Cataloging Our Progress: Men’s Business Wear

by Don Boudreaux on December 26, 2012

in Growth, Standard of Living

Using my Sears Fall/Winter 1956 catalog, I searched for the lowest-priced ensemble of men’s business-wear clothing available at Sears in 1956 (subject only to a few constraints mentioned below).  From page 551 through page 676 of that catalog I found these basic items.  The prices listed just below are the 1956 prices; in brackets are the amounts of time the ordinary American worker – earning then, as he or she did, $1.89 per hour (in 1956 dollars) – had to work to purchase each of these items.

Remember from this November 26, 2012 post that 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.

- lowest-priced all-wool two-piece men’s dress suit: $42.50.  (I excluded tweeds, corduroys, and all suits that weren’t 100% wool.) [22.5 hours]

- lowest-priced dress shoes: $5.00 pair [2.6 hours]

- lowest-priced leather (in this case, cowhide) belt: $0.98 [31 minutes]

- lowest-priced all-cotton dress shirt: $1.98 [1 hour]

- lowest-priced all-silk four-in-hand necktie: $1.50 [48 minutes]

- lowest-priced all-cotton boxer shorts: $0.79 [25 minutes]

- lowest-priced dress socks: $0.79 [25 minutes]

- lowest-priced knee-length non-plastic raincoat: $9.75 [5.2 hours]

So, to buy all eight items of this modest men’s clothing ensemble in 1956 from Sears, the ordinary American worker of that year had to work a total of about 33.5 hours.

What about today?  Let’s find 2012 prices for items today that are as close as possible to those items above from 1956.  (Unless otherwise specified, these items below are available at Sears.com.)  The prices listed below are the 2012 prices, and in are the amounts of time the ordinary nonsupervisory, full-time private-sector American worker – earning today, as he or she does, $19.84 per hour – has to work to purchase each of these items.

- lowest-price all-wool two-piece men’s dress suit: $200.  (Sears.com seems to sell no all-wool men’s dress suits, so this one is from Joseph A. Bank’s website.  FYI, for those of you unfamiliar with Jos. A. Bank, it is a men’s clothing store famous for always, always, always running deep sales.) [10.1 hours]

lowest-priced dress shoes: $19.99 pair [1 hour]

lowest-priced leather belt: $17.98 [54 minutes]

- lowest-priced all-cotton dress shirt: $14.99 [45 minutes]

- lowest-priced all-silk four-in-hand necktie: $9.99 [30 minutes]

- lowest-priced all-cotton boxer shorts: $8.00 [24 minutes]

- lowest-priced dress socks: $4.00 [12 minutes]

lowest-priced knee-length non-plastic raincoat: $129.00 (No such coat is available at Sear.com) [6.5 hours]

To buy all eight items of this modest men’s clothing ensemble today (mostly from Sears.com, but in some cases from other retailers) the ordinary American worker today must work about 20.4 hours – a mere 61 percent of the time that his or her counterpart had to work to purchase the same men’s basic clothing ensemble in 1956.  (On an individual basis, the only items in this ensemble of eight items to be more costly today, in terms of work time, are the belt and the non-plastic raincoat.)

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