Northwoods Moment In History: The High Cost of Living

Feb 26, 2020

The high cost of living and how much of our income is devoted to purchasing the necessities of life weighs heavily on the minds of many people. In this week's Northwoods Moment in History, Gary Entz looks back at how the cost of living has fluctuated over time.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the average monthly expenditure for a basic meal plan for a family of four comes in at around $731. A more expansive meal plan comes out to around $1,093. In 2018, Americans spent an average of 9.7 percent of their disposable personal income on food. Of course, nationwide averages don’t tell the whole story. The lowest twenty percent of income earners spend an average of 15.4 percent of their income on food, while income earners in the middle twenty percent spent an average 12.8 percent of their income on food.

Concerns over inflation and the rising cost of food is nothing new, and prices paid for groceries in the Northwoods have always captured people’s attention. Nevertheless, prices have fluctuated with the times, and major historical events impacted what people paid for everyday commodities.

For example, in 1917 when the U.S. entered the First World War, inflation and profiteering was rampant. In the Northwoods shoppers paid $12.99 for a barrel of flour (196 pounds). Butter was .44 cents per pound, and coffee was .20 cents per pound. Eleven pounds of sugar could be had for one dollar and lard sold for .28 cents a pound.

By 1928, when economic times were booming, prices fell a little. A 49-pound sack of flour fetched $2.17, while two pounds of lard sold for .28 cents. Grocers asked .28 cents for a dozen eggs and .25 cents for two pounds of crackers. Bread was at .09 cents a loaf, but coffee was the exception as its price rose to .45 cents per pound.

In 1933, one of the worst years of the Great Depression, prices crashed along with everything else. In that year Northwoods shoppers could purchase a 49-pound sack of flour for $1.32. Four pounds of butter retailed at a total of .76 cents. Twenty-five cents could purchase two dozen eggs, while two pounds of crackers cost .23 cents. Coffee crashed completely and retailed for .13 cents a pound.

In 1946, the first year after the end of World War II, inflation pushed grocery prices up by 200 percent. In that year Northwoods residents could expect to pay $3.85 for 49 pounds of flour. Crackers fetched .25 cents per pound, while coffee was priced at .51 cents per pound. Butter fell in at .89 cents per pound, and eggs were .70 cents for the dozen.

Then there is lard, which sold for $12.99 for 196 pounds in 1917. In 1946 it was .55 cents per pound, which would be over $107 for a full barrel, if anyone would have wanted that much.

All this seems quite affordable when compared to modern prices but given that income levels were much lower in the past, it seems that very little has changed. Our predecessors fussed over the grocery bill, no differently than we do.