The Cost of Things

Published 2008-06-03

Jenny and I recently (re-)read Beverly Clearly’s Henry Huggins (because we’re having a son? because Cleary is from Portland? dunno why, really), which prompted a discussion about the prices Henry paid for things in (presumably) 1950. Life in 1950 was a lot cheaper but conversely money was a lot harder to come by. For example:

In the first chapter (“Henry and Ribs”), Henry pays a 10¢ bus fare. This was well before Tri-Met but we can actually make a direct comparison. He rode from the YMCA downtown to his house on NE Klickitat (or rather, that was his intention until he was ejected), a two-zone fare that today would cost $2.05. (You could make the argument that NE Klickitat in 1950 was on the edge of town, so it might comparable to a three-zone fare today, but I won’t make that argument.)

So from 1950 to 2008, the cost of a bus ticket in Portland, Oregon increased about twentyfold.

In the third chapter (“Henry and the Night Crawlers”), Henry wants a new football that costs $13.95. It sounds like a pretty nice football — perhaps like the Wilson F1100 Official NFL Game Football that sells for $79.99.

So from 1950 to 2008, the cost of a really nice football increased about fivefold.

A ten-year-old with two football’s worth of money could buy one football, and then ride the bus across town 139 times (and still have a nickel left for soda) ... in 1950. A ten-year-old in 2008 could buy the football, and then ride the bus not-quite–across town 39 times (with one penny left over).

So on the one hand, the ability of a young boy to move freely about Portland, Oregon is 28% what it was 58 years ago. On the other hand, his ability to purchase a football is 5.7 times greater than it was 58 years ago.

Or, proceeding from the assumption that the prices of things reflect in some way their actual value — and not to put too fine a point on it — we, as a society, have traded about 70% of our kids’ literal freedom (in the sense of “freedom of movement”) for a five-fold increase in their ability to accumulate stuff.

Rereading Henry Huggins for the first time since the 1970s throws into weird relief how the world has changed since my own childhood. As a kid, I recognized in Henry’s adventures a lot of my own behavior, and that of my friends. In particular, I never felt like I was reading some historical document of childhood from ancient times (something I felt when reading, for example, Peter Pan). Henry was doing things that were recognizably real-world 10-year-old things to do, in either 1950 or 1979. There were differences but they were of degree, not kind: Henry lived in a city where I lived in the country; he rode the bus freely around town and I rode my bike freely around the countryside; he collected night crawlers to sell to fishermen and I collected golf balls from the irrigation ditch next to the country club to sell to, well, golfers who lost their balls in the irrigation ditch.

Could you imagine a kid in 2008 doing any of these things?

Thumbnail image from Louis Darling’s 1950 illustration