The Cost of Being a New Yorker — A Century Ago

Stereoscopic colorized image of the Flatiron Building. There are three horse drawn carriages and a few men in overcoats and hats walking.

What gems we find in our Newman Library Archives! (No, not this quaint Stereoscopic view of our Baruch neighborhood in 1925, which comes from the New York Public Library and is featured here just for atmosphere.)

I’m talking about this slender, black-covered book, “The Cost of Living in New York City, 1926”, that turns up — actually, it was turned up by our eagle-eyed associate Sarah Rappo — in the rich municipal collection bequeathed us long ago by the real estate dynast Seymour B. Durst.

What makes Durst’s copy of the book especially noteworthy is that it bears the stamp of the Bureau of Municipal Research, from whence sprang the urban reform movement and Luther Gulick’s pivotal Institute of Public Administration, as followers of this blog well know.

So what do we learn from the book’s look at housing, food, clothing and other prices in Gotham almost 100 years ago?

A lot, it turns out.

But let’s remember that the nickel fare dropped in subway turnstiles in 1926 was not the nickel of today, but more than 15 X as much, or about 78 cents, in today’s money. According to the United States Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, a 1926 dollar was equal to about $15.79 today. https://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm

Still, when it comes to specific services and products, that’s only a rough conversion tool. Today’s regular transit fare is $2.75 — way above the inflation rate. By that, uh, token, New Yorkers of 1926 would have been paying almost 80 cents a ride. That to us would still be quite a bargain. But the nickel fare then was long sacrosanct since the first subway line opened in 1904.

Some other comparisons: the city’s population in 1926 was estimated at just under 6 million — today it’s about 8.2 million. But the entire United States population then was around 117 million — today it’s over 333 million. So New York City didn’t grow as fast as the rest of the country because it was pretty much already where the rest of the nation was headed.

In 1926, the book tells us, about one-third of New Yorkers, some 2 million people, were foreign-born, mostly from Russia, Lithuania, Italy, Ireland, Germany, and Poland. Today it’s about 40 percent, over 3 million people, principally from the Dominican Republic, China and Mexico.  And following the great migration, the Black population rose from about 150,000 in 1926 to over 2 million today.

Child labor was common. At age 14, almost 7 percent of boys and almost 5 percent of girls were “gainfully employed.” For 16-year-olds, the numbers rose to over 65 percent of boys and 59 percent of girls. Over 40 percent of all males and almost 30 percent of all females — nearly a million employees — worked in New York City’s manufacturing and mechanical industries. Today manufacturing accounts for fewer than 80,000 jobs.

Then, as now, the city suffered from a housing shortage, reflected in high rents. A state study in 1925 found that the bulk of some 85,000 new units rented for upwards of $15 per room per month, so $237 in today’s money. The typical apartment for a family of moderate means then was between three and four rooms, so up to $950 a month in today’s money, perhaps a relative bargain to us, but more than double what an average family could then afford. Back then, the so-called white collar “element” — a salary of $2,000 a year, or $31,500 in today’s money — came with aspirations of living in the better neighborhoods, rendering you notably vulnerable to the apartment shortage, a 1924 city study found. But between 1914 and 1925, the rents of fancier apartment rose 60 percent, while cheaper places were up more sharply — 90 percent.

And what did these units look like? The better ones had private bathrooms — that is, not in the hall or outside to be shared with other families — but most lacked central heat and some were without hot water or electricity or both, or, for the taller buildings, elevators. A study of Manhattan families on relief found more than three-quarters living without a private bath or central heat. A year’s worth of coal for a stove cost about $700 in today’s money, or $1,168 when kindling and kerosene for lamps were included.

And what about food? Given the difficulty of pricing products in different parts of the city, the investigators for “The Cost of Living in New York City, 1926” relied on sampling and averages, figuring that a man in the “industrial worker type of family” required about 3,500 calories a day, a woman 3,150, and children (who often worked from a young age) about 2,800. Today, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, with the decline of strenuous labor, men consume about 2,500 calories; women under 2,000; and boys and girls 6-11, just above or under 2,000.

The study found that a pound and a half of hamburger steak in 1926 cost 31 cents in Manhattan and 36 cents in Brooklyn, equivalent to about $4.90 and $5.68 — around today’s prices. A family’s weekly supply of milk — 14  quarts — was $2.13 in Manhattan — equal to $12.33 in today’s prices. Now that might cost at least $15. Three pounds of carrots went for about 24 cents — $3.79 in today’s prices — about what they would cost now.

Clothing? A man’s suit could be had for $19.73 in Manhattan — about $312 in today’s money. You could find a discount suit for that now, though hardly with a designer label. A woman’s sweater in Manhattan went for $3.30 — about $52 in today’s money. That would be more difficult to match now.

And lifestyles? Almost impossible to compare. “Men will smoke and children will have their candy,” the 1926 account vouchsafed, figuring the adult tobacco ration at two packs a week, and the sweets budget…incalculable.

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