How much did things cost in the 1950s - USA?

House in Laurelhurst, Seattle, 1955
House in Laurelhurst, Seattle, 1955 Image by Seattle Municipal Archives licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (cropped).

Are things more expensive today than they were in the 1950s? We look at a few everyday items in the USA.

Prices are not the whole story. You also have to think about how much people earned.

Average family income in the United States rose from $3,300 in 1950 to $5,400 in 1959. Prices also increased in this period, but less so than wages. So people were better off in 1959 than they were in 1950.

Housing

There was a housing boom in post-war America. 13 million new homes were built between 1950 and 1960. Most of them were in new suburban developments.[1]

The suburban building boom started just as the War finished. William Levitt was America's most prolific builder. His men assembled prefabricated houses on site in a day. His first development at Hampstead, Long Island near New York had 17,000 homes [2]. These developments were known as Levittowns.

Supply helped keep house prices stable in the 1950s. There was only a small increase. The original Levittown house cost $7,990 in the 1940s. In 1956, new homes costing as little as $7,000 could still be found. Though the average new build family home in 1956 was a 3-bedroom rambler (ranch-style house) selling for $14,500. Most people were shopping for homes in the $12,000 to $15,000 sector.[3]

With a huge amount of new building going on, most people setting up home moved into new houses. There was also a strong market for 'used' homes. Americans moved frequently, sometimes for new jobs, sometimes to trade up to a bigger house or a better suburb.

Cars

The 1950s was also boom time in the automobile industry. Between 1945 and 1960 the number of cars on America's roads increased by 133%.[4]

Most cars sold in America were made by the big three manufacturers: Ford, General Motors and Chrysler.

These are the prices of some typical family cars from the 1950s:

Imported cars were not a big part of the US car market in the 1950s. A few invaders did make it from Europe. The most successful was the West German Volkswagen. These small European-made cars did persuade the US automobile giants to make some smaller cars. The Ford Falcon, Plymouth Valiant and Chevrolet Corvair were all announced in 1959 for the 1960 model year. All were small by American standards, but much bigger than the European imports.

You could buy these European cars in America in the 1950s:

Gasoline prices

The average price of a gallon of gas rose from 27c in 1950 to 30c in 1959.

1958 Western Electric 500 series phone
1958 Western Electric 500 series phone

Telephone calls

America led the world in number of telephones per head of population. In 1959 there were 400 telephones for every 1000 people. Quite a few. Europe was less well blessed.

Sweden came second with 340, but the UK only had 150 and West Germany only 100.

But how expensive was it to make a call?

In 1951 the minimum cost of a call from a payphone in New York went up from 5c to 10c. For one Detroit man, Earl Synder, it cost considerably more. In 1953 a court fined him fined $50 for using a washer instead of a dime in a public telephone booth. [5]

If you had a phone in your house local calls were cheap, but long distance calls were expensive. These are the charges from New York to various US cities in 1950 and 1959.

19501959
NY (New York) to Philadelphia$0.45$0.50
NY to Chicago$1.55$1.45
NY to Denver$2.20$1.95
NY to San Francisco$2.50$2.25

Source: Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1961

The cost of calls was coming down. In 1930 the cost of a call from New York to San Francisco was $9.00

Calls abroad were expensive. Calls overseas to US territories were just as dear. These are some typical rates for a three-minute call:

Source: various adverts by Bell Telephone Service from the 1950s

4c stamp
US 4c stamp introduced 1954

Posting letters

At the beginning of the 1950s, it cost just 3c to post a letter up to 1 ounce in weight in the USA. The rate rose to 4c in 1958.

Newspapers and magazines

Newspapers in 1950s' USA were very cheap

Television

Television c1953
Television c1953 Image by John Atherton licensed and distributed under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) (cropped and straightened).

At the beginning of the 1950s a black and white TV sold from $200 to $400 depending on its size and quality. The price of black and white sets came down and the size of the tube got bigger through the decade.

Color television first broadcast in the USA around 1953. It was hard to get hold of a color set even if you could afford one. The American Government banned their sale to conserve materials for the Korean War.

The RCA Victor CT 100 of 1954 was one of the first color TVs for sale. RCA's ticket price was $1000. RCA cut this to $495 later in the same year. They offered customers who bought the first sets a $505 refund as a prelude to introducing larger sets. Two years later RCA sold a 21 inch color set for $495.

Prices of black and white sets came down to around $100 for a basic portable that you still needed to plug into the mains.

Philco announced a real portable set, the Philco Safari, which ran off batteries for $250 in 1958.

Other consumer goods

In the 1950s, you could buy anything from coffee makers to popcorn poppers all in shiny chrome with Bakelite fittings. Perfect for the push button 1950s' kitchen.

Typical prices of consumer goods were:

Transistor radios

Japanese transistor radios became a must-have accessory in the late 1950s. They were far from cheap. Top Japanese makers, such as Sony and Toshiba, were becoming well-known in the United States.

In 1958 Sears reminded customers that Civil Defence recommended carrying a battery radio in case of emergencies. Presumably to hear the four minute warning. Their models ranged from $23.95 for a basic model up to $42.95 for a deluxe Silvertone radio in a top grain leather protective case.

Record players

Other audio devices were not so portable. It was the age of the console radiogram. Most teenagers would have opted for a portable record player for their bedrooms.

Cameras

Photography was a popular hobby. Kodak served the cheap end of the market. The Argus C3 was the serious amateurs' camera. Polaroid instant cameras were a new craze.

Stationery

Ball point pens were still a novelty in the 1950s:

Toiletries

Groceries

Supermarket interior, 1955
Supermarket interior, 1955 Image by Seattle Municipal Archives licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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

Bread

Canned/bottled meat and fish

Canned fruit and fruit juices

Soups

Sauces and pickles

Hot drinks

Cakes, biscuits and chocolates

Snacks

Ready meals

Breakfast cereals

Jellies and pudding mixes

Baking products

Fruit and vegetables

Dairy

Meat

Frozen foods and drinks

Household products

Holidays

Cigarettes

Smoking was common in 1950s' America. But evidence it was bad for health was mounting. A landmark article in Readers' Digest, "Cancer by the Carton", in 1952, explained the risk. Americans found smoking a hard habit to kick.

In the mid-50s, there was a switch to filter brands which were supposed to be better for health. In reality they brought no real benefit. Paradoxically there was also an increase in popularity of king-sized brands.

The most popular cigarette brands in the 1950s were Camel, Lucky Strike and Chesterfield. Of the filter brands, Winston was the most popular. It was made from stronger tobacco and had more tar, but slightly less nicotine than Camel. But people thought the filter made it safer.

How much did cigarettes cost?

Murad was the most expensive brand and cost 37c per pack. Parliament and Du Maurier, both filter brands with an exclusive image, cost 33c. Kent was also a premium brand and sold for 31c.

The popular brands cost from 24c to 25c per pack.

At the cheap end of the scale Sears sold Yorkshires for 17c per pack.

Source: 'Cigarettes' published in Consumer reports, February 1955 (Published by the Consumers' Union of the United States)

References

[1] 'The unfinished journey - America since World War 2' by William H Chafe, published by Oxford University Press 2003, page 112

[2] 'Grand Expectations: The United States 1945-74' by James T Patterson, published by Oxford University Press 1996, page 72

[3] 'Average house built last year: 3-bedroom rambler costing $14,500' published in the New York Times 19 May 1957, page R1

[4] 'The unfinished journey - America since World War 2' by William H Chafe, published by Oxford University Press 2003, page 114

[5] '$50 telephone call', published by the Chicago Defender, 21 March 1953, page 6

By Steven Braggs, October 2020

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Retrowow - vintage, retro and social history
Retrowow - vintage, retro and social history