Cataloging Our Progress: Basic Lawn Care

by Don Boudreaux on December 18, 2012

in Growth, Standard of Living

Using my Sears Fall/Winter 1956 catalog, I searched for the lowest-priced basic lawn-care items available at Sears in 1956, constrained only by the requirement that the ‘big’ items – lawn mower and lawn edger – be gasoline- or electric-powered rather than fully manual.  From page 1045 through page 1051 of that catalog I found what I searched for.  The prices given are 1956 prices for the lowest-priced such item that Sears then sold through its catalog.

- gasoline-powered rotary, manual-push lawn mower (1.5 hp; 16″ cutting width): $46.00

- electric-powered, manual-push lawn edger (6″ blade, 1/8hp): $16.50

- manual-push two-wheel seed/fertilizer spreader (16″ width): $6.89

- garden hose (25′; 7/16″ diameter): $2.29

- on-ground revolving lawn sprinkler (two arms): $1.55

- lawn rake: $0.89

- pruning shears: $0.89

- garden-hose nozzle: $0.46

These items in 1956 totaled to $75.47

How many hours did an ordinary American worker have to work in 1956 to purchase these basic, Sears-lowest-priced lawn-care items?

Remember from this November 26, 2012 post, I use the 1956 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 work 40 hours – a full week – to buy all of these items.

How many hours does an ordinary American worker have to work today to purchase similar items to care for his or her lawn?  I went this morning to Sears.com to begin my search; each prices below is a 2012 price for Sears’s lowest-priced offering of each item:

- gasoline-powered rotary, manual-push lawn mower (140cc; 21″ cutting width): $170.99.  (Horse-power ratings are no longer always given for lawn mowers.)

- electric-powered, manual-push lawn edger* (9″ blade; 29cc): $189.99

- manual-push two-wheel seed/fertilizer spreader**: $35.99

- garden hose (50′; 5/8″ diameter): $10.99

- on-ground revolving lawn sprinkler (three arms): $10.99

- lawn rake: $19.99

- pruning shears: $9.99

- lawn-hose nozzle: $5.49

These items today total to $454.42

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 23 hours to buy these basic lawn-care items.  That’s 43 percent less work time today than was necessary in 1956 buy the same bundle of basic lawn-care items.  (The quality of today’s items seems generally to be superior to those of 1956 – a fact that I’ll ignore here beyond merely mentioning it.)

On an individual basis:

- lawn mower: one cost 24.3 hours of work by the ‘ordinary’ American worker in 1956; a similar mower today costs a similar worker today 8.6 hours

- upright power dedicated lawn edger:* one cost the 1956 worker 8.7 hours of work; the lowest-priced power edger today cost a similar worker 9.6 hours

- push spreader: one cost the 1956 worker 3.6 hours of work; the lowest-priced push spreader today cost a similar worker 1.8 hours

- hose: one cost the 1956 worker 1.2 hours of work; the lowest-priced hose today (although wider and twice as long as the 1956 hose) cost a similar worker 33 minutes

- sprinkler: one cost the 1956 worker 49 minutes of work; the lowest-priced on-ground rotating sprinkler today cost a similar worker 33 minutes

- lawn rake: one cost the 1956 worker 28 minutes of work; the lowest-priced lawn rake today cost a similar worker 1 hour

- pruning shears: one cost the 1956 worker 28 minutes of work; the lowest-priced pruning shears today cost a similar worker 30 minutes

- lawn-hose nozzle: one cost the 1956 worker 15 minutes of work; the lowest-priced nozzle today cost a similar worker 17 minutes

The labor-time cost of a rake, pruning shears, and a nozzle all increased over the past 57 years.  So, too, did this cost of a dedicated power lawn trimmer (but here subject to this important caveat*).  The work-time cost of all other items fell, so much so that the total work-time cost today (23 hours) is significantly less than it was in 1956 (40 hours).

That’s my excursion for the day into lawn economics.

……

* Unlike in 1956, today a wide assortment of inexpensive handheld power “line” trimmers are available that do double duty as lawn edgers.  (When my teenage son mows the lawn he uses, to very good effect, a trimmer to edge the lawn.)  Sears.com sells these line trimmers for as low as $19.88.  Nevertheless, I use in my calculations above the more pricey Sears.com’s lowest-priced upright dedicated power lawn edger.

** I cannot find the dimensions of this spreader.  I see only that it holds up to 5,000 square feet of seed or fertilizer to spread.  This spreader looks to be about the same size, cubic-inch wise, as the 1956 model that I use above, although I cannot be sure.  Perhaps it’s smaller; perhaps it’s larger.

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