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How Far Did a Dollar Really Go 100 Years Ago?

How Far Did a Dollar Really Go 100 Years Ago?

Angela Colley

Family in Ontario circa 1918 via Gerry Lauzon @ Flickr

Family in Ontario circa 1918 via Gerry Lauzon @ Flickr

Today, a dollar won’t get you very far—a small black coffee from a convenience store, a soon-to-be-forgotten game from your app store, maybe a tiny bag of half broken chips from the vending machine at work. If only you’d been born earlier, you think, you’d be living the high life for so much less. 

While we may secretly love looking back a century or so and gasping at how much cheaper some things were, those prices only seem inexpensive in hindsight. The average cost of a house in 1915 was $3,200 ($75,600 in 2015 dollars) and the original Model T rolled off the line to the tune of $850 ($20,000 in 2015 dollars), but  the average male worker only made $687 a year ($16,063 in today’s money), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women made half of that. 

Moreover, World War I made it difficult to get imported goods, and many women were supporting families on their measly incomes and the salary earned by their husbands serving overseas. The lack of technology meant producing many consumer goods, like butter, was a lot more time- and labor-intensive than it is now. 

We all wish we could walk into a diner and buy a hamburger for a nickel, but here’s how far a dollar really would have gotten you about 100 years ago. 

(Note: The prices vary between 1915 and 1919. Exact data wasn’t always widely available at the turn of the century.)

Getting dressed:

Men in 1918:

  • Wool suit – $26.54 ($429.78 in today’s dollars)
  • Cotton pants – $3.06 ($49.55 in today’s dollars)
  • Cotton shirt – $1.31 ($21.21 in today’s dollars)
“Big” Bill Haywood circa 1915 via Washington Area Spark @ Flickr

“Big” Bill Haywood circa 1915 via Washington Area Spark @ Flickr

Women in 1918:

  • Cotton skirts – $2.73 ($44.21 in today’s dollars)
  • Cotton blouse – $1.58 ($25.59 in today’s dollars)
  • Cotton dress – $3.51 ($56.84 in today’s dollars)

Inexpensive, off-the-rack clothing is more readily available today. Couple that with the fact that people in 1918 simply wore more clothes—think full undergarments ensembles for women and three-piece suits for men—and your great grandparents definitely spent more getting dressed. According to the Bureau of Labor, in 2015, clothing made up about 3 percent of the average person’s expenditures, but in 1915, that was closer to 13 percent. 
 

Five women of Lakewood, NJ circa 1914-1918 via Richard @ Flickr

Five women of Lakewood, NJ circa 1914-1918 via Richard @ Flickr

Buying groceries: 

  • Loaf of bread – $0.07 ($1.69 in today’s dollars)
  • Pound of butter –  $0.36 ($8.72 in today’s dollars)
  • Dozen eggs – $0.34 ($8.23 in today’s dollars)
  • Sirloin steak – $0.25 per pound ($6.05 in today’s dollars)
  • Quart of milk – $0.09 ($2.18 in today’s dollars)

Supermarkets had arrived by 1915, but getting food still wasn’t easy. Most women trekked to the market several times a week to stock their teeny-tiny ice boxes. 
 

Grocery store circa 1920 via Janice Waltzer @ Flickr

Grocery store circa 1920 via Janice Waltzer @ Flickr

Household supplies:

  • Toilet cleaner – $0.19 ($3.08 in today’s dollars)
  • Toilet paper – $0.25 for two rolls ($4.05 in today’s dollars)
  • Laundry soap – 30 bars (10 oz. each) for $1.73 ($28.02 in today’s dollars)
  • Scouring powder – 3 cans (16 oz. each) for $0.14 ($2.27 in today’s dollars)

In 1918, many people bought their household supplies straight from this Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog

While questionably safe versions of vacuums and other household appliances were available, most people didn’t own them. Odds were good women, who did the majority of domestic work in the era (surprise, surprise), were still hand washing clothes and hanging them to dry, scrubbing dishes after every meal, and doing most clothing repair by hand. 
 

Household chores circa 1915-1920 via the Library of Congress

Household chores circa 1915-1920 via the Library of Congress

Personal care:

  • Soap – 30 bars (3.25 oz. each) $1.59 ($25.75 in today’s dollars)
  • Shampoo – $0.39 ($6.32 in today’s dollars)
  • Rosewater and glycerin face lotion – $0.25 ($4.05 in today’s dollars)
  • After shave – $0.21 ($3.40 in today’s dollars)
  • Hair cut – $0.65 ($10.53 in today’s dollars) 

While your great grandparents didn’t have to deal with luxury handmade bath bombs and lip scrubs blowing their budget, the temptation was still there—at least the turn of the century version. For instance, Sears’ catalogs in the era featured plenty of “personal care miracles” like hair tonics and shampoos to wash out the grey from your hair. Seems like the more things change, the more they really do stay the same.

Maybelline launched in 1915 (circa 1922) via Library of Congress

Maybelline launched in 1915 (circa 1922) via Library of Congress

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