The Herald Bulletin

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Columns

April 19, 2014

Jim Bailey: Wages were much less back then, but so were prices

If you have any questions about what economists mean by inflation, just look at yesterday’s buying power.

Those old western movies talked about wages of $1 a day. That wouldn’t even buy a burger at a fast food joint today by the time sales tax is added in.

We don’t have to go that far back, either. When I was a kid, my dad was a career teacher in Minnesota, and with a dozen years at his last school system, he signed a 12-month adult education agricultural teaching contract for $5,000 a year. After deductions, his month’s pay amounted to about $324.

Teachers in the early 1950s, of course, were hardly the best-paid workers. But neither were they the lowest. Once I overheard a city bus driver discussing his salary with a passenger, saying he earned about $260 a month. That’s less than today’s minimum wage.

And prices were correspondingly low. When Mom sold our home before our move to Indiana, the sizable three-apartment building in the middle of town went for $13,000. We moved here and in a few months bought a small 1 ½-bedroom home for something like $9,000.

You could get a hamburger at Hill’s Snappy Service for 15 cents. A meal at most downtown eateries was about 75 cents. A haircut at Tom Haston’s Barber Shop was 75 cents. Soda pop was a nickel. Through high school I worked Saturdays at my uncle’s store, eventually earning 50 cents an hour.

Taking my first job out of high school, I worked 50 hours a week at straight time (overtime didn’t apply on that job in those days) for $1 an hour, grossing $50 a week. I saved enough that summer to buy a car – a 1950 Chevy, which cost me $225 – and cover my first semester’s tuition at Anderson College. With a half-tuition scholarship, I had to pay out just over $100 for an entire semester.

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