Using my Sears Fall/Winter 1956 catalog, I searched for the lowest-priced cotton bedding then available, constrained only by the requirement that the thread count of the sheets and pillowcases be as close as possible to 200 threads per square inch. On page 773 of that catalog I found Sears’s lowest-priced cotton sheets in the 200 thread-count range (actually, 190 count). These sheets for a full-size bed were priced, in 1956, at $2.35 for the fitted sheet and $2.35 for the flat sheet. A set of two pillowcases of this quality (the smaller of the two sizes available) cost $1.24. The lowest-priced wool blanket (72″ X 84″) appropriate for a full-size bed was priced at $9.69.
How many hours did an ordinary American worker have to work in 1956 to purchase this basic bedding?
Remember from this November 26, 2012 post, I use the then-average hourly manufacturing earnings of production workers, as reported in Table 1 here, as the figure for the hourly earnings of the ‘ordinary’ American worker. That hourly wage in 1956 was $1.89.
A worker earning that nominal wage in 1956 would, therefore, have had to toil 8.4 hours to buy this bedding. (These bedding items total to $15.63 – a sum that someone earning $1.89 per hour must work 8.3 hours to earn.)
How many hours does an ordinary American worker have to work today to purchase similar basic bedding?
The lowest-priced cotton sheets sold at Sears.com today are 250 thread count (so, these sheets are of slightly higher quality than were the 1956 sheets mentioned above). A set of these 2012 sheets – one fitted and one flat – is available at Kmart for $29.99. (Sears.com is currently sold out of all sizes save that of California king.) Two standard-size accompanying pillowcases are priced at $4.99 (the price of a package of two). Sears sells no wool blankets today in the same size as its lowest-priced one in 1956. The lowest-priced wool blanket at Sears.com that I can find is a bit smaller – at 62″ X 82″. It is priced at $18.99. But to ensure that our sleeper in 2012 has all the blanketing he or she desires, let’s buy two such blankets today.
So the total price of this basic bedding today is $72.96. ($29.99 + $4.99 + $18.99 + $18.99) Today’s ordinary, full-time nonsupervisory American worker in the private sector, earning (as he or she does) $19.84 per hour, must work only 3.7 hours to buy these modest bedding items. That is, basic bedding ‘software’ (of slightly higher quality than similar stuff available in 1956) today costs only 45 percent of the ordinary American’s work time than such bedding cost in 1956.
On an individual basis:
sheets: a set of these modest cotton sheets (for a full-size bed) cost the ‘ordinary’ American worker in 1956 2.5 hours of work time; in 2012 similar sheets cost the ‘ordinary’ American worker only 1.5 hours of work time
pillowcases: a set in 1956 cost the ‘ordinary’ American worker about 39 minutes of work time; a set of similar pillowcases in 2012 cost the ‘ordinary’ American worker about 15 minutes of work time
wool blanket(s): one wool blanket cost the ‘ordinary’ American worker, in 1956, 5.1 hours of toil; in 2012 the ‘ordinary’ American worker must toil only 1.9 hours to buy two wool blankets.