A recent FRED Blog post showed that individual products provide an incomplete understanding of overall inflation, but sometimes individual products are all you have. For example, before 1913 there was no official CPI (and the CPI wasn’t even seasonally adjusted until 1948). But specific prices from the past do exist. The NBER Macrohistory Database gathers a variety of historical sources, including newspapers, to create data series on prices. The graph shows some of these series. Again, it becomes pretty clear pretty quickly that tracking these individual prices doesn’t allow for a well-defined picture of the evolution of the general price level. You need to compose an index with a broad base of products for that.
The NBER Macrohistory Database does have a few price indexes, including one for wholesale prices that uses the series shown in this graph and one for general prices that is cobbled together from available sources, including wage data. The quality and scope of this slice of economic history certainly don’t match the standards of the current CPI.
How this graph was created: Search for and select the NBER Macrohistory Database, select the tag “price” in the left bar, and choose the various series you want to see. It may require searching more than a screenful to find the series used in this graph.
Suggested by Christian Zimmermann