Listening to the news and constant complaints about high prices these days started me thinking about the cost of things in earlier years — and comparing the two.

Harris Sherline

Harris Sherline

To give the current crop of young people a sense of what life was like when I was growing up, consider some of the changes my generation has witnessed:

» We were born before television, polio vaccine, frozen foods, copy machines, plastic contact lenses and Frisbees. There were no pantyhose, dishwashers, clothes dryers, electric blankets, air conditioners or drip-dry clothes. We were around before radar, credit cards, the A bomb, computers, cell phones, DVDs and DVRs, laser beams, ballpoint pens, penicillin and jet airplanes.

» In the 1960s, it took about 12 hours to fly to Chicago from Los Angeles in propeller-driven aircraft. Today, it takes about four hours to make the same trip in a jet. And the space shuttle and space station existed only in the imaginations of engineers and scientists.

» I watched on television as Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, in July 1969. It was one of the most riveting and exciting moments of my life.

Technology has progressed to the point today that events in space are treated more or less as commonplace. Back then, nothing like it had ever happened, and most people thought they would never live to see it. Landing on the moon was literally science fiction, and seeing a man walk on the moon 40 years ago was like a living science-fiction fantasy.

My first car was a used 1936 Ford convertible, which I bought for $300. If the cost is translated into the hours of work it took to earn that amount of money, about 750 hours of labor was required (at the 1946 minimum wage of 40 cents an hour). Earning the minimum wage of $8 an hour in California today, it still takes about the same number of work hours to buy an equivalent car for, say, $6,000.

Another comparison: gasoline. At 20 cents a gallon in the 1940s, about 30 minutes work was needed to earn enough money to buy one gallon, while at the current price of about $3 a gallon (in Santa Barbara), it takes a little more than 22 minutes to earn the cost of one gallon of gas (at the $8 minimum wage in California). So, in terms of the amount of labor needed to earn enough money to pay for a gallon of gasoline, the price today is actually about one-third less than it was in the ‘40s.

A 1963 Thanksgiving sale ad for a local market in the Santa Ynez Valley offers some interesting price comparisons for common grocery items, then and now:

Then (1963)

» Turkey: 39 cents a pound
» Eggs: 44 cents a dozen
» Pepsi: 49 cents for a six-pack, or about 8 cents each
» T-bone steak: 98 cents a pound
» Yams: 30 cents a pound
» Coffee: 98 cents a pound, or about 6 cents per ounce
» Pies: 49 cents for a 9-inch pie, or a little more than 5 cents per inch

Now (2009)

» Turkey: 99 cents per pound, a 153 percent increase
» Eggs: $2.29 a dozen, a 420 percent increase
» Pepsi: $6.29 for a 12-pack, or about 52 cents each, a 30 percent decrease
» T-bone steak: $14.90 per pound, a 1,392 percent increase
» Yams: 99 cents a pound, a 230 percent increase
» Coffee: $6.29 for 12 ounces, or about 52 cents per ounce, a 15.4 percent decrease
» Pies: $4.99 for an 8-inch pie, or about 62 cents per inch, a 14.7 percent increase

It now takes about $6.72 to buy what $1 bought in 1963, so factoring 672 percent inflation into the analysis indicates that all the items in the foregoing list are cheaper today than they were 40-plus years ago, except T-bone steak.

Needless to say, other necessities are not included in this brief analysis, such as housing and clothing, along with a wide variety of other products and/or services that are generally included in the government Cost of Living Index. All things considered, I’m not so sure it’s much more difficult for people to get by today than it was in the 1940s or early ‘60s. 

Perhaps we should stop listening to all the purveyors of gloom and doom about the economy who hold forth in the media these days. Comparatively speaking, things may not be as bad as we think.

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog,