Cost of Living in the Midst of the Great Depression Baffles the Internet: 'Incredible'

Debate is always raging over the cost of living, whether it's $5 coffees or rocketing house prices.

This week, as Americans grapple with rising inflation, a Reddit community has been boggling at a breakdown of living costs from 1938.

User Shayaan_F posted an image to the forum's Interesting as F*** thread, which reveals how much a stamp, milk, car and rent cost during the Great Depression.

A new house had a price tag of $3,900, which sounds attainable given that the average income was $1,731 per year. A new set of wheels would set you back $860, a movie ticket was just 25c, gas was 10c per gallon and a postage stamp was 3c.

Sugar cost 59c for 10 pounds, vitamin D milk was 50c a gallon, ground coffee cost 39c per pound, bacon was 32c per pound and eggs were 18c a dozen.

For those who could win a place, tuition at Harvard cost $420 a year.

The image, shared to Reddit on Wednesday, has amassed more than 70,000 upvotes as people discuss the prices listed and their modern-day equivalents.

It is believed the image comes from the 1938 entry in the Remember When… series, released by Seek Publishing. Copies of the books for the years from 1930 to 1999 are available for $5.99 from American Made.

According to Statista, $1 in 1938 is equivalent to purchasing power of roughly $18 today. However, as many Redditors pointed out, some of the prices listed also look cheap compared to the preceding decade—because of the impact of the Great Depression.

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The decade-long depression that began in 1929 affected the whole industrialized Western world. Britannica.com states: "Between the peak and the trough of the downturn, industrial production in the United States declined 47 percent and real gross domestic product (GDP) fell 30 percent. The wholesale price index declined 33 percent."

As one Redditor, MoreGaghPlease, explained: "Important to note here that in 1938, the US was recovering from a housing bubble and also had 17% unemployment (hence, super low labour costs). In 1928, a new house cost almost twice as much."

Yourlittlebirdie commented: "Average rent was 18.7% of the average monthly salary and a new house cost 225% of the average yearly salary. For comparison, in 2021, average rent is 26% of the average monthly income and a new house is 788% of the average yearly income.

"On the bright side, when adjusted for inflation, the gallon of milk cost $9.81 in today's dollars so at least we can afford to buy lots of milk now?"

Blizzardwizard88 made comparisons using the price of gold in 1938, measured at $34.85 per ounce, and a current-day price of $1,794 per ounce.

The Redditor wrote: "If you take the values listed here for [1938] as a percentage of an ounce of gold and figured that percentage on today's price then the house costs $200,748. Income was $89,107. Car was $44,257. Rent was $1,381. Harvard $21,617."

The average house price in the U.S. this year was $408,800, according to Statista.

YeOldeBilk posted: "When a year's salary could pay for almost half of a new house. Feels real bad."

IA_Royalty joked: "Compared to everything else, eggs are an absolute steal."

Benji692 said: "It's incredible how much some food prices came down over the years."

Neophene added: "Damn 1930's privilege."

Trex_in_F16 joked: "So I'm not poor, I'm just born in the wrong year."

GlassyPotato asked: "Remember when cents were relevant?"

According to Statista, U.S. house prices are now bouncing back after the pandemic hit sales. It said: "After plateauing between 2017 and 2019, house prices in the United States saw an increase in 2020 and 2021. The average sales price of a new home in 2020 was $389,400 and, in 2021, it reached $408,800.

"Overall, the coronavirus pandemic has positively influenced the homeownership plans of Americans in 2020."

Newsweek has reached out to Shayaan_F for comment.

File photo from the 1930s.
File photo from the 1930s. A breakdown of the cost of living during the Great Depression has intrigued Reddit users. George Marks/Getty Images