Sunday, April 19, 2015

Inflation calculators and the “good old days”

            The next time friends get excited and express amazement at how little things cost and how much less people were paid in the “good old days,” settle them down with a couple of clicks on an inflation calculator. Often, the low prices and salaries, when adjusted for inflation, are not THAT low!
            Recently, a friend forwarded me an email from an excited acquaintance of his who was amazed at some 1910 statistics he had come across. Some of the data was truly staggering. For example, according to the email, the 1910 life expectancy for men was 47 years—in 2010, men could expect to live 76.2 years.[1] Again, in 1910, only 6 percent of all Americans had graduated from high school—in 2009, 85 percent of adults aged 25 or over reported having a high school diploma.[2]

Cartoon by Otto Lang in "Judge" magazine (1890-1910). Library of Congress.

            However, after the figures in the email were fed into an inflation calculator, the “amazing” 1910 prices for sugar, eggs and coffee, and the salaries for accountants and mechanical engineers, were underwhelming.
            According to the email, in 1910 sugar cost four cents a pound, eggs were fourteen cents a dozen, and coffee was fifteen cents a pound. But, an inflation calculator indicated that in today’s dollars, sugar would cost about $1.00 a pound in 1910 (at a grocery store today, sugar can be purchased for 49 cents a pound); eggs would cost about $3.50 a dozen in 1910 (in a grocery store today, eggs can be purchased for $2.06 a dozen); and coffee would cost approximately $3.75 a pound in 1910 (coffee can be purchased for $3.68 a pound in one of today’s supermarkets).[3]

Library of Congress.

            According to the email, an accountant in 1910 could expect to earn $2,000 a year, and a mechanical engineer might earn $5,000 a year. But, an inflation calculator showed that in today’s dollars, an accountant in 1910 could expect to earn about $50,060 a year, and a mechanical engineer in 1910 might earn approximately $125,150 a year.[4]
            The 19th century Scottish historian and essayist, Thomas Carlyle, once said, “you might prove anything by figures.” The use of an inflation calculator can add a new dimension to the numbers game and give new meaning to the prices and salaries paid in those “good old days.”

[1] “Life Expectancy,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed April 18, 2015,
[2] U.S. Census Bureau, “Educational Attainment in the United States: 2009,” February 2012.
[3] “The Inflation Calculator,” accessed April 17, 2015, This calculator can be used on dollar amounts from the years 1800 to 2014. The following is another calculator that can be used for dollar amounts from the years 1913 to 2015. “Inflation Calculator: Bureau of Labor Statistics,” accessed April 17, 2015,
[4] “The Inflation Calculator.”

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Visiting Thurlow Weed, Chester A. Arthur and Henry Burden

            What do the astute New York political operator known as “The Dictator,” the first president of the U.S. born in Vermont, and the titan of iron manufacturing from Troy, NY have in common? Correct. All three men are buried in Albany Rural Cemetery which was incorporated 174 years ago, on April 2, 1841.

South Gate, Albany Rural Cemetery

            The cemetery covers 467 acres of land just north of Albany, NY and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. There are two gated-entrances to the cemetery. The Main Gate is on Cemetery Avenue, off Broadway (Route 32) in the village of Menands but the South Gate is easier to find. It is off Menands Road (Route 378) at the intersection of Van Rensselaer Boulevard (Route 377).
            Because public parks did not exist at the time the cemetery opened for business in 1845, city residents flocked to its grounds for weekend picnics and other outdoor activities. The cemetery drew tourists from all over the world who came to see the cemetery’s natural beauty.
            Author Paul Grondahl wrote that the cemetery is “one of the oldest and grandest examples of the rural cemetery movement in America.” He added, “It is an epic city of the dead, a history lesson carved in stone.”[1]

Thurlow Weed's final resting place

            To appreciate the history lesson Grondahl referred to, consider the final resting places and the accomplishments of just three of the 135,000 people buried in the cemetery. The first to consider is Thurlow Weed whose grave is marked by a soaring granite obelisk. Born in Cairo, NY on November 15, 1797, he founded the Albany Evening Journal which touted the party line for the three political parties he helped found in New York State—the Anti-Masonic Party, the Whig Party, and the Republican Party. Known as “The Dictator” because of his heavy-handed political style, Weed successfully backed William H. Seward to win election as the first Whig governor of New York in 1838. Two years later, Weed was a key power broker who put William Henry Harrison into the White House as the first Whig president. In 1848, Weed successfully engineered the elections of Zachary Taylor for president, Millard Fillmore of New York for vice president, and Seward for U.S. Senator—all Whigs.
            Weed tried to win the Republican presidential nomination for Seward in 1860 but was defeated by Abraham Lincoln’s forces. “The Dictator” generally backed Lincoln during the Civil War but had a falling out with Radical Republicans over the emancipation of slaves. After Lincoln’s assassination, Weed threw his support to President Andrew Johnson and became publisher of the New York Commercial Advertiser from 1867 to 1869. Following Johnson’s presidency, Weed faded from the political scene. He died in New York City on November 22, 1882.[2]
            His grave in the cemetery is in Lot 1, Section 109, which is easy to find at the intersection of Linden and Cypress Avenues.

President Chester A. Arthur's final resting place

            Up next in this brief “history lesson carved in stone” is Chester A. Arthur, the 21st president of the U.S. He was born in Fairfield, Vermont on October 5, 1829 and as a child moved with his family to New York State where he grew up. A graduate of Union College in Schenectady in 1848, he began practicing law in New York City in 1854. Arthur subsequently joined the newly formed Republican Party and in 1871 President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him collector of the Port of New York, a very lucrative position. He was responsible for collecting about 75 percent of the nation’s duties from ships which landed within his jurisdiction.
            To balance the 1880 Republican national ticket, Arthur was nominated to run for vice president with the party’s presidential nominee, James A. Garfield of Ohio. The Garfield-Arthur team was elected. However, on July 2, 1881, an assassin shot Garfield and when he died in September, Arthur became president.
            Highlights of Arthur’s presidency include his support for civil service reform, the prosecution of those involved in a major post office scandal, and the creation of a steel-ship navy. His health deteriorated toward the end of his term in 1884 which undermined his bid to win the GOP presidential nomination in his own right. Arthur died on November 18, 1886 at his home in New York City.[3]
            His grave is in Lot 8, Section 24, which is located toward the end of South Ridge Road in the middle of the cemetery. The presence of a large American flag and a number of smaller American and state flags, as well as a large bronze angel standing beside a large stone casket, makes Arthur’s tomb easy to find.

Henry Burden's final resting place

            The last person in this “lesson carved in stone” is Henry Burden, the iron titan from Troy, NY who was born in 1791. He founded the Burden Iron Works in Troy which at its peak employed 1,400 workers and had a $500,000 a year payroll.
            Burden invented a horseshoe machine that during the Civil War could make sixty shoes a minute—previously, it took two men one full day to make sixty horseshoes. Burden’s yearly horseshoe sales went from $100,000 to $1.3 million during the war.
            The Burden Iron Works also used advanced rivet machines that could make 80 boiler rivets a minute and a machine that made hook-headed railroad spikes for the builders of the many railroads that were being constructed across the nation.
            The iron titan from Troy died in 1871 and he was buried in the Burden family vault which Burden’s wife Helen had designed. Twenty-two other members of the Burden family are also interred there.[4]
            Burden’s final resting place is difficult to find. It is located in Lot 4, Section 61, on the side of a hill located close to the foot of Middle Ridge Road, near the cemetery’s Chapel Mausoleum.

[1] “Visit Our Historical Grave Sites In Albany, NY,” Albany Rural Cemetery, accessed March 31, 2015,
[2] Scott C. Monje, “Weed, (Edward) Thurlow,” in The Encyclopedia of New York State, ed. Peter Eisenstadt (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005), 1681.
[3] Jon Sterngas, “Arthur, Chester A(lan),” in The Encyclopedia of New York State, ed. Peter Eisenstadt (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005), 128; William A. DeGregorio, “Chester A. Arthur,” in The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents (New York: Gramercy Books, 2001), 308–314.
[4] Paul Grondahl, “Henry Burden (1791-1871): Iron Titan, Horseshoe and Rail Spike Innovator,” Times Union, accessed March 31, 2015,; “Visit Our Historical Grave Sites In Albany, NY.”

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Using DEVONthink Pro with Zotero for Historical Research

            Zotero is a marvelous tool to use for capturing, managing and citing sources but once the notes and sources are in a Zotero library collection, moving them around inside it is a very clunky process. It can be done, but not easily. In order to organize my notes with ease and print the information out, I move copies of the notes from Zotero into DEVONthink Pro and do my sorting, organizing and printing there.

            DEVONthink Pro (DT Pro) is a Mac-only app and unlike Zotero, it is not free. DT Pro costs $80. DT sells DT Personal for $50 but I decided to buy DT Pro primarily because it can create multiple databases—DT Personal can only create one database.
            I move copies of the notes from Zotero into DT Pro by dragging and dropping them into folders—DT Pro calls them Groups. Next, I tag each note using the same tag I used for the note in Zotero because I want to be able to find the note again in Zotero without difficulty, if I need to. Once the notes have been moved into DT Pro, it is easy to sort them manually or by the first words in the note, and then print the notes out.

            Before I drag and drop a note from Zotero into DT Pro, I copy the source’s title and paste it at the end of the note in Zotero. I do this so that later on when I am referring to the note in DT Pro as I am writing in Word, I can select the correct source in the Zotero word processor plug-in to enable it to automatically create the correct citation.

            The DT Pro databases are located on my computer, not in the Cloud, and are backed up on iMac’s Time Machine. I like the fact that I do not have to rely on being able to get on the Internet in order to access my research.
            If I need to find a note or source in DT Pro because I did not use the correct tag or put the item in the correct Group, DT Pro has a box that can be used to search for the missing item in all databases.

            DT Pro’s online help is rather extensive. You can find answers to questions in tutorials, a help manual and a user forum. If you continue to be stumped, DT can be contacted by email. They have answered my questions within one day.
            At this writing, I am researching and writing two major projects for two upcoming books. My workflow involves using Zotero and DT Pro. I plan to update this report on the use of these computer applications for historical research as I move forward.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Using Zotero for Historical Research

      When it comes to the tools to use for historical research, it is easy to debunk pen, paper and index cards as old-fashioned, no matter how comfortable and reliable their use may be. In the 21st century, computer applications are the way to go for taking notes, keeping track of sources and organizing information. But which applications will do the job you want them to do? One of the programs I use most often is Zotero.

      A free program that collects, manages and cites research sources, Zotero works as an extension in Firefox, Safari and Chrome. I use it in Firefox because Zotero has been available for use with Firefox the longest.  The first step I took to use Zotero was to download its library plugin for Firefox from Zotero’s home page. The plugin enables me to create a library collection and add references directly to it from databases and websites. In addition, it also makes it possible for me to add references to the library collection manually and to drag PDF’s into it from my hard drive. Next, I downloaded Zotero’s word processing plugin for Word. This plugin allows me to insert citations and bibliographies directly into a Word document as I write it.
      With Zotero in place, saving the bibliographic information of promising sources is as easy as making one click on the mouse or trackpad. For example, if you use ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times and locate an article you would like to use, click the Zotero folder icon on the URL address bar, and a PDF of the article and a snapshot of the web page it is on, will be automatically downloaded into your Zotero library. In addition to the article itself, bibliographic information about its source will also be automatically downloaded into the library. The same procedure can be followed to collect articles from Google Scholar, JSTOR and other databases. If you use information from books that are in Google Books, or in other sources of digitized books, you can download the link to the book together with its bibliographic information right into your library with one click.

When you find a source on the Internet that has no Zotero folder icon to click, you can click on the “Create Web Page Item From Current Page” button on the Zotero toolbar, and download a snap shot of the desired page along with its bibliographic information into your library. If you want to take notes from a source that is not on the Internet such as a letter, magazine article or book, you can click on the “New Item” button on the Zotero toolbar and fill in the bibliographic information yourself.
      Despite all of Zotero’s technological bells and whistles, the bibliographic information often has to be tweaked, but this is very easy to do.
      For each source you want to take notes on, Zotero provides a resizable box for that purpose in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. The notes are attached to the information for the source, as is a snapshot of the web page the source was on, and a PDF of the information, if there is one.

      The notes and the sources themselves can be tagged with as many tags as you like so that you can find this information easily as your research progresses. There is also a very good search engine that will locate words or phrases in all the fields and tags in the library collection should you need to do so.
      All the notes, PDF’s, and snapshots of web pages are stored locally on your computer, and on Zotero’s servers. Zotero gives you 300 MB of free storage. If you want more than that, 2GB of storage costs $20 per year. For me, Zotero’s storage system means that I can take notes on my desktop computer at home, and then travel to a library with my laptop and do research and take notes there, and when I return home and sync with Zotero’s servers, all my research can be accessed on both computers. In addition, I like the idea that if my Internet service provider goes down and I cannot access Zotero’s servers, I am able to work with all the information in Zotero because it is also stored on my computer’s hard drive.
      When it is time to start writing, the Zotero word processor plugin for Word makes citing sources a breeze. To add a footnote or endnote as I write, all I have to do is place the cursor where I want the citation to be inserted, click on the “Zotero Insert Citation” icon in the word processor plugin toolbar, select the proper source from the library, and Zotero creates and inserts the correct citation for me. If necessary, I can add a page number or a prefix or suffix to the citation.

      Another nice feature of Zotero is its ability to generate reports and create bibliographies from selected items in the library. To do that, I simply select the items I want, right click, and choose “Generate Report from Items” or “Create Bibliography from Items” in the context menu. If I am writing and have inserted citations into my piece, with one click on the “Zotero Insert Bibliography” icon in the word processor plugin toolbar, a bibliography is automatically created and inserted wherever I have placed the cursor.
      Unfortunately, there is a downside to Zotero. It is not a very user-friendly application nor is it particularly intuitive. Help is limited. Zotero has an online user guide called “Documentation” on a tab on its home page. Another tab on Zotero’s home page, “Forums,” takes you to several discussion groups where you can pose questions and get answers from fellow users and Zotero experts. I have also found that many major colleges and universities have made user guides to Zotero available online. For example, here is one from Oregon State University and another from Georgia State University. In addition, this user guide, Mastering Zotero, has been very helpful to me at times. Two Zotero experts wrote it.

      For me, Zotero’s biggest weakness is how difficult it is to move items around in a library and sort them. Zotero can be very “clunky” and often it is impossible to sort notes and sources the way I want before printing them out. For that reason, my workflow for historical research also includes using the database, DEVONthink Pro. I collect my research and take notes in Zotero, and then I move the notes I want to use into DEVONthink Pro for sorting and organizing. In a future post, I will write about DEVONthink Pro.