Back in 1900, no one was wearing casual sneakers or sweatpants. Nearly everyone wore today’s equivalent of their Sunday Best. So, if a man wanted to wear a dapper, clean dress shirt, all they needed was a dollar. If you think about inflation, $30 for a shirt seems pretty spot-on. However, many women got in the habit of sewing their own clothes. Fabric and sewing patterns were much cheaper back then, so it actually made more sense for mothers and housewives to make the wardrobes for their entire family. On the plus side, it meant that everyone had perfectly tailored suits every time.
Boxes or tins of cookies, like the one seen above, were just 5 cents each. This meant that you could get twenty boxes for only a dollar. Most advertisements for cookies were aimed at children, just like today, even though we all know adults are sneaking in those sugary snacks, too. This sounds like an amazing deal, right? In reality, though, if a dollar was more like $30, it means each box of cookies would be $1.50 today, which is pretty normal.
There’s no better combination on a cold winter night than New England Clam Chowder with some crispy oyster crackers. If you’re not familiar, these are little crackers that taste a lot like saltines, except they come in a little ball form. They were first invented by Adam Exton in 1842 in Trenton, New Jersey. They became so popular, his factory began making over 100 pounds of oyster crackers a day. By 1900, other companies began to sell them, too. A pound of oyster crackers to go with your soup was just 5 cents, which means you could get enough crackers to last the entire winter for $1.
Once you have those oyster crackers, you need to buy soup, of course! Campbell’s Soup originated in Camden, New Jersey in 1869, and they are still going strong to this day. In 1900, they sold for 12 cents per can. As you can see in the advertisement above, there were 21 different kinds of soups back then, but today, there are well over 100 flavors. Today, it’s a dollar or more per can. But as we mentioned earlier, after inflation, the cost per can is relatively the same.
There is nothing better than a fresh bag of coffee beans, but buying an entire pound of name brands like Starbucks can set you back $10 or more. In 1900, though, it was just a dollar. However, when you think about it, that’s a lot of money for just one pound of coffee! Keep in mind that transporting coffee from overseas was a complicated process, so the cost makes a lot of sense. Just like today, there were plenty of people who felt like they couldn’t make it through a day without their morning brew, so people caved and bought their pound of coffee beans.
This may sound crazy today, but doctors often prescribed cocaine as a way to relieve pain and clear nasal passages. Starting in the 1880s, doctors recommended cocaine for all kinds of problems, and it was also an ingredient in Coca-Cola. One bottle of cocaine toothache drops was only 15 cents, and it was available over the counter. In 1914, The Harrison Narcotic Act listed cocaine as an addictive substance.
Back in 1900, children’s bicycles were normally more than a dollar, but the smallest tricycle made for toddlers were just $1. Today, though, it would cost between $50 and $100 for a quality child’s bike. Back then, it was essential for people to ride bicycles, because it was one of the main modes of transportation in small towns before the prevalence of the automobile.
The Quaker Mill Company of Ravenna, Ohio, was founded in 1877, but the Quaker Oats product did not appear until 1901. Today, you can get a tube full of Quaker Oats for a dollar each. But back in 1900, they only cost 10 cent for a large package. These became very popular, especially at that time, because families were using cereal and porridge for breakfast on a regular basis. Since it was a new product, Quaker recommended making “Fried pudding” on the side of their box. Obviously, that didn’t catch on.
You could do a lot of laundry for a dollar back in 1900. For just one dollar, you could buy 30 pounds of soap for your laundry. Compared to today, this is actually a great deal. While we can get bottles of not-so-great detergent from the dollar store, they don’t always give you that fresh smell. Keep in mind that laundry was a very laborious process back then that involved hand-scrubbing and hanging by hand. It was such hard work that a lot of women could make a living from doing their neighbor’s laundry.
A dollar was enough to buy so much chocolate, it would make you sick. Very few people were buying an entire pound of chocolate at once, and it was much more common to get penny candy, or a tasty treat from a local bakery. Because of this, most of the people buying pounds of chocolate were professionals who needed it for their confectionary items.
If a man wanted to look dapper for a special occasion, he could afford ten different ties for just a dollar. Back in the year 1900, it was far more common for men to wear ties to work on a daily basis, so they were a much-needed commodity. Tailors would often allow customers to pick out custom fabrics to make neckties, and wives were able to sew them for her husband, as well. Compared to today’s prices, neckties were very cheap in 1900.
In 1873, Colgate was selling toothpaste out of glass jars. By 1896, toothpaste was sold in the collapsable tubes that just about everyone keeps in their bathroom. Today, a decently sized container of Colgate is $4, but back in 1900, they were only 25 cents each. However, that is more like $7.50 today. Yikes! We can only imagine that plenty of people out there had smelly breath if they couldn’t afford to buy their toothpaste.
Silent films did not really boom until the 1920s, but there were still a few places playing short movies in the year 1900. These tickets were often 10 cents or less. Even after it is adjusted for inflation, going to the movies was still much cheaper back then than it was today. They also had the added bonus of witnessing a live band playing the music while they watched a film on screen.
Back in the year 1900, a stamp was just a penny. This was great for the average American, because people were sending letters all the time. And these were not always the long messages we see in history class. For a long time, people treated letters almost like text messages, and would send just a couple sentences back and forth to communicate with friends and family.
The Kodak Brownie camera was one of the first hand-held cameras that was affordable for the average person to buy and take pictures. Contrary to what we would think today, it wasn’t named after the chocolate dessert. “Brownies” were little fairies that supposedly came out of the walls at night to do the housework, kind of like the characters from The Borrowers. These little fairies were featured in all of the advertisements for the camera.
Depending on the brand, an average bottle of wine was between 10 and 15 cents each in 1900, and plenty of people make their own homebrew. Just like today, there were luxury brands of wine that were more expensive. But for the most part, it was affordable for average people to get a drink. Today, you’re lucky if you can find a good $5 brand, and most are $10 each.
Today, you can buy a one-liter bottle of Coca-Cola for $1, but back in 1900, you could get an entire case. Considering that you can get a huge case of coca-cola at big box stores like Sam’s Club and Costco, spending the equivalent of $30 for a case of Coke is very expensive, compared to today. As time went on, the company became much more efficient at making their products, and plastic bottles were cheaper than glass.
Instead of the little one-pound paper bags we get in the grocery store today, people purchased huge 5-pound burlap sacks full of flour in the year 1900. Flour was considered to be an essential part of anyone’s kitchen, because it was used to make bread and dumplings. So, when a housewife had to choose between flour or sugar, she always went for the flour first.
There are hundreds of ads from the 1800s to 1900s that have been saved over the years, and prices of clothing began at $1 and went up, depending on how many embellishments a blouse had. For most women, it was more affordable to sew their own clothes. Store-bought clothes was a sort of status symbol, and some lower-class women only bought a few items for special occasions.
In 1900, it was very popular for women to wear hats. Simple berets were only a dollar, and fancy Sunday hats were roughly $3. Women would blush to imagine themselves showing up to Sunday service without one. Because of this, hats became a symbol of affluence. The bigger variety of hats a woman-owned, the more money her husband must make. Millinery shops were a staple part of every town in America. But as time went on, these became less and less popular.
Years before television, people loved to read novels and magazines to help pass the time. Magazines were usually 5 to 10 cents each, depending on the company that printed them. Many of these were printed in black and white, except for the cover, which was usually in color.
Similar to flour, sugar also came in huge five-pound bags, because women were cooking the majority of their food at home. Sugar was considered to be very expensive, and it was hard to keep for a long time because bugs could easily invade the bags. Because of this, most people reserved buying sugar for special occasions or went to a baker for their cakes.
Lipton tea has been around since the 1800s, and it is still going strong today. You could buy an entire pound of their tea for just a dollar. Even though coffee and tea were the same price-per-pound, many Americans opted to go with coffee. Of course, this originated from the Boston Tea Party. However, there were immigrants coming from Europe all the time, and people still continued to drink like their ancestors did. In the south, iced tea became a staple for every summer get-together.
In 1900, sour balls were some of the most popular hard candies in the United States. For a dollar, kids could get a huge 5-pound box. However, it is not very likely that children were given an entire dollar by their parents to get a sugary treat after school. Most general stores had penny candies, which meant that were kids could get 100 pieces of whatever variety they wanted for just $1.
In 1900, most women sewed their own clothes, so they needed to buy sewing patterns to help them. Sewing patterns range from basic dresses and shirts to complex patterns of the newest designs. At that time, it was cheaper to buy your own fabric and patterns than it was to go to the store and buy clothes. Today, with the dawn of “fast fashion”, it’s so much cheaper to just buy our clothes, instead. But in 1900, sewing patterns were typically around 15 cents each, but changed in price depending on how fancy or complicated a garment might be.
In the year 1900, professional milk men would go door-to-door delivering glass bottles of fresh milk to people’s homes. Since it was years before every person had a refrigerator in their house, this was completely necessary. People typically only purchased what they needed on a daily basis, instead of buying one gallon to last the week. Today, a gallon of milk is almost $4, but back in 1900, it was just a dollar.
Steak is one of the most expensive types of meat people can buy, but back in 1900, it was only $1 for seven and a half pounds. Even better, it was all organic, because this was years before factory farms. Despite its affordable price, the portion sizes of meat in the past were much smaller than the standard American diet of today. So, most families would not be spending an entire dollar at the butcher in one trip.
Today, it’s one dollar for a can of sweet corn that is just a few ounces. But in 1900, you could get a whopping 12 cans of corn that weighed 2 pounds each! This is an example of a really amazing deal that you cannot really come by today, after inflation. However, you would need to eat sweet corn all day, every day to finish that dollar’s worth.
There is a stereotype that potatoes are popular among poor people, and that’s for good reason. Back in 1900, you could buy 70 pounds of potatoes for $1. That’s a lot of potatoes! Since they can be mashed, fried, put into soups and so much more, potatoes are delicious and versatile food. They became a must-have in the standard American diet, and when you think about how much we still love french fries, things haven’t changed very much.
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