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The Straight Dope



Since elementary school I have repeatedly heard the story of how Manhattan was bought from the Indians for a mere $24 worth of trinkets. Something about this has long troubled me. Assuming the value of the barter items was estimated at about the time of the famous transaction, shouldn't it be adjusted for all those years of inflation? Maybe Manhattan wasn't such a steal after all. --Charles R. McNeill II, Washington, D.C.

Sometimes this job is so joyously easy. In 1626 Peter Minuit bought Manhattan island from the local Indians for a load of cloth, beads, hatchets, and other odds and ends then worth 60 Dutch guilders. According to my Encyclopaedia Britannica, 60 guilders in 1626 would buy you one and a half pounds of silver. Naturally we assume this is troy weight, 12 ounces to the pound. Silver lately has been selling for a little more than $4 per troy ounce. Ergo--sorry, but a man in my position needs to say ergo once in a while--Minuit got the core of the Big A for $72 in today's money. (Lest you think the price of beads has increased remarkably slowly in the last 350 years, you should know that the $24 calculation was made in the 19th century.)

There are some who would contend that $72 or even $24 for Manhattan was not such a hot bargain. These people are mostly Republicans. But let's do a few calculations. According to the New York Public Library, the assessed value of taxable real estate in Manhattan for 1990-91 was $47 billion. Assuming the land alone accounts for 25 percent of this, land values have appreciated from a half cent per acre in 1626 to $827,000 per acre today, an increase of roughly 17 billion percent. Not bad, you are surely thinking, even by the stringent standards of the GOP.

But wait. I have a letter here from Andrew Johnston of NYC inquiring whether maybe the Louisiana Purchase ($15 million for a quarter of the country) wasn't a better bargain. Now, the Louisiana Purchase was not the best land deal the U.S. ever got. It cost 3 cents per acre in 1803 (5 cents when you figure in the interest), whereas Alaska cost 2 cents per acre in 1867. Just the same, it offers an interesting comparison. According to Peter Wolf (Land in America, 1981), the total value of all land in the U.S. in 1975 was $1.3 trillion. Assuming an average annual appreciation of 5 percent per year, the land was worth $2.7 trillion as of 1991. The Louisiana Purchase accounts for about 23 percent of the present area of the U.S., so figure it's worth $618 billion, or about $1,160 an acre.

Having performed prodigious feats of calculation, we find that since 1803 the heartland of America has appreciated at an average annual rate of 5.5 percent per year, whereas since 1626 Manhattan has appreciated at an average annual rate of . . . 5.3 percent. Conclusion: that dim-bulb Minuit may have paid too much! Given the shaky assumptions behind some of the numbers above, I don't know that I'd go looking for a Manhattan Indian asking for a refund. But compared to other historic U.S. land scams, Manhattan may not have been the steal everyone thinks.

In a world of A, AA, AAA, C, and D, are there any B-sized batteries? --Paul Guss and Bill Rauchholz, Arlington, Virginia

Where did you guys find A batteries? Virtually no one makes them today, or B batteries either. The letters are part of a standard for single-cell batteries devised by the American National Standards Institute, or ANSI, beginning in the 1920s. (I realize that, strictly speaking, a battery consists of two or more cells, but let's not get picky.) Today the sizes range from AAAA to G, and for some reason there's also J, N, and 6. AAA, AA, C, and D were the only sizes that caught on in a big way commercially, but the others haven't totally disappeared. If you pry apart one of those big six-volt lantern batteries, you'll find four F cells inside.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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