April 26, 2011

The eye-opening cost of living in 1951

Day 116 of Vintage 365


There is absolutely no denying - especially in the stern face of the recession that so much of the world has truly struggled through in recent years - that the cost of living has skyrocketed. I do not profess to be an expert on world economics by any means, and this post isn't meant to delve into the plethora of reasons why (nearly) everything has gone up (often significantly) in price lately. It is intended more as a look at what certain items cost in 1951 mixed with a few thoughts on the economy both then and now.

According The People History, a website with interesting stats and fun facts about the last several decades, in 1951 - just sixty years ago - the following prices were what the average American family would have paid for certain commonplace items (as well as the average wage).


Cost of living in 1951

  • Average wages per year $3,510.00

  • Average Cost of new house $9.000.00

  • Average Cost of a new car $1,500.00

  • Cost of a gallon of Gas 19 cents

  • Loaf of Bread 16 cents

  • Pound of Hamburger Meat 50 cents

  • Bacon per LB 52 cents

  • Eggs per dozen 24 cents

  • Water Jacket Heater ( Asbestos ) $4.59

  • Baby Diapers ( Cotton ) From $2.79

  • Children's Tricycle From $14.00

    {Vintage suburban house image via wackystuff on Flickr.}


    Though The People History site does not state where they sourced those numbers from, I would venture to say that these prices are a fair representation of what the above listed items really did cost in 1951.

    At the time, my maternal grandma was twenty one, the same age my younger sister will turn later this year. It's staggering to think that someone of my grandma's generation could have purchased a house for "just" $9,000.00 (assuming the Canadian prices on housing in '51 were akin to those in the States).

    Today, most small "starter homes" in large towns and cities across Canada will run you at least $200,000 (though in many areas, it's getting harder and harder to find even quasi-decent homes below the $300,000 mark).

    Though some things have progressed at a somewhat "normal" rate of inflation (bread, eggs, ground beef, etc), others have clearly multiplied exceedingly and at rate the is no where on par with what people are, on average, earning these days.

    In the post-war forties and fifties there was a burgeoning, successful middle class that sprang to life in a new and powerful way across North America. Things like car and home ownership, saving money, living within your means, and being able to provide your children with a good life (including a college education) were not pipe dreams, they were considered the American dream and they were there for nearly everyone to avail of, so long as they worked hard and were financially responsible.

    Sixty years on the world is a very different place. The starry-eyed optimism of the fifties has been replaced by the grime reality of a world in economic crisis and a diminishing middle class (for an example of stats backing that statement up, see this article by Wayne Isaksen).

    However the purpose of this post isn't too wallow in sorrow over the state of the economy right now. Only time will tell for sure how - and if - we will be able to rebound to pre-recession levels and if wages will ever be able to increase enough to afford the middle class the ability to restock its ranks once more. Instead it is to look back informatively at what things would have cost for our parents and/or grandparents sixty years ago.

    I love the 1950s, they are without a doubt my favourite decade of all time. I find it fascinating to learn about the prices of everyday objects at the beginning of one of the most influential and impactful decades in recent history. A time when the world was far from perfect, yet still considerably more affordable. When one could pop down to the dealership and take home a new car for $1,500 or give little Timmy or Sally a tricycle for just $14.00.

    In these prices I feel a common sense of nostalgia for an era, a way of life, and an economy that I never actually lived - but which I feel is worth remembering and learning about every chance I can get. Which is why, six decades on from when these prices rang true, I wanted to share this little table of costs with all of you, knowing as I do how much history means to you, as well.

    Now the real question worth pondering becomes, what on earth will these items run us in another sixty years? None of us can know for sure, but I certainly hope – for the sake of our grandchildren -that starter housing prices won't be in the millions!


    1. I think these are true prices because just yesterday at a flea mall we came across a booth that was clearly from an old printer/print shop files - there were menus from a small diner circa 1959 and not a single item on the one page menu was over a dollar. The one I recall for sure was a pancake breakfast for .35 cents. Thanks for the stats and the thoughts on prices and the 50s.

    2. I love the 50s too. I am reading a book by Stephanie Coontz called The Way We Never Were that takes a realistic look at American family life then and now.
      Many families were able to move up from working class to middle class in the 50s and I can certainly see the reverse happening today.
      It is interesting that Coontz points out that in the 50s about 30 percent of children were living in the poverty level. It appears that the middle class were more the focus as we look back into the 50s.
      Have a great week..............Denise

    3. I looked at those figures and made the startling discovery that if you multiplied by ten you would get typical UK prices in £s for 2011. So a loaf of bread is about £1.60, petrol is £1.32, eggs £2.50 a dozen... and houses? Well you could buy a small house for £90k in northern England, just not anywhere "fancy". Intriguing!

    4. Reading things like this always makes me alternately sad and happy. I laugh to think how much more we need now just to get by, but I also cry for the same reason. I lived through the 50's but then I didn't know it was the 50's then. If you follow my meaning. I didn't know what I didn't have - what I would have in the future. It was just the time it was and things cost what they cost, and who thought that things would change, except for the better? I often wonder - if I, as a child, knew what was to come about in the next 50 years, how would I (or even my parents) have processed that info? I don't think there is any way I could have. And for the same reason, we on Earth today can't possibly process what the future will hold. We just have to live each day as it comes - just as we did in the 50's.

    5. The average wage in America is $43,460. The current salary is therefore about 12.38 times higher than the average salary 60 years ago.

      If the purchase power was the same today, we'd have the following prices today (I'm not including stuff that is no longer available):

      - Average Cost of new house $111,420
      - Average Cost of a new car $18,750
      - Cost of a gallon of Gas $2.35
      - Loaf of Bread $1.98
      - Pound of Hamburger Meat $6.19
      - Bacon per LB $6.44
      - Eggs per dozen $2.97
      - Children's Tricycle From $173.32

      The Tricycle is probably cheaper than that projection, and the car, eggs, bacon, meat are all more or less in line. However, bread is a bit more expensive that it ought to be. More interestingly, Gas is almost twice as expensive, and $111K will buy you a crack shack in most places.

    6. I love trivia like this! But it does make me sad to know that I will probably never own a house like the fabulous one pictured -- they actually do cost three-quarters to over a million dollars in some areas of Southern Cali.

    7. You know that I'm 7 months behind on this post, but I'm leaving you a comment anyway.

      Those kinds of facts really make me sad, because I look at how horrible things are for my kids (not to mention my husband and me who are reaping the consequences of a bad cross-country move in the middle of the recession).

      I do think, though, that there was a big mindset difference between the people of that era and the people of today (myself included!!) We are the "want it now" generation. We want everything NOW...things that it took our parents decades to save for. We think that everything we want is a necessity...multiple cars, 3000 sq. ft. houses, fancy trips, every new technological gadget that comes out, microwaves, etc.

      My parents (who were married in 1959) had been raised in the 40's and 50's, and it was just part of their upbringing to live in a rental until they could afford to buy, to have 1 vehicle for years, to have only 1 TV, etc. So, today, because we think we have to have every single thing we want, things seem all that much harder.

      (I'm talking about myself here...I buy on credit and then complain that I'm always broke...but the reality is, not everything I want is something I need. And I think the people in those previous generations understood that in a way we do not today.)

      Sorry for rambling!!


      1. Here it goes.. You can't look at the numeral value from a different era and think how cheap something is.. We only know the value of the dollar based off what we see it buy so then we have this dellusion that things were cheaper. Antonio tackled a lot of what I wanted to say but still a few things I want to add......Correct gas does cost more but keep in mind travel distances are shorter effectively making it not more expensive.Homes.. another deceiver :O).. The average home is almost 3 times the size it was back then. So you are buying the same as 3 homes back then. And the current inflation is 8.83.Now 9k x 8.83. About 78k. times 3(triple sq. footage) 234(lets just say 230k). And houses would always cost more in a city.. So we can say pretty safely 325k - 400k. (the math doesn't lie before you get doubtful, do some research if you must)There is no way around it we have it better today. Now I say it is absolutely rediculous to trade a commodity on the stock market, it artificially inflates the cost of that unit.Im not sure if it was traded in the 50's or not, but if not then yes today is better in that aspect. I personally would prefer to live in today. Btw not attacking just trying to be informative