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Looking Back: What a Dollar Used to Buy

written by: •edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 12/29/2014

How has the purchasing power of a dollar fluctuated over the past 100 or so years? Hop into your virtual time machine and travel with us through a visual image gallery of what you could have bought for a dollar in days gone by.

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    Pre-1900: Polly Put the Kettle On, We'll All Have Tea

    Pre-1900: Polly Put the Kettle On, We'll All Have Tea 

    In the time period spanning 1893 to 1900, you could sip your tea without busting your budget. A pound of tea cost 75 cents, which left you just enough change to buy a cup of sugar (six cents) and a quart of milkman's cream (25 cents) so you could enjoy your tea English style for around $1.06.

    Do you prefer lemon with your tea instead of milk? That's no problem because in 1893, a lemon cost a mere 2 cents according to Mrs. D. A. Lincoln's Boston School Kitchen Textbook. Let's do the math by eliminating the cream and adding the lemon to get a total of 83 cents. For just a quarter, you could have added a jar of marmalade, but by the time you purchased all the ingredients to make some bread so you could enjoy toast and jam, you would have been way over your dollar budget.

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    1900s: Got Oyster Stew?

    1900s: Got Oyster Stew? 

    This section is dedicated to my mother-in-law who just loves these tasty, tiny crackers and eats them, out of hand, like popcorn or with soups and stews. In 1902, we could have bought her an entire 20-pound box of oyster crackers from the Sears Roebuck Catalog for just 99 cents so her addiction would not have set us back by very much.

    For another 15 cents, we could have purchased their entire 32-page grocery list, which included goodies such as:

    • One pound tea - 40 cents
    • One pound special blend coffee - 19 cents
    • One five-pound box lemon drops - 52 cents

    However, at today's prices it would cost $22.98 to buy a case of 150 of the 1/2 ounce packages of oyster crackers pictured here, and that doesn't include the shipping cost to have it delivered to her door step. (We'll let you do the math if you want to know how this case compares to the 20-pound box!) A six-unit pack of Campbell's Oyster Stew would cost us another $22.39 so for just under $50, we can still afford to indulge Granny Lil with some soup and crackers. We think she's worth it!

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    1920s: Dressing for Success for Less

    1920s: Dressing for Success for Less 

    Food wasn't the only necessity that cost less in days gone by. In the 1920s, you could buy a man's dress shirt for about 50 cents to $1.50 depending on the fabric and style of tailoring.

    Our gentleman probably opted for a white dress shirt to accessorize his grey pinstriped suit, which was all the rage in the '20s, and he probably purchased his suit from the American clothiers, the Brooks Brothers, who have been providing the finest men's sartorial attire since 1818. If he was a careful shopper, his dollar could have netted him two shirts.

    Arrow Shirts, which was established in 1851, is another iconic American clothing manufacturer. A men's white dress shirt in a cotton blend, which is roughly comparable to one from the '20s, will cost you approximately $19.99 at Sears.

    What else could you get for about a dollar in the '20s? How about:

    • Two and one-fourth pounds sirloin steak = 99 cents
    • Six quarts fresh milk = 90 cents
    • Two pounds butter = $1.02
    • Ten pounds sugar = $1.00

    Let's move on to the '30s and see what kind of buying power our dollar had then.

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    1930s: Would You Like Some Sugar With Your Coffee or Tea?

    1930s: Would You Like Some Sugar With Your Coffee or Tea? 

    In the 1900s a cup of sugar cost about 6 cents, and there are approximately 10 cups of sugar in a five-pound bag, which means that bag of sugar would have cost our time traveling shopper about 60 cents.

    Let's fast forward to the year 1930, where we discover that the same five-pound bag of sugar has dropped in price to just 25 cents. Isn't it good to know that in a world where it seems like all the prices do is soar, soar, soar, there have been some price decreases to offset the increases?

    Our 1930s shopper could have brought home four bags of sugar, which would have made lots of cookies, cakes, candies and other tasty delights. In addition to the sugar, here's some other items that could have been in the shopping cart that would have been delicious ingredients to have on hand for breakfast.

    • Three pounds butter = $1.11
    • Four dozen eggs = $1.08
    • Twenty grapefruit = $1.00
    • Four pounds Sunnyfield sliced bacon = $1.00

    However, let's take another time leap and look at the price of sugar today. If you buy it online from Wal-Mart's website, that bag of sugar costs around $3.08 plus shipping.

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    1940s: Fill 'Er Up!

    1940s: Fill 'Er Up! 

    If you wince every time you see your gas gauge nosing its way toward empty because of today's outrageously high gas prices, it may (or may not!) make you feel any better to know that once upon a time, gas really did cost less than $3 to $4 a gallon. In fact, our time traveling shopper could have purchased 10 gallons of gas for just a smidge over a dollar—$1.10 to be precise—because in 1940, gas cost 11 cents a gallon. (I'm trying not to cry as I type this.)

    What else could we have saved money on by making our purchase during a time travel visit to the '40s?

    • Five pairs of nylon hose = $1.00
    • Lady's manicure = $1.00
    • Man's sweat shirt = $1.14
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    1950s: What Kind of Breakfast Food Cost a Dollar?

    1950s: What Kind of Breakfast Food Cost a Dollar? 

    We're going to jump ahead a few years to 1954 and ask our time traveling shopper to go to the store for some Kellogg's Corn Flakes. This delicious breakfast cereal was invented by the Kellogg brothers in 1894 and an 8-ounce box cost 25 cents in the '50s. Our intrepid time shopper could have bought four boxes for a dollar.

    While today's shopper can choose from 12 different sizes and price points when shopping for these breakfast flakes, for the purposes of our comparison here we'll go with a 24-ounce box, which is equivalent to three 8-ounce boxes. At major grocery chains like Kroger, Food Lion and Wal-Mart, a box of this cereal will run you about $2.68 or about $1.93 more than three boxes of the 1954 version.

    If you wanted some steak and eggs or fruit to go with your cereal in the '50s, here's an estimate of what your dollar would have purchased:

    • One pound Porterhouse steak = 95 cents
    • Two dozen eggs = 98 cents
    • Twenty-four grapefruit = $1.00
    • Three pounds coffee = $1.11

    From here, we'll slide on over to the '60s.

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    1960s: What Else Could You Get for a Dollar in the Past?

    1960s: What Else Could You Get for a Dollar in the Past? 

    Buying the food for Christmas dinner was not the only budgetary concern for the '60s shopper. He or she also needed to purchase the holiday gifts and colorful wrapping paper. A thrifty shopper in those days could buy three rolls of Christmas wrapping paper for just 99 cents and pocket the penny if he or she lived in a state that did not charge sales tax.

    Depending on whether you opt for plain paper or paper decorated with popular characters like Dora the Explorer or the perennial popular Disney characters, three rolls of wrapping paper in today's online market will put dent in your wallet to the tune of about $3.99 to $22.99. (Based on our highly unscientific Internet search.) However, you can probably pick up a roll for about a dollar at so-called dollar stores, so three rolls would run you about $3.

    Some assorted grocery items that you could have purchased for your dollar (and some change, in some cases) were:

    • Two pounds Lion brand butter = $1.18
    • Two pounds Shop Rite sliced bacon = 98 cents
    • Five 10-ounce packages of frozen strawberries = 95 cents
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    1970s: Got Milk?

    1970s: Got Milk? 

    According to Robert Fulghum, "Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you." In case you're wondering, a few seconds in the microwave makes a tasty warm cookie out of an Oreo, which makes it a wonderful companion for a glass of milk. If you're a purist, you'll eat your Oreo just as it comes from the box, and you might even separate the two parts of the cookie and eat the filling first. However you like your Oreos, in the '70s that 15-ounce package of cookies would have cost you about a dollar.

    Unfortunately, you'll going to have to pay more for your Oreos today, but the good news is you have many more varieties from which to choose besides the original version. For the purposes of our comparision, you can buy a 15.25 package of Nabisco Oreo Peanut Butter Creme cookies for about $4.59 online.

    What else could we fit into our average dollar budget in the '70s?

    • Twelve cans dog food = $1.00
    • Eight packages frozen vegetables = $1.00
    • Ten pounds Idaho potatoes = 98 cents
    • Five cans fruit cocktail = $1.00
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    1980s: A Nostalgic Look at Chocolate Prices

    1980s: A Nostalgic Look at Chocolate Prices 

    Where would the s'mores lovers of the world be without geniune Hershey's chocolate bars? In the '80s, our s'mores aficiandos (and other chocoholics) would have plunked down 25 cents per 1.05 ounce bar of this delicious milk chocolate, which means their dollar would have snagged them four bars of chocolate heaven.

    On the flip side of the economic coin, at current price points, a comparable Hershey's bar (1.55 ounce) is a not-so cheap 89 cents, which means you'll be making fewer s'mores or spending more dough to make the same amount.

    Are you wondering what other items a dollar would have bought in the 80s? How about:

    • Two 8-ounce bowls French onion dip = 99 cents
    • Three pounds bananas = $1.00
    • 3 garlic cloves = $1.00
    • One quart Eggnog = 99 cents
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    1990s: Fast Food Triva and Prices

    1990s: Fast Food Triva and Prices 

    While it would take several slideshows (and probably quite a few books) to document an entire history of the various fast food restaurants and their prices throughout the years, we wanted to include one as an example. Who better to spotlight than the iconic McDonald's of the golden arches fame? In the '90s, when you handed the clerk a dollar to pay for your McDonald's hamburger, you would have received a few cents of change in return: a hamburger cost just 89 cents.

    Nowadays, you'll find that same burger packaged in a Happy Meal with your choice of side and beverage for $3.19. However, how did our dollar fare at the store in the '90s? Take a look at these prices to see:

    • One pound apples = 99 cents
    • Three cans Campbell's Tomato Soup = $1.00
    • One gallon milk = 99 cents
    • Two cans tuna = $1.00
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    How Have Soda Prices Changed?

    How Have Soda Prices Changed? 

    In the '30s, Pepsi introduced a 12-ounce bottle of their soda to compete with Coca-Cola's smaller size 6-ounce product and priced theirs at a nickel. Their famous advertising jingle turned what could have been negative into a positive: "Pepsi cola hits the spot / Twelve full ounces, that's a lot / Twice as much for a nickel, too / Pepsi-Cola is the drink for you."

    In 2011, the same size bottle will cost you about 56 cents to as much as $1.49 depending on where you buy it and how it's packaged. (Our 56 cent price estimate is based on buying an eight-pack of plastic, 12-ounce bottles for $4.49.)

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    What About Coca-Cola?

    What About Coca-Cola? 

    As we have seen, soft drink giants Coca-Cola and Pepsi have had their differences over the years. In 2002, a two-liter bottle of Coca-Cola retailed for 99 cents but the odds of a consumer pocketing the penny change instead of paying it (and more!) in taxes was incredibly slim.

    in 2011, you can still get a liter size bottle of Coca-Cola for about a dollar—99 cents, to be exact—but it will be a 1.25 liter size rather than a 2 liter. If you want the bigger bottle, you'll have to pay the bigger price: $1.49.

    Fortunately, even when you factor in the current inflation rate, there are still some bargains to be had for $1.00. Most fast food restaurants feature some version of a 99 cent or dollar menu special with items like yogurt parfaits, sandwiches, baked potatoes and value sized drinks.