How much did things cost in the 1950s?

Houses were much cheaper in the 1950s
Houses were much cheaper in the 1950s.

Are things more expensive today than the were in the 1950s? We look at a few everyday items and compare prices, allowing for inflation.

Working out the cost in today's terms isn't the whole story.  You also have to think about how much people earned.

People were a lot poorer in the 1950s. Average wages increased from around £5 in 1950 to £9 in 1959. Allowing for inflation, these figures are £125 and £150. Today average weekly earnings are more than £500.

So what looks cheap today, in real terms might have been expensive to someone from the 1950s.

Housing

Houses were a lot cheaper in the 1950s. In today's money they were less than £40k and went down in real terms in the 1950s.

Year Cost In today's money
1952 (first quarter) £1,891 £38,800
1959 (last quarter) £2,170 £35,400

Why were houses so cheap?

There was much less pressure to 'get on the housing ladder'. Many working people rented from the local authority and did not consider buying.

Mortgages were harder to get and you could borrow less. So the average person's housing budget was more modest.

Mortgages depend on income, so house prices have a stronger link with incomes than prices. An average house in 1959 was 4.6 times the average annual income. Today it is 8.3 times. So in the 1950s it was cheaper to buy a house than today.

1950s telephone 332
GPO supplied telephone from the 1950s

Telephone calls

Only 14% of households had a telephone in 1955.[1]

The cost of installing a telephone was £5. You paid a quarterly rental of £3.

The rental charge included 100 free calls per year. Telephone calls were charged on a different basis from today. There were two types of call 'local' or 'trunk' calls. Local calls were within the local exchange area. 

Local calls

For local calls it didn't matter how long you were on the phone as the charge was for a single call. In spite of this people used the telephone for short functional calls. Most took less than two minutes. Charges for local calls in 1956 were:

Distance Cost in today's money
Up to 5 miles 2d 15p
5 to 7½ miles 4d 29p
7½ to 12½ miles 6d 44p
12½ to 15 miles 8d 58p

Trunk calls

For a Trunk call you needed to contact the operator and ask her (it was usually a her) to dial the number for you. Trunk calls were charged per 3 minute duration. The operator worked out the charge. There was a cheap rate period from 6pm to 10.30pm every day.

These are the costs for the 'Cheap Rate' period for 1956.

Distance Cost In today's money
15 to 25 miles 8d 58p
25 to 35 miles 9d 66p
35 to 50 miles 1s 2d £1.02
over 125 miles 1s 6d £1.32

If you had difficulting getting up in the morning, you could also ask the operator for an alarm call to wake you up for the cost of 6d.

In 1958 there were big changes. Firstly the GPO extended the cheap rate period to 6pm to 6am Monday to Saturday and from 2pm Sunday to 6am Monday.

More importantly, a new system called STD (Subcriber Trunk Dialling) let people dial Trunk calls for themselves. The GPO introduced STD piecemeal. Bristol was the first area to have it.

People on STD got all calls billed in 2d units. So the opportunity for long conversations disappeared, before people really discovered it.

Newspapers

The Daily Mirror was Britain's most popular paper in the 1950s. The Daily Express came second.

The UK Government controlled the prices of popular newspapers. National dailies were all the same price.

In today's money newspapers prices increased from 10p in 1950 to 17p in 1959.

The Times was free from this control. In 1950 it cost 3d, and in 1959 it cost 6d.

Sunday newspapers were more expensive. In 1951 The Observer increased in price from 3d to 3½d, The Sunday Times from 3d to 4d, The News of the World and the Sunday Express from 2d to 2½d.

Today newspapers are much more expensive:

Source: Tesco, prices as of March 2019

Newspaper circulation increased in the 1950s as Britain became more affluent. It is much lower today as people rely on other sources of news.

Verdict: Newspapers were much cheaper in the 1950s than today.  A combination of higher circulation and Government regulation kept prices low.

2½d stamp
Before 1957 it cost just 2½d to post a letter in the UK.

Posting letters

At the beginning of the 1950s, it cost just 2½d (1p) to post a letter in the UK. The GPO (General Post Office) increased the cost to 3d in 1957.

Sending a postcard home from your holidays was cheaper. It cost 2d before 1957, then 2½d

Verdict: Posting a letter was much cheaper in the 1950s than today.   Once again frequency of use probably helped make postage cheap.

Television

Televisions were expensive in the 1950s and you could only view programmes in black and white. There was also just one BBC channel.  Comercial TV started in 1955, so viewers had a choice of two channels.  Most deserted the BBC for ITV.

In 1951 a Murphy V200 television with a 12" screen cost £80 [£1800 in today's money].

At the end of the decade a 17" Murphy set cost £69 16s 6d [£1100 in today's money].

In that time television ownership increased from a tiny fraction of the population to around three quarters of all households.

Verdict: Television, was ruinously expensive in the 1950s. Nevertheless, most people moved heaven and earth to own or rent a set.

Other consumer goods

In the 1950s the average family owed £20 on hire purchase (HP). They used HP to buy cars, furniture and household electrical appliances [2]

Typical prices of consumer goods were

Stationery

Ball point pens were new in 1945. At the beginning of the 1950s they were still relatively expensive, but prices came down quickly.

Groceries

People bought a lot of canned and tinned produce in the 1950s.  It was a trend that began in the 1930s. They had also developed a taste for breakfast cereals and instant coffee.

These are some typical groceries people bought in the 1950s and the approximate prices.

Canned/bottled meat and fish

Canned fruit and fruit juices

Canned vegetables

Soups

Sauces and pickles

Theses are some classic sauces. You can still buy most of them today.

Hot drinks

Cold drinks

Canned milk

Biscuits

Breakfast cereals

Jams and marmalades

Jellies and pudding mixes

Toilet paper

Absorbent toilet paper was a new thing in the 1950s. Many people still preferred smooth finish paper such as Izal. You could also get crepe toilet paper supplied by Boots for 6d a roll.

These prices are taken from 'Cut price groceries' in 'Which?' Vol 1, No. 4, published Summer 1958 with a few additions.

Motoring

The cost of a gallon of petrol increased from 3s in 1950 to a peak of 5s 4d in 1956 at the height of the Suez Crisis. The UK Government introduced petrol rationing to cope with shortages.

Read more about historic prices and inflation

References

[1] Telephones and the private subscriber by Michael Dunne, page 4, published by The International Organisation of Consumers Unions, 1967

[2] 'Hire Purchase...an Appeal', published by the Consumers' Association in 'Which?' Volume 1, Number 2, winter 1958, page 7

By Steven Braggs, December 2019

Your comments


Name
Comment
To prevent automated Bots from spamming, please enter the text you see in the image below in the appropriate input box. Your comment will only be submitted if the strings match. Please ensure that your browser supports and accepts cookies, or your comment cannot be verified correctly.
 
   
Retrowow - vintage, retro and social history
Retrowow - vintage, retro and social history