Donga to Villa-Lobos

How far did $500 go in 1940?

Daniella Thompson

5 March 2002 (revised 27 February 2014)


Thirteen days after Villa-Lobos sent his letter to Stokowski, the “elements” made their own demands, apparently without knowledge of the sum of $500 requested by Villa-Lobos for “for general expenses; that is, for these musicians, whom we must pay in order to assemble them, which is a very difficult thing; [...]”.

Donga, whom Villa-Lobos empowered to take charge of recruiting the musicians for the sessions, wrote:

Rio, 29 de Julho de 1940

Exmo.Snr.Maestro H.Villa-Lobos

Na qualidade de encarregando de convocar e organizar os elementos para tomarem parte nas gravações do Exmo.Snr.Maestro Leopoldo Stokowski e necessitando um adeantamento urgente para as despezas com os referidos elementos por vós determinados, peço-vos providencieis no sentido de me ser confiada a importancia total de 1:700$000 (um conto, setecentomil reis) afim de ser distribuidos do seguinte modo:

ao encarregado do Maracatú e Frevo 200$000
ao encarregado do Grupo Regional 200$000
ao encarregado dos Sambas 100$000
ao encarregado de Macumbas, Candomblés e Batucadas 200$000
ao encarregado das Modinhas 50$000
ao encarregado dos Choros 200$000
ao encarregado de Emboladas, Desafio e Toada 300$000
ao encarregado das Instrumentações 200$000
Despezas diversas (automóvel, etc.) 250$000

Total 1:700$000

Aproveito a oportunidade para vos apresentar os protestos de alta estima e consideração,

Ernesto dos Santos “Donga”

Donga’s letter (see fascimile below) exhibits not only the writer’s signature but also that of Villa-Lobos, who attests to having seen it and agrees with the conditions stipulated.

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According to my original calculations, 1:700$000 equaled approximately US$595 at the time.* If that were the case, then Donga was asking 19% above the amount ($500) Villa-Lobos requested from Stokowski—no more than any self-respecting contractor would demand. Although the figure of $595 made perfect sense, I also noted at the time that, in a letter sent by Carmen Miranda from the U.S. in December 1939, she pegged a conto at $50, which would translate 1:700$000 into a puny $85. Having now [in 2014] taken advantage of the historic exchange calculations available through, I find that in 1940, the dollar was worth 16.512 milréis, which gave Donga’s 1:700$000 the value of $102.96. It would appear, therefore, that Villa-Lobos may have pocketed close to $400 if Columbia did, indeed, pay $500 as stipulated by the composer.

What was the buying power of the dollar in the U.S. at the time?

In 1940, an all-porcelain refrigerator cost $157.75. A 50-piece set of Baltimore-made Stieff Co. “Rose” pattern sterling-silver flatware cost $150. The same year, Don Stott’s parents bought a new Plymouth for $660. Five years earlier, they purchased an elegant 6-bedroom, 3-bathroom home on a lovely tree-lined street in Washington, D.C., for $3,500. A country house could be had for $2,000 or less.

Today, a large refrigerator sets the buyer back almost $1,000, a 46-piece sterling-silver set of Stieff “Rose” costs $1,545, while a 6-bedroom house in Washington, D.C., fetches at least $1.5 million. That Plymouth would probably cost $25,000 today. If the dollar’s car-purchasing power were to be used as a yardstick, $500 in 1940 would be worth about $19,000 today, and Donga’s $595 would be equivalent to our $22,500. If we were to use Carmen Miranda’s exchange rate, Donga’s $85 would equal $3,214 in current dollars.

On the other hand, a better-qualified researcher, economist Morton J. Marcus of Indiana University, found that a basic basket of goods costing $100 in 1997 would have cost $8.72 in 1940. That would make five-hundred 1940 dollars equal $5,734 in the late ’90s, while Donga’s $595 would be worth around $7,000 today (or $1,000, if his 1:700$000 amounted to $85).

= = =

* My rather convoluted early calculations are based on information obtained on the Web regarding the exchange rate between the Brazilian mil réis and Nazi Germany’s Reichsmark ($142.857 = RM1) and a rough average of the Reichsmark’s value against the dollar (RM2.5 = $1).


Scan courtesy of Aloisio Milani


An urban crisis in August 1940

Copyright © 2003–2015 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.