Dairy products are an important source of nutrition and enjoyment for many people around the world. But how has the availability and consumption of dairy changed over time? This article traces the history of dairy production and consumption in England from the 13th century to the present day, revealing some amazing conclusions about the increase of dairy abundance for both skilled and unskilled workers.


Human progress is often incremental, but many positive trends have become clearly visible over time. One of these trends is the growing abundance of food. This series of articles for HumanProgress.org will look at the affordability of food relative to wages in England between the 13th century and the present.

Professor Gregory Clark of the University of California, Davis, has conducted extensive research into the economic history of England. As part of his research into the condition of the working class in England, Clark has developed an extensive data set containing nominal prices of goods and nominal wages of skilled and unskilled workers in England between the 13th and 19th centuries. (Note: Clark assumes a 10-hour workday before 1720.)

Using the concept of time prices developed by Marian L. Tupy and Gale L. Pooley, we can calculate the number of hours of work that someone must work to earn enough money to buy a particular food item.

In this analysis, Clark’s nominal prices of food items serve as the nominator, and nominal hourly wages, which come from Clark and from the UK’s Office for National Statistics’ Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, serve as the denominator.

Figure 1: Food abundance from the perspective of unskilled workers in England, hours of labor

As we can see in Figure 1, a pound of butter fell from 5.33 hours of labor in the 1200s to 0.34 hours of labor in 2022. A pound of cheese fell from 3.09 hours of labor to 0.29 hours, and a gallon of milk fell from 6.29 hours of labor to 0.42 hours.

Figure 2: Food abundance from the perspective of unskilled workers in England, per hour of labor

As we can see in Figure 2, an hour of work bought 0.19 pounds of butter for an unskilled worker in the 1200s. That rose to 2.93 pounds in 2022. Instead of 0.32 pounds of cheese, an unskilled worker got 3.42 pounds. Instead of 0.16 gallon of milk, he or she got 2.4 pounds.

Put differently, the same number of hours of work that bought 1 pound of butter in the 1200s bought 15.6 pounds of butter in 2022. Instead of 1 pound of cheese, an unskilled worker got 10.6 pounds. Instead of 1 gallon of milk, he or she got 15.1 gallons.

Figure 3: Food abundance from the perspective of skilled workers in England, hours of labor

As we can see in Figure 3, for a skilled worker, a pound of butter fell from 2.88 hours of labor in the 1200s to 0.27 hours of labor in 2022. A pound of cheese fell from 1.67 hours of labor to 0.23 hours, and a gallon of milk fell from 3.4 hours of labor to 0.33 hours.

Figure 4: Food abundance from the perspective of skilled workers in England, per hour of labor

As we can see in Figure 4, an hour of work bought 0.35 pounds of butter for a skilled worker in the 1200s. That rose to 3.75 pounds in 2022. Instead of 0.6 pounds of cheese, a skilled worker got 4.37 pounds. Instead of 0.29 gallons of milk, he or she got 3.07 pounds.

Put differently, the same number of hours of work that bought 1 pound of butter in the 1200s bought 10.8 pounds of butter in 2022. Instead of 1 pound of cheese, a skilled worker got 7.3 pounds. Instead of 1 gallon of milk, he or she got 10.4 gallons.

Clearly, dairy products became much more abundant for both skilled and unskilled workers. Moreover, note that the time price differential between unskilled laborers and skilled tradesmen has shrunk. For example, to afford a gallon of milk in the 1200s, an unskilled worker would have to work 6.29 hours compared to 3.4 hours for a skilled worker, a difference of almost 3 hours. However, in 2022, an unskilled worker would work 25.2 minutes to afford a gallon of milk, and a skilled worker would work 19.8 minutes, a difference of only 5.4 minutes.

Put differently, unskilled workers have become better-off relative to their more-skilled compatriots. Finally, the rate of growth in abundance has clearly accelerated over the last 200 years. Whereas the rate of growth in the abundance of butter, cheese, and milk grew at a compounded annual rate of about 0.08 percent between the 13th and 19th centuries for an unskilled worker, it grew 1.34 percent between 1865 and 2022. Similarly, for a skilled worker, the compounded annual growth rate increased from 0.05 percent before 1865 to 1.22 percent afterwards. Since the mid-1800s, the rate of growth of wages relative to prices has increased dramatically.