Carpe Diem

Appliance shopping: 1959 vs. 2012


Here’s another post comparing the “time cost” of consumer products from the 1950s to the “time cost” of comparable goods today, as a follow up to the recent, popular CD post “Christmas Shopping: 1958 vs. 2012” (which was tweeted by Fareed Zakaria to his 270,000 followers and then re-tweeted 90 times).

Pictured above are a “Lady Kenmore” washer and dryer from the 1959 Sears Christmas catalog, available here from the website WishbookWeb, home of the vintage catalog archive project.  The 2-speed, 10-pound Sears washer sold for $209.95 and the matching 10-pound Sears dryer sold for $169.95.  At the average hourly manufacturing wage in 1959 of $2.09, the average factory worker would have had to work 100.5 hours to generate enough pre-tax income to purchase the washer above, and 81.3 hours to earn enough income to purchase the matching dryer, for a combined total of 181.8 hours of work at the average hourly wage for the two appliances.

Fast forward to 2012. The washer and dryer pictured above are available today from the Sears website.  On the left is a 3.4 cubic foot Kenmore top-loading washing machine, which is on sale for $296.99 and would require a “time cost” of only 15.5 hours of work at today’s average hourly factory wage of $19.20 to purchase the washing machine.  On the right is a 6 cubic foot Kenmore electric dryer selling for the same price as the washer, $296.99, which would also have a “time cost” today of 15.5 hours of work at the average hourly wage.  Together, the washer and dryer combination would have a “time cost” of 31 hours of work at today’s average hourly manufacturing wage.

Bottom Line:  The typical American consumer/factory worker in 1959 would have had to work more than a month (4.5 weeks) at the average hourly wage then to earn enough income to purchase a Sears washer-dryer combination.  Today’s typical, and very fortunate consumer/worker would have to work for less than 4 days, not more than 4 weeks, to earn enough income to purchase a washer-dryer combination.  Measured in the amount of time working at the average hourly wage to earn enough income to purchase a washer-dryer combination, the “time cost” of those two appliances together has fallen by 83%, from 181.8 hours in 1959 to only 31 hours today.

Stated differently, if today’s consumers paid the same “time cost” as their counterparts did in the late 1950s, they would be working 181.8 hours today at $19.20 per hour to earn enough income to purchase a Sears washer-dryer combination, and they would be paying a retail price of almost $3,500 for the two appliances today, instead of less than $600.  Today’s modern household appliances are not only cheaper than ever before to purchase, they are also the most energy-efficient appliances in history, resulting in additional savings for today’s consumers through lower operating costs.  For the average American, and especially for low-income Americans, the “good old days” are now, not the 1950s.

18 thoughts on “Appliance shopping: 1959 vs. 2012

    • Still works too, right jon?

      I had an education in kitchen appliance pricing today that I thought was rather marvelous…

      A friend of mine and her husband purchased a small condo just last week…

      The kitchen is small, maybe fifty squasre feet of free space once the appliances are installed…

      Its rather amazing what a $1,000 will buy now a days…

      Front loading washer & dryer that sit on top of each other is a closet made just for that purpose…

      A pretty slick combo 2 sink system with counter and dishwasher, a really large refrigerator with a large capacity freezer that pulls out like a drawer, one of those four burner stoves with two ovens, a hood, and a suspended microwave oven that that can rotate and it has an attached dining island that seats four…

      Where ever they bought this stuff from sends out someone to look at the empty kitchen space, take measurments and then makes suggestions…

      Then its delivered and installed…

      Took two guys less than a hour to haul from truck to kitchen and get it all set up and running…

      Its all warrentied for ten years…

      It was all very slick and modern looking…

      A regular Jetsons’ kitchen…

  1. It’s great that are cheaper since you will need two machines to do the work of one due to federal energy conservation regulations that are ruining washing machines…


  2. I wonder how long it will take before our lazy Lefties claim on this thread that there needs to be a comparison of health care costs then and now, and start bitching because YOU haven’t done it.

      • Well, Professor Perry seems to be enjoying these 1950s vs present comparisons, and since it’s his blog, he can do what he wants. I know I’m enjoying the comparisons.

        He’s also very generous in this comment section, allowing anyone who wishes to compare 1990 vs present a forum to post their findings. Those lazy-asses should get busy doing their researchin’.

          • Okay, here you go. I can’t find a 1990 or 2000 Sears catalog but did find 1988. that should meet your criteria? Page 452 shows a remote controlled airboat for $59.00. According to the SS web page the average wage that year was $19,334.00 or $9.29 per hour. That $59.00 boat took 6.35 hours to pay for. Looking at Amazon today a much nicer boat is about $29.00. The average wage in 2011 was $42, 979.00 or $20.66 per hour. That means that the boat from Amazon takes 1.4 hours to pay for.

            A 400 watt microwave was $79.00 or 8.5 hours in 1988. The only 400 watt microwave I see on Amazon is a retro version for $92.00 or 4.5 hours of pay. An Apple Laser 128 computer with a 5 M hard drive and 128 K Ram was $400.00 or 43 hours at the average wage. Today for $400.00 or 19.36 hours you can get An HP Pavilion Desktop Computer with a 1020 Gig hard drive and 4 Gigs of Ram. That would be 19.35 hours at the 2011 wage.

            While I can’t speak for Dr Perry I’ve no doubt that he uses prices from the 1950’s because most people consider those the golden years for the middle class. Good post-war factory jobs with good wages and low prices. The little woman at home spending her day washing, ironing and preparing meals for hubby and the kids. Except of course as Dr Perry keeps pointing out the “good old days” are now.

      • flake,

        Do it yourself or are you just some lazy ass, as Brotio claimed? The information for the 1990 Sears catalog is available. If you weren’t such a lazy ass, you’d do it and show us all how much worse off we are today compared to 1990.

        If you weren’t so lazy you could do a lot of research yourself. In fact, taking proactive steps to educate yourself using source data is far more preferable to commenting through sheer ignorance, the way you do. Taking these proactive steps is called “being an adult”. I do realized it’s much easier to wallow in ignorance is much, much easier to actually working and thinking, but you should at least try working and thinking.

        In fact, all sorts of data is available to you to do your own research, thanks to the internet. An internet that has vastly improved the lives of everyone in the world. An internet that wasn’t available in 1990. Your snark, and laziness, wouldn’t be in display for all to see in 1990.

        If you don’t like the stuff Mark puts on this website, lift your sorry lazy ass up and do the research you want done and post it yourself.

        We all thank you for making Brotio’s point.

    • Well, I think a few commentors who might describe themselves as “conservatives” have also criticized Mark when he didn’t choose to do the research they thought he should be doing.

  3. So, I’m guessing that the all-electric car with a 500-mile range will cost the equivalent of a 2012 Ford Fusion with a 4-cylinder gasoline engine… in 2062.

    I’m holding off a few decades for that wind turbine for my house, too.

  4. Many products, autos of example, are of much superior quality nowadays compared with the 50s. 50s washers, on the other hand, were much more reliable than today’s washers. Talk to any appliance repairman. Most have nothing good to say about front-loaders.

  5. I have a bit of a question about where you get the “Time Cost’ measurement and how it is taken.

    My question relates to the specialization concept of I, Pencil.

    How far back on the assembly line is this measurement taken from? As I’m sure most people on here understand, no one can build a washing machine or dryer. Someone has to mold the metals and plastics into preset shapes and plastics have to be created off of a set of instructions from a materials chemist who needed his morning coffee which came straight from a small coffee farm in brazil etc.

    I don’t doubt the accuracy of this statement, but I would think a rough estimate of how the labor is calculated would just be nice to know.

  6. Cody

    If I understand your question, the labor involved in *making* a product isn’t the time cost number you’re seeing, but the number of hours a worker earning the average wage for any given year would have to work to buy that item.

    In the example above, a worker earning the average wage of $2.09/hr in 1959 would have had to work 100.5 hours – 2 1/2 weeks to buy that snazzy washing machine that sold for $209 that year.

    Whereas in 2012 the average worker earning $19.20/hr only has to work 15.5 hours – 2 days to buy a similar washing machine. Quite a nice improvement.

    • Ohhhh. Thank you. That makes so much more sense!

      I felt like the other concept was almost too abstract and complex to measure. That really does make this a useful and interesting statistic!

      • Of course that’s only a comparison of the numbers of dollars and hours involved, and doesn’t address the view many have expressed here that the new washer isn’t an equivalent product, but is actually inferior in performance and durability.

  7. Some other things to consider. In 1959 the Sears washing machine was made with American labor and American materials. Credit was not widely used as most families still lived with he sting of the Great depression. Payments were mainly cash or if credit was available it was included in the family budget. Typical washing machines lasted 20+ years and when it broke you fixed it. Repair costs seldom exceeded the cost of a new washer or dryer. Today a 10 yr warranty means that defective parts can be replaced after the service call of $120.00. After 5 years if it breaks you throw it away and buy new. A typical washer and dryer combo is more likely to cost $800-$1200 depending on the modern features. The service life is typically 5-10 years and repair costs are impractical. More throw away. The American value added to the washer and dryer is becoming less all of the time as we no longer manufacture most of the components or do the final assembly. Where we still do value added (assembly) it is in “right to work” states which typically pay employees under $12.00 per hour. So a comparison that Dr Perry provides is a conclusion looking for supporting facts but only provides one component of a complex economic picture.

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