To be precise, back to 1956.
Lately, I’ve encountered with unusual frequency claims that the 1950s were a glorious economic time for America’s middle-class  – a time so glorious, what with strong labor unions and high (above 90%!) marginal income-tax rates  and all, that we middle-class Americans of today should look back with longing and envy on those marvelous years of six decades ago.
So on Saturday I bought on eBay this Fall/Winter 1956 Sears catalog . I spent an extra $8-and-change to have it shipped to me overnight – a service that I could not have purchased in 1956. My catalog arrived on my doorstep today. I’m eager to explore it and to report my findings with some thoroughness.
But to give you a taste now, below is a sample of what I plan to do.
Having on hand information on the nominal average hourly earnings of nonsupervisory nonfarm private production workers in the U.S. in 2012  – that figure being $19.79 (as of October 2012) – I searched for the same earnings figure for 1956. Thus far I’ve had no luck finding that number. (Please feel free, I bleg of you, to help me find this figure, if you so desire.) So, for 1956 I instead use average hourly manufacturing earnings of production workers, as reported in Table 1 here . That figure is $1.89.
This nominal wage figure for 1956 isn’t exactly comparable to the nominal wage figure that I use for 2012, but it’s close enough, at least for this first-pass analysis. If the claim of many “Progressives” is true that manufacturing is the most princely sort of work that middle-class Americans can do, then presumably this figure of $1.89 is higher than the hourly earnings of all private, nonfarm nonsupervisory workers in 1956. Anyway….
So let’s ask: how long did a typical American worker have to toil in 1956 to buy a particular sort of good compared to how long a similarly typical American worker today must toil to buy that same (or similar) sort of good? Here are four familiar items: refrigerator-freezers; kitchen ranges; televisions; and automatic washers.
Sears’s lowest-priced no-frost refrigerator-freezer in 1956 had 9.6 cubic feet, in total, of space. It sold for $219.95 (in 1956-dollar prices). (You can find a lovely black-and-white photograph of this mid-’50s fridge on page 1036 of the 1956 Sears catalog.) Home Depot today sells a 10 cubic-foot no-frost refrigerator-freezer for $298.00 (in 2012-dollar prices). (You can find it in color on line here .)
Therefore, the typical American worker in 1956 had to work a total of 219.95/1.89 hours to buy that 9.6 cubic-foot fridge – or a total of 116 hours. (I round to the nearest whole number.) Today, to buy a similar no-frost refrigerator-freezer, the typical American worker must work a total of 298.00/19.79 hours – or 15 hours. That is, to buy basic household refrigeration and freezing, today’s worker must spend only 13 percent of the time that his counterpart in 1956 had to spend.
Sears’s lowest-priced 30″ four-burner electric range, with bottom oven, was priced, in 1956, at $129.95. (You can find this range on page 1049 of the 1956 Sears catalog.) Home Depot sells a 30″ four-burner electric range, with bottom oven, today for $348.00 .
The typical American manufacturing worker in 1956, therefore, had to work 129.95/1.89 – or 69 hours – to buy an ordinary kitchen range. His or her counterpart today must work 348.00/19.79 – or 18 – hours to buy the same sized ordinary range.
Sears’s lowest-priced television in 1956 was a black-and-white (of course) 17″ model. (You can find it on page 1018 of the 1956 catalog.) That t.v. set was priced at $114.95. Sears today sells no 17″ t.v. sets. The closest set I could find at Sears was this 19″ color (of course) model , which is priced at $194.00.
The typical American manufacturing worker in 1956, therefore, had to work 114.95/1.89 – or 61 hours – to buy this tiny black-and-white (with no remote!) television set. His or her counterpart today must work 194.00/19.79 – or 10 – hours to buy a slightly larger, high-def, color (with remote!) television set.
Automatic Washing Machines
Sears’s lowest-priced automatic washer – it could handle loads up to a maximum of 8 lbs. – sold in 1956 for $149.95. (You can find it on page 1029 of Sears’s 1956 catalog.) Today, Sears’s lowest-priced washer sells for $299.99 . (It’s got 3.4 cubic feet of wash-bin space; I can’t find a maximum “pound-load” for it. Presumably, this 2012 washer isn’t significantly smaller than – and might well be significantly larger than – the low-priced 1956 model.)
The typical American manufacturing worker in 1956, therefore, had to work 149.95/1.89 – or 79 hours – to buy an ‘inexpensive’ new washing machine. His or her counterpart today must work 299.99/19.79 – or 15 – hours to buy an inexpensive new washing machine.
(Bonus point: Because the lowest marginal personal-income-tax rate imposed by Uncle Sam in the 1950s was significantly higher than it is today, hourly middle-class earnings today go even farther, for individual earners, than they did six decades ago.)
In the above I don’t adjust for quality – yet it is certainly true what they say: “They don’t make ’em like they used to.” They make ’em better. So the real-price reductions for these above four items are even larger than indicated above.
In follow-up posts I’ll go into more detail, using my lovely Fall/Winter 1956 Sears catalog, to gain further insight to how middle-class Americans’ economic fortunes today compare to what those fortunes were in 1956. I am well-aware that no such ‘catalog’ analysis covers all fronts or can possibly tell a complete picture. Yet I also firmly believe that such analysis does convey very useful information.