The More Things Change . . . or Don’t

This ShopRite ad from 1976 is a little difficult to read, but it’s still not impossible to see that prices were much, much lower than they are today. But so were incomes, although those today haven’t really kept up with the price increases.

I think just about everyone has been feeling the pinch from this latest round of inflation, and how the price of everything seems to be going up and up and up these days. However, prices have been going up . . . forever. I remember my mother getting very excited about whole chickens going on sale for 29¢ per pound back in the early 1970s because that’s what she had paid back in the 1950s (so she went out and bought 10 chickens to cut up and freeze). The average price per pound for chicken then was around 79¢/pound, so 29¢ was a huge savings. Cut up chickens or boneless, skinless breasts weren’t available anywhere let alone any other boneless, skinless chicken pieces – you brought whole chickens at 79¢ per pound and brought them home and cut them up yourself (or paid more and had a butcher do it).

Just because things were cheaper before didn’t mean they were better, either. Gasoline in 1970 averaged 36¢/gallon, up from 28¢/gallon in 1952. In 1952 that price got you unleaded gas that burned in cars without pollution devices. I grew up in the Los Angeles area and remember going months without ever seeing the mountains that were less than 20 miles away, and days when I could barely breathe for all the smog in the air. Cigarettes cost 25¢ per pack, and anyone could get them right out of a vending machine. Many of the convenience or speciality foods we take for granted were unavailable, let alone the variety of foods we routinely find today. Brie cheese or a baguette? Organic? Good luck finding those at any price.

Anyway, for fun I looked up some prices for 1952:

  • Bacon: 39¢/pound
  • Apples: 39¢/2 pounds
  • Coffee: 37¢/pound
  • Medium eggs: 79¢/dozen
  • White bread: 12¢/loaf
  • Ground beef: 89¢/3 pounds (no wonder our family ate so much of this!)
  • Iceberg lettuce: 25¢/2 heads
  • Turkey: 49¢/pound

A hamburger at McDonalds cost 15¢ compared to 30¢ at most other diners or restaurants. A slice of pie in a restaurant was 15¢ and a prime rib dinner could be had for $2.75.

By 1970, prices had gone up some (or down in some cases thanks to advantages in modern farming and the rise of factory farms):

  • Apples: 59¢/4 pounds
  • Coffee: $1.90/pound
  • Medium eggs: 25¢/dozen
  • Bread: 25¢/loaf (that was for white bread. Other choices were pretty much limited to wheat or “brown,” rye, and sliced “French” or “Italian”)
  • Jif peanut butter: 59¢
  • Pot roast: 79¢/pound
  • Lettuce: 10¢/head
  • Bacon: 86¢/pound

Two lobster dinners could be enjoyed for $7.25, and a speciality salad (without meat) at a good restaurant could cost $3.95.

I can remember the same complaints I hear now about rising prices from my parents back in the day, and how my mother struggled to keep our family’s food costs and other budget items in line even though both my parents had good, white-collar jobs. Their first home in 1951 cost $15,000, a price my grandparents considered to be far too expensive for a first home. But in today’s prices that house should be $157,000, an incredible bargain in the community where it’s located. Instead, it’s current valuation is $1.5 million! Inflation in the early 1970s was high, and gas and food prices prices soared during the oil embargo in the early part of the decade. Steak, gas, and other consumer items might have been cheaper in the past than what they are now, but that still didn’t mean they were affordable for many. It’s fun to be nostalgic about prices in the past, but in reality some things weren’t often that much easier than they are today.

This is all not to say that I don’t get ticked off about prices and the cost of living these days, and that people aren’t struggling to put food on the table or with other expenses. The average car payment in the U.S. these days is $577/month for a new car for 70 months ($413 for used for 48 months). Things really are more expensive now than they were in the past in a big way, and salaries and incomes have not kept pace for too many. Housing costs or the price of a college education is enough to give anyone palpitations, and low income families now compete with the middle class and higher for financial aid. The only thing I can think of that gets less expensive every year is technology, although prices for the newest thing or next iteration always still seem to be in the stratosphere. There are bargains to be had, but you have to know where to look, and work for them now.

The more things change, the more they stay the same . . . or don’t.


12 thoughts on “The More Things Change . . . or Don’t

  1. I graduated with an engineering degree in 1972 – first salary was $930 a month. I was the highest paid engineer in my class. My first new car Pontiac LeMans was $3250. My College tuition was $300/ quarter.
    Yes things have changed. As I remember is all started in 1973 with the oil prices going up due to OPEC.


    1. The private college I attended was $4000/year for tuition AND room & board, and my very middle class parents could afford that . . . for four children. The same college today is $75,000/year. Takes your breath away.

      Newly minted engineers start at $70K+ these days. My monthly salary when I started in the navy in 1977 was $460/month and I thought I hit the jackpot because it included meals and housing – a new recruit today starts at $1650.

      I agree that things changed in the early 70s. The powers that be discovered that they had a captive audience no matter how high prices went and they’ve been going up ever since.


  2. It bothers me when older people (my generation included) criticizes today’s students for graduating with student debt, because “back in our day, we had part-time and summer jobs and paid our own way.” Yes, back when I was a student, one could make enough money working minimum wage during the summer to pay a whole year’s tuition! Now that is laughable. Students and inexperienced workers working in service industries are usually offered “zero hours contracts” where you check in each week to find out your schedule, or even if you’ve been scheduled at all. And of course housing and childcare expenses are unbelievable. Sigh.


    1. Me too, Dar. I honestly think though some, who either went to college a long time ago, or who bought their home a while ago, have absolutely no idea what things cost now. We talked with a man at the park a couple of weeks ago who was ranting that kids just don’t want to work now and how he drove a tourist sightseeing bus and bought a house. I asked him if he had any idea what a house cost now on Kaua’i, and he guessed less than half of what they’re going for. We told him that two of our three daughters have VERY good salaries, more than Brett was making when he retired and W-A-Y more than a tour bus driver, along with no student loans or other debt, and they don’t make enough to afford to buy a house.

      I’ve been lectured too that our girls should have taken out loans and worked rather than get financial aid from the government *that we qualified for* because government aid was for poor people. Well, according to the government, we are poor when it comes to affording college! However, even the aid the government awards doesn’t come close to covering college costs these days (and all four of our kids worked/have worked all through college!


  3. I didn’t respond when I first read this. Such a complex issue. And maybe there’s different aspects for different countries. But then while watching an American documentary about minimalism the phrase hit me: paying the true labour cost. And that’s the thing. Things may have been cheaper dollar-wise but were we paying the true environmental cost, labour cost, impact on where initial input came from? Mass produced food with chemical fertilisers initially allowed cheap, plentiful food but long term the build up of chemicals and degradation of soils. Long term costs were not factored into the 1970s prices. Same with other aspects. Eg in 1960s and 1970s in Australia lots of houses were built cheaply with fibro. Oh no! “Now” we know that it’s asbestos and has medical and life costs on people. (Now in inverted commas because the producers knew at the time – they just hid the data as they were making money and people were happy with cheap houses.)

    To what extent was the western world’s cheaper items the result of exploiting other countries for cheap labour and ripping out resources? Possibly still the same.

    Less stuff. More expensive stuff. Stuff to have for longer. I hope that comes out of COVID and environmental and labour equity movements.


    1. I completely agree with all the points you’ve made. Little thought or care was given in the past to future costs of low-priced goods or food. As you said, things were produced more cheaply, but there were costs to both people and land that were hidden and are now coming to light (chickens coming home to roost and all that). Lower costs have led many to accumulate more, which has led to more low cost production around the world (cheap toys, appliances that don’t last, cheap clothing, cheap and/or shoddy housing, and so forth) that can’t be gotten rid of or recycled. No one, it seems, has figured out how to produce better for less, just how to produce more.

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  4. There is also one word or two to say about how different goods were back then as opposed to what are they now. New technologies enable features that we enjoy today and were completely inexistent back then.
    Last year we purchased a home built in 1986. The kitchen appliances are the original ones and although at that time they were the top of the line, today having a microwave without a turntable is unheard of.

    Comparing just the price doesn’t tell the whole story. But it is a fun way to look at how things have evolved and progressed.


    1. Technology has made a huge difference in what’s available today, and that can be a good thing. At the same time, it can be a curse as it adds to cost of things. I agree that prices alone don’t tell the whole story, but they do show that costs have increased while salaries haven’t. I remember my mother once buying two shopping carts full of food after we had moved to a new house, both filled to overflowing, and I think she paid less than $100 for everything and was absolutely horrified by that amount. $100 these days might only fill a couple of shopping bags!


  5. I was 10 in 1973 when the first oil crisis hit. I remember my mother talking about the price of hamburger doubling in six months, hence, “American chop suey” and other casseroles became dinner staples to stretch the meat. My father was paid the last Friday of every month and I remember the months when my mother would turn the calendar page and sigh saying, “it’s a five Friday month.” The same paycheck needed to cover food for five weeks rather than four.

    Heating oil prices exploded and my mother would reply when we complained of being cold, “put another sweater on.” I also remember Texans with bumper stickers saying, “Freeze Damn Yankees.” I guess karma came around this past winter.

    Before the 2020 election a friend of my parents sent out an email supporting DT saying that young people these days don’t know how to work hard in order to buy a house, are frivolous with credit cards, and are not real patriots because they don’t know the words to the national anthem. It made my blood boil! People who bought houses in the 60’s and early 70’s ended up benefiting from the population bubble that came behind them and drove up housing prices. A house is typically a family’s largest asset.

    I bought ground pork today and paid $4.99 a pound. I last bought it on 16 June and paid $4.29 a pound. Last year it was $3.99.


    1. I do remember the heating oil crisis in the early 70s, at least back east. I lived in Southern California, so heating wasn’t a big issue, but gas sure was. Prices and availability did get many Americans to shun gas guzzlers for a while, but once prices got back to “normal,” that ended (and big SUVs were one of the results).

      I can’t remember what things cost last year other than gasoline, but I know that everything is more expensive. Supply chain issues have been difficult to deal with as well and have sent prices soaring here. Even if things eventually settle down, I think prices will continue to stay high for the foreseeable future. BTW, now that we’re living on a fixed income, we get those five week payday stretches – they are hard to get through and require a LOT of planning.

      I agree with you about housing prices, that those who bought houses in the 60s, 70s, and even 80s and held on to them have made a fortune off of them, but at the same time prices have made it impossible for upcoming generations to ever have that opportunity. I am honestly so tired of hearing my generation complain about how younger generations don’t work hard, etc. They are just having to do things differently now because the opportunities that existed for my generation and those before don’t exist now for our daughters’ generation. I’m just grateful they have been able to get through college without accumulating any debt, as so many other have.


  6. CT had gas rationing based on the last number on a car’s license plate. Odd number could only buy gas on an odd day and vice versa for even numbers. I remember going with my dad and waiting in the car in a line that stretched down the street hoping that the gas would hold out until we got our turn at the pump. This is also when I learned the habit to never let the gas tank go below half without filling up!

    My son is 24 and also has no student debt, for which I am very thankful. The student loan debt is crippling to so many.


    1. I remember those odd/even days! We were so careful with our driving – we couldn’t just get in the car and go. Every trip was planned and necessary.


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