The prices listed in this survey were published in the Daily Record [Morristown, New Jersey] newspaper, the first fifteen days of selected months each decade. Staple items in several popular consumer categories were selected: automobiles, clothing, food & beverages, furniture, household goods, newspapers, personal care & health, real estate and recreation. Whenever possible, we selected items/brands (televisions, garden hoses, breakfast cereal) found in today’s stores. This makes it possible to take a 1945 “shopping list” to your local supermarket or department store and compare prices.
Items differ between decades because some things were not advertised or were advertised without prices. Some things were invented along the way (such as televisions) and others were selected because they illustrate significant items from a specific decade (cashmere sweaters, food processors). What is not advertised can be as important as what is (for example, no new car ads in 1944 because gas rationing and metal were going to defense industries for World War II). The problems of quantity and quality also figure prominently in any price comparison project. That’s why we included unit sizes and brand names when listed.
How much did it cost to stock Thanksgiving tables in Morris County? Links include popular foods, recipes & local history snippets.
Average U.S. price data
The U.S. Dept. of Labor, U.S. Dept. of Energy, and other federal agencies track retail prices for various items throughout the country. Historical data varies by commodity and is not brand-specific. Some commodity prices are also reported by region.
Useful sources include:
- Gasoline: national averages, (1929-2016) & 1949-present (leaded, unleaded, premium, etc.). See also regional prices, (1949-present)
- Gold (1833-present) & silver (1900-1998) & (1975-present)
- Utilities & energy (see p. 32) Electricity, Gas, and Fuels for Residential Use (1913-1970)
- New York Times Historic (Proquest) (1851-present) Database is useful for articles (gas prices in the 1920s, subway fare increases) and advertisements (box of candy in the 1930s, World’s Fair admission 1939 & 1964).
- Standard Catalog of American Cars (1805-1942) & other car catalogs. Also includes specs and options.
- Value of a Dollar: Colonial Era to the Civil War 1600-1865 and Value of a Dollar: Prices and Incomes in the United States 1860-2009 (Greyhouse Publishing) Excellent compendiums of prices for popular items extracted from federal statistical sources, advertisements, company catalogs. and other primary sources. Data also includes consumer expenditures, average salaries, selected stock prices, gasoline prices, telephone rates and U.S. postage.
- Western Prices Before 1861: A Study of the Cincinnati Market, Thomas Senior Berry, [Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press] 1943. Selected food and commodity prices (hogs, salt), 1827-1861.
If a man’s suit cost $30.00 in 1934, how much would that be in “today’s” dollars? You can use:
- Purchasing power of the U.S. dollar, 1913-present.
- Inflation calculator, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1913-present.
A note about wartime prices
Food, gasoline and other essential items are often precious commodities during wartime. Prices are determined by availability and governmental regulation. In World War I, our federal government established the U.S. Food Administration, headed by Herbert Hoover. During World War II the Office of Price Administration (1942-1945) set the prices of various consumer goods to stabilize the economy in the United States. War ration books were required to purchase some items.
Finding local historic prices is a great project, as long as you can be flexible with the items.
- Contact your local public library before assigning this project and ask if it owns historic local papers on microfilm. If not, the librarians can direct you to the closest holding library.
- Stick with the basics: bread, soap, shampoo, mattresses, movie tickets, automobiles. Specific brands can be difficult, if not impossible, to find.
- Pick a specific week of the year to deflect the seasonal nature of pricing. Some items are best found in specific seasons (for example, school supplies in September, or toys in December).