Many of us often refer to the “good old days” and the age we have seems to vary from thirty years to a hundred years, depending on our age. But Franklin Pierce Adams, one of the first American columnists of the early twentieth century, noticed the same trend when he wrote, “Nothing is more responsible than bad memories for the old days.” Fortunately, almost no one mentions the Middle Ages as a good old days. But it’s still interesting to see how people lived.
This is David R. From Henderson, “The Wonder of Economic Growth.” Defined conceptJune 2, 2022.
In 2000, Brad DeLong, an economist at UC-Berkeley, wrote a great paper entitled “Cornucopia.” A bar graph shows the per capita economic growth from the eleventh century to the twentieth century. It has been close to zero for many centuries (except for the fourteenth century, when there was more than one blip), increased significantly in the nineteenth century, and then exploded in the twentieth century. On the same paper, DeLong puts off a great stunt. He took the 1895 Montgomery Ward catalog and, instead of comparing the prices of different items, gave data for the number of hours an individual had to work for an average of 1895 US dollars to buy different items then and in 2000. Had to work to buy the same thing in 2000.
The results are wonderful. Consider four of his ten examples. It took 21 hours to buy six volumes of the novel Horatio Alger in 1895, compared to 0.6 hours in 2000. A single speed bike works 260 hours, in 2000 7.2 hours. An office chair? Then twenty-four hours, vs. 2 hours in 2000. A set of Encyclopedia Britannica 140 hours work cost, 33.8 vs. 2000. The last issue dramatically shortens today’s progress because almost no one wants to buy Encyclopedia Today, that is why it is no longer published, and we can get Wikipedia for zero. Aside from the controversial issues, Wikipedia is pretty good. The thing that was more expensive per hour in 2000 than in 1895 was a sterling silver spoon, which took 26 hours in 1895 and 34 hours in 2000. But here DeLong tells a funny story. Why did people want a sterling silver spoon in 1895? He asked. A: They wanted something that would not decay. Now we have pots that are very cheap and do not decay.
Read the whole thing.