Penny candy, dime malts and dollar cameras may not be available in your town anymore, but they probably were at one time. Was that ten-cent movie ticket really a good deal, or has inflation fooled us into thinking our seven dollar matinee is just too much? Are you really getting such a good deal on that train ticket? Keep reading to find out!
For the purpose of this price comparison, we used the US Government Consumer Price Index to calculate what the items from the past would cost today. Further, the CPI used is the 2005 average.
Back in 1910, you wouldn’t find a Starbucks on every corner or a digital camera in nearly every home. That dollar in your wallet would, however, buy you 20 Coca-Cola’s or even a real, film camera from a drug store. For just under $2000, you could purchase a six-room cottage in the Island Park area of Fargo, North Dakota. In today’s money, according to the CPI, you’ll pay $.99 for that Coke, just under $20 for the same camera and $38,500 for the cottage. Don’t tell that to your realtor, though.
You can find a film camera for about $20 and a Coca-Cola, in one of the many flavors now available, for about a dollar. But that six-bedroom cottage in Island Park, that’ll cost you over $130,000 today.
What would the conveniences of today cost you back then? A fancy coffee from Starbucks that you currently pay $4.50 for would cost you almost a quarter in 1910. A $500 computer today would have cost about $25 and your $40 monthly cable bill would have run about $2 back in 1910.
A movie ticket in 1914 cost a dime for a child, double that for an adult. A family of eight could go see Charlie Chaplin on the reel-to-reel for a buck. In today’s dollars, that should be about $1.95 for a child and $3.90 for an adult, but you probably can’t even get an extra squirt of butter for that now. The average cost of a movie ticket is currently $6.50, regardless of age. A family of eight costs over $50 before snacks. Of course, the technology involved in movie making, not to mention the salaries of actors, has added to the cost.
In the grocery store, steak was selling for $.18 per pound, prime rib roast for $.16 per pound. Converted to 2005 prices, it’s about $3.50 a pound for steak and a little less for prime rib. But in the grocery stores, you’ll likely pay upwards of $5 a pound for sirloin or strip steak and closer to $10 pound for prime rib.
Transportation options and prices have certainly changed quite a bit as well. In 1918, a train ride from Anacortes to Seattle cost $2.50. In 1940, a new Plymouth coupe cost $645. That same year, you’d pay $8 for a one way train from San Francisco to Los Angeles and $70 for a coast-to-coast ticket. According to the CPI calculation, the Washington trip would cost $32 in today dollars. The automobile would cost about $9000 and the train tickets would cost $111 and $976, respectively. Trains no longer run from Anacortes to Seattle, but a bus will cost about $4 or you could drive the 80 miles for about $8 in gas in an average car. These days, a brand-new Chrysler (formally Plymouth) Sebring starts at about $20,000. That San Francisco to LA train now costs $54 or you could fly for about $110. The train from New York to LA now costs $185 or you could fly for only $130.
In the local grocery store in 1940, you’d pay a dime for loaf of bread, $.35 for a pound of bacon and $2 for whole chicken. That bread now costs about $1.40, the bacon around $5 and the chicken costs $7. According to the CPI calculation, the bread and bacon are approximately correct. That chicken, however, should cost nearly $30! However, a $1 bag of chips today would only cost $.07 in 1940. Your Starbucks drink would cost $.32 then instead of $4.50 today.
Housing prices have changed quite a bit as well. In 1940, a one bedroom apartment without a kitchen, just a hotplate, in New York would cost $40 a month to rent. By 1970, you’d pay about $26,600 for a new home. In 1984, a new home cost about $97,600 and by 1994, that house cost $154,500. The CPI calculations reveal that the New York apartment would rent for $550 a month, though you’d actually be hard pressed to find one for under $1000 a month. Your 1970 house would cost $134,000, your 1984 house $183,500 and that 1994 home $203,600. Housing prices certainly vary around the country, so these numbers seem appropriate.
Back at the grocery store, you’d pay $.62 for a dozen eggs in 1970, $1.01 in 1984 and $.87 in 1994. Using the CPI calculations, those eggs should cost anywhere between $1.15 and $3.12. A gallon of milk cost $1.15 in 1970, $2.26 in 1984 and $2.88 in 1994. Depending on the area you live in, a gallon of milk currently costs about $3. This is somewhat less expensive than the CPI calculation of between $3.79 and $4.25 based on past decade prices.
If they were available, you could buy a $500 personal computer for about $100 and pay an $8 per month cable bill for internet access to email your friends in 1970, or you could send a letter for a $.06 stamp. Today, you’ll spend $500 for your computer, $40 for your cable and $.39 for that stamp.
In 1994, that computer would have cost $380, your cable bill just over $30 a month and that stamp cost $.29.
Your transportation dollar stretches much further, making it much more affordable to see the world, or at least America. Chicken is much less expensive for a household now than it was half a century ago but going to the movies costs quite a bit more. You may have a hard time finding penny candy these days, but the US dollar still buys quite a bit, even compared to 95 years ago.