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.