimate of the number killed is 119, there are suggestions it could have been as high as 1,000. In addition to the many horrible murders and lynchings, there was also extensive property damage with thousands of homes pilfered, looted, and, in some cases, burned.

Relief Response

Today there are numerous public agencies and private charities that would respond quickly to such events. They did not exist in 1860. While at that time the Astors and Vanderbilts were very wealthy, they had not created the foundations that later would help address such calamities. However, within less than a week an organization titled A Merchant’s Committee for The Relief of Colored People Suffering from the Riots in the City Of New York was created. On July 23rd, one week after the end of the riot, this committee was distributing funds to hundreds of people. After a month, it had given relief to over 6,392 adults and their children.[2] A final report of the committee states that $42,600 was raised and after each individual was evaluated for their need, they received up to $5.00.[3]

What is the relative worth of this relief effort in today’s prices?

The common way used to compute relative worth is to use an inflation calculator to compute what is called the “Real Price” as did an author discussing this event a year ago.[4] The Real Price today of $42,600 in 1863 is $1,070,000. Given there were 6,392 adults, this is an average distribution of around $167 in today’s dollars.

The premise of MeasuringWorth is that there is never one answer to what is the relative worth of something, either today or in the past. The best measure depends on the context. In the broader sense we mean the worth of something is “the cost of the most valuable forgone alternative.”  This alternative differs for the many participants in transactions. We will show how this applies to this event by presenting four different measures that the MeasuringWorth comparators give and why they are so different. We will then show that comparing the individual costs and earnings of those giving and receiving these funds tells a much richer story.

The Relative Values today of $42,600 and $5.00 in 1863.

Here are four different relative values in today’s dollars of the total amount of these funds raised 160 years ago and the maximum distribution.

Amount in 1863.          $42,600        $5.00
The Real Price     $1,070,000    $125.00
The Relative Labor Earnings     $9,280,000 $1,065.00
The Relative Cost    $15,090,000 $1,730.00
The Economy Cost           $150,090,000 $17,200.00

The Real Price compares the cost of a bundle of consumer goods such as food, clothing, and housing that $5.00 would have bought in 1863 to what a “similar” bundle would cost today as calculated by the increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Needless to say, over 160 years the content of what the average household buys has changed significantly which is why we say the CPI is a very poor index for these kinds of comparisons.[5]

The Relative Labor Earnings computes how much a $5 distribution in 1863 would raise a family’s purchasing power today. We use the Unskilled Wage Index for this computation because that was what most of the recipients earned. This has grown significantly over 160 years because of increases in labor productivity. While $1,065 is not enough to repair a home that has burned, it might help pay rent while the home is repaired.

The Relative Cost inflates an amount in the past by how much per capita income has increased. Per capita income was $230 in 1863 and is $76,000 today. When the merchants subscribed $42,600 in 1863, that represented foregone expenditures on labor, inventories, investments and the like. A merchant who donated $100 to the fund was giving 43% of 1863’s per capita GDP. 43% of today’s per capita GDP is $33,000. The Relative Cost in today’s dollars of all the funds merchants contributed is over $15 million.

Finally, we present the Economy Cost of $150 million. This can be interpreted as the importance of the item to society as a whole. It is measured by calculating what was raised as a percent of 1863’s GDP and comparing that to today. New York was a city of a million people in 1860. If a city of a million today had its merchants make a similar response to a crisis, this measure says they would raise $150 million in one week.


While these three additional measures tell more than using just the CPI, there are many more comparisons that can be made which give a better understanding of the relative worth today of the 1863 relief payments. For example, we can compare the price, then and now, of specific purchases that a victim of the rioting might have made with a $5 relief payment. Below, we consider a few examples including staple food items and the wages of laborers in NYC.

Food:  $125, or the CPI-adjusted value of $5 in 1863, would likely not get a family very far in most New York City grocery stores today. We might infer that $5 would not buy much food for a family in 1863. However, if we consider the relative market prices of grocery items, we see a different picture.

For example, back then the price of bacon was 6 cents per pound so $5.00 would have bought 88.33 pounds. At today’s prices, all that bacon would cost $528.33, over four times $125.

Item 1863 Price[6] Amount $5 would buy 2023 Price[7] 2023 cost of 1863 amount
Bacon $0.06 / lb 83.33 lbs $6.34 / lb $528.33
Coffee $0.31 / lb 16.13 lbs $6.09 / lb $98.22
Butter $0.17 / lb 29.41 lbs $4.55 / lb $133.82
Lard $0.09 / lb 55.56 lbs $3.50 / lb $194.44
Cheese $0.09 / lb 55.56 lbs $8.99 / lb $499.44
Cornmeal $0.02 / lb 250.00 lbs $1.50 / lb $375.00
Flour $0.03 / lb 166.66 lbs $0.57 / lb $95.00
Molasses $0.33 / gal 15.15 gals $6.00 / gal $90.91
Almonds $0.22 / lb 22.73 lbs $6.86 / lb $155.91
Whiskey $0.44 / gal 11.36 gals $47.58 / gal $540.68
Gin $3.25 / gal 1.54 gals $38.94 / gal $59.91
Rum $2.50 / gal 2.00 gals $32.45 / gal $64.90

 Wage: What did the relief payment of $5.00 per family represent to the 2,450 men and 3,942 women who received this aid for their loses?   The recipients of the aid were predominantly unskilled. Of the men, the occupations were 1,267 laborers and Longshoremen, 250 waiters, 177 Whitewashers, 176 drivers for cartmen, and 124 porters. For the women, it is 2,924 day’s work women, 664 servants hired by the month, 163 seamstresses and 106 cooks.

The reported laborers wage in New York in 1863 ranged from 25¢ to $1.75 a day. If we assume these workers were paid $1 a day, the maximum relief payment covers five days of work or 50 hours of work.

The current minimum wage in New York City is $15 an hour, so 50 hours at that pay is $750. ZipRecruiter reports that the average pay of a maid in the city today is $17.27 and that of a longshoreman is $18.89; both of which have benefited from labor productivity increases. Thus 50 hours of work at these rates are $863 and $944 respectively. These are not as much as the $1,065 Relative Labor Earnings reported above, but it is much more than the Real Price computation of $125.


Numbers and data like these will never be able to tell the full story of an event. We cannot possibly quantify the total physical impact of, and psychological trauma caused by, the 1863 Draft Riots, nor can we do so for the merchants’ response to aid suffering Black New Yorkers.

However, there are lots of numbers from the past which–– when carefully interpreted–– can help us to better understand a situation like the Draft Riots. Often, numbers such as the $42,600 raised by the Merchant’s committee are described by economists, journalists and others as having a “worth in today’s dollars” with a single (badly) inflated number. This quick and easy conversion is intended to give readers a way of relating to a dollar amount from an unfamiliar time period. Unfortunately, the quick answer given by CPI tends to give incomplete, or in some cases entirely wrong, comparisons to values from the past.

Using multiple relative values (Real Price, Relative Labor Earnings, Relative Cost, Economy Cost), and specific comparisons, you can tell a richer story than with Real Price alone. In the case of the 1863 Draft Riots, the four relative values we use each tell a very different story with additional specific examples of food and labor. Considering multiple perspectives on value is important as it informs the narratives we believe about the past, and, in this case, what we imagine to be possible when a local community comes together to help their neighbors in need.

* The author received research assistance from Ben Hogewood and editing by Lou Cain.

[1] “Near the docks, tensions that had been brewing since the mid-1850s between white longshoremen and black workers boiled over. As recently as March of 1863, white employers had hired blacks as longshoremen, with whom Irish men refused to work.” Harris, Leslie. In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City 1626-1863 .

[2] “During the month ending August 21st there have been 3,942 women, and 2,450 men, making a total of 6,392 persons of mature age, relieved; full one-third being heads of families, whose children were included in the relief afforded by your committee, making a total of 12,782 persons relieved.” p. 9-10 of the Report.

[3] “If the person proves himself to be a worthy object of charity, he is furnished with a ticket which entitles him, on presenting the same to the Cashier, to receive a certain amount of money specified thereon. In no instance does the amount exceed $5, unless the Committee are satisfied upon evidence adduced, that the party is actually in need of more.” p. 9 of the Report.

[4] Mitchell, Elizabeth “The Real Story of the ‘Draft Riots’” New York Times, Feb. 18, 2021,

“… the shopkeepers quickly raised over $40,000, equivalent to more than $825,000 today.” Our number of $1,070,000 differs from Mitchell’s as she was writing in 2021. We use the most current CPI-inflated “real price” available, that is 2023; reflecting two more years of price inflation.

[5] See the essay “Defining Measures of Worth — Most are better than the CPI” where it is pointed out that food is 57% of the bundle in 1860 and is 13% today.

[6] New York Market – Prices of staple items, 1860-1863 (Missouri library guide). It should be noted that these items in 1863 are not necessarily identical to those in 2023.

[7] 2023 prices come from several sources including grocery store websites, price listings, NBER and FRED data. These prices represent a best estimate and may not coincide with the exact prices in all grocery stores.