Living the good life didn’t cost a lot in 1950, at least at first glance. The average home was worth $7,354, a new Volkswagen Beetle could be yours for $1,280, and tuition at the University of Pennsylvania was $600.
All that sounds like a bargain until you realize the average family took home just $4,237 per year. Minimum wage was 75 cents an hour, and those with jobs in industries like manufacturing, finance, and government had an average hourly wage of $1.50. When you look at those numbers, $1,200 cars and college tuition doesn’t sound like such a bargain.
In hindsight, 1950s-era prices look low, but things even out quite a bit once you account for inflation. A dollar in 1950 gives you the same spending power as $10 today. So, yes, you may have been able to buy a cup of coffee for a nickel in 1950, but a nickel was worth considerably more back then (about 50 cents in today’s dollars). But that’s not to say some things haven’t gotten more expensive in the intervening 60-plus years.
If tuition prices at Penn had risen in line with inflation, undergrads would be paying $6,000 to attend; instead, the sticker price for an Ivy League education has ballooned to $42,176. The MSRP for a new Beetle is just under $20,000; the inflation-adjusted price of the 1950 car would be about $13,000. Real wages for American workers, meanwhile, have stagnated. Is it any wonder people are nostalgic for the good old days, when a dollar could buy you more than a cup of coffee at McDonald’s? To get a sense of how far $1 really used to go, check out this list of seven things you could get for a buck back in 1950.
1. Four gallons of gas
A gallon of gas was 27 cents in 1950, according to historical data from the U.S. Department of Energy. Four gallons would have cost you $1.08. That sounds pretty cheap, but the 1950 price was equivalent to $2.14 a gallon in 2015, only 31 cents less than 2015’s average per-gallon price of $2.45.
2. A pound of coffee
Back in the 1950s, you could pick up many of the items on your grocery list for less than $1. Vintage supermarket ads shared by the Houston Chronicle give you an idea of what it would have cost to stock your pantry, with 5 pounds of flour selling for 39 cents and 2 packages of spaghetti going for 27 cents at Lucky 7 Stores in 1950. Coffee was one of the more expensive items. You could get a pound of Bright & Early Coffee for 79 cents, the equivalent of $7.49 today.
3. Four books
Cheap pulp paperbacks with their lurid covers and salacious taglines were big business in mid-century America. In 1950, you could pick up books like The Big Night by Stanley Ellin (“eight savage hours of whiskey and women!”) or The Small Back Room by Nigel Balchin (“the story of an inadequate man”) for a quarter each. In comparison, best-selling mass-market paperbacks like Game of Thrones cost about $10 today, or the equivalent of $1 in 1950.
4. Two movie tickets
Catching the latest hit movie cost a lot less in the 1950s than it does today. In 1948, the average movie ticket cost 36 cents; by 1954 it had climbed 13 cents to 49 cents, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners. In today’s dollars, that’s less than $5 for a movie. In 2015, the average movie ticket would set you back $8.43.
5. A week’s worth of subway fares
In 1950, a dime got you a ride on the New York City subway. Commuters who made one round-trip every weekday would have spent $1 every week on subway fares. Today, a single ride subway ticket is $3, the equivalent of 30 cents in 1950. (Per-ride fares are slightly less if you buy a MetroCard, which didn’t exist in 1950.)
6. Half-a-dozen packs of cigarettes
A pack of cigarettes cost an average of 15 cents in 1950, the equivalent of $1.49 today, according to an analysis by Graphiq. At those prices, six packs of smokes would cost you 90 cents. You’ll shell out a lot more for your Marlboros and Lucky Strikes today. The average prices of a pack of cigarettes in the U.S. is now $7.26, according to The Awl.
7. A ticket to the MLB All-Star game
In 1950, you didn’t have to spend a small fortune to see baseball legends Jackie Robinson, Yogi Berra, and Ted Williams play in the MLB All-Star Game at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. Bleacher tickets for the big event sold for $1 – or about $10 in 2016 dollars. In comparison, tickets to the 2016 All-Star Game in San Diego went for an average of $506 on the resale market.
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