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.