Your ancestors working in 1880s America earned in one year what you, earning the mean hourly pretax salary of $20 (from 2009 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers) make in less than three days. This comparison was drawn from a 2000 report on "Rising Wage Dispersion" by professors Jeremy Atack and Fred Bateman, as well as Clarence Dickinson Long's 1975 book, "Wages and Earnings in the United States, 1860-90."
If you worked in manufacturing (as many did during this period of mechanization), you could have expected to make approximately $1.34 a day in 1880, which adds up to $345 annually for an average 257 days of work in a given year. By the end of the decade, according to Long's book, you as an average worker earned nearly $1.55 daily and roughly $430 a year.
Wages could vary dramatically from employer to employer in the same industry, according to Atack and Bateman's 2000 report. On the low end of the spectrum, manufacturing workers earned just $8 a month, compared to the more than $166 workers at the top-paying firms would make during the same period in 1880. The authors attribute rising wage disparity in the 19th century, in part, to the growing numbers of workers who were finding employment in very large establishments, which generally paid far less than their smaller counterparts.
As with today, pay also varied substantially by the type of job, according to Long. In 1880, saw and planing mill workers and flint and window glass workers earned the most out of nearly 20 manufacturing industries profiled by Long -- at $2.41 and $2.33 each day, respectively. At the bottom of the wage-earning range were the cotton and wool manufacturers who made $1.29 and $1.32, respectively, in 1880.
Not everyone worked in industry. According to Texas-based Lone Star College-Kingwood, the average teacher during the decade earned less than $72 a year -- and you only commanded this salary if you were male. Women educators during the period had it worse, earning just $54.50 annually.