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Cost of Living Indicators, 1941

    One of the most difficult tasks in dealing with the past is to get people to think historically about prices and income. Remembering what something cost 40 years ago does not tell us much; knowing how long the person had to work to acquire it does. The best way make comparisons is to determine how many hours (or fraction of an hour) a person had to work to buy something. An hour's work is the same across time or across cultures in terms of time. Of course, the amount paid to an investment bankers is greater than that paid to a ditch digger but the time unit is the same.

    Here are some data to show what people in the United States earned in 1941 if they received the minimum wage or if they received the average annual wage. With this data one can figure out how many hours a person would have had to work at minimum wage in 1941 to purchase one of the objects in the 1941 Cost column. Similarly, the 1941 Cost is expressed as a percentage of the average annual wage in the United States.

    The minimum wage did not apply to persons working in restaurants, hotels, and on farms. Often, their income was even lower than 30 cents an hour. It was not uncommon for minimum wage workers not to be able to work 40 hours a week, 50 or 52 weeks a year (2000 or 2080 hours a year). The average annual wage more closely represents what the average person had available. 

    To obtain an idea of what the equivalent cost would be in 2001 dollars, the multiplier of $12.05 was used. Rounding was applied to simplify matters. problems. 

    As one can see, household appliances were very expensive. Most people still used ice boxes in 1941. Automobiles are not comparable to 2001 automobiles. They did not have air conditioning. Except for the luxury models, heaters were not standard equipment. Radios were extra as were power steering, power brakes, and automatic transmission.

                                                                1941                 2001 equivalent

Hourly Minimum Wage                            $0.30                  $ 3.62

Average annual wage                                $1,492               $17,979

ITEM 1941 COST Hours  Work to buy % of Average Annual Wage 1941 $ Converted to 2001 $
at Minimum Wage of $1492
of $0.30
Coffee, pound $0.24 0.80 0.016% $2.89
Milk, quart $0.14 0.47 0.009% $1.69
Butter, pound   $0.41 1.37 0.027% $4.94
Sugar , pound  $0.06 0.20 0.004% $0.70
White bread, pound    $0.08 0.27 0.005% $0.96
Royal Crown Cola $0.05 0.17 0.003% $0.60
Jarmans Mens shoes $5.00 16.67 0.335% $60.00
RCA Victor radio $19.95 66.50 1.337% $240.00
Philco, radio-phonograph (cheap) $59.95 199.83 4.018% $722.00
Philco, radio-phonograph (expensive) $395 1316.67 26.475% $4,760.00
Hoover vacuum cleaner $48.95 163.17 3.281% $590.00
Bell & Howell home movie camera $49.50 165.00 3.318% $596.00
Frigidaire Refrigerator $167.50 558.33 11.227% $2,018.00
First letter stamp $0.03 0.10 0.002% $0.36
Studebaker Champion Sedan $730 2433.33 48.928% $8,797.00
Oldsmobile car $852 2840.00 57.105% $10,266.00
Pontiac 2-Door Sedan $874 2913.33 58.579% $10,532.00
Chevrolet station wagon $995 3316.67 66.689% $11,990.00
Buick 4-Door $1,314 4380.00 88.070% $15,834.00
Buick, 1942 model (low end) $1,046 3486.67 70.107% $12,604.00
Buick, 1942 model (high end) $2,667 8890.00 178.753% $32,137.00
Nash Ambassador $1,745 5816.67 116.957% $21,027.00
Cadillac $4,045 13483.33 271.113% $48,742.00
National Gallery of Art building $15,000,000 50000000.00 1005361.930% $189,750,000.00

Sources: 1941 Commemorative Yearbook, Times Passages, Inc. 1999.
              LaMartin.com (http://www.lamartin.com/ASP/cost_of_living/cost.asp)

    

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