I’ve received so many comments regarding the price of clothing in the Sears catalog ads I’ve posted recently that I thought it might be a good idea to clear a few things up.
First and foremost…
Clothing was not cheaper in the past. In fact it was generally quite the opposite. Prices for the least expensive, mass-produced clothing in the 1910s would be roughly equivalent to what you would expect to pay at a high end department store today.
As an example: In the mid-1910s an average woman’s coat from the Sears catalog would run you upwards of $400 when adjusted for inflation. Higher quality Sears coats could top $1,000. If you were looking for a designer coat or one imported from Paris you could easily expect to drop $5,000+ for a fairly basic model.
Two major reasons for the higher cost of clothing in the past were the absence of artificial/man-made fabrics and the lack of the cheap overseas labor which is so widely used today (this was enforced by ridiculously high import taxes on clothing and on fashion materials and accessories).
I can go into this in more detail in the future if there is any interest, but for now I thought I’d just put the basic information out there for you.
With the exception of a brief period following the Civil War, the purchasing power of the dollar stayed at a modern equivalent of roughly $20-$25 for most of the 19th and early 20th century. This means that to roughly estimate the price of anything thing from that time period (approx. 1830-1915) you can simply add a zero and double it.
A quick example for those bad at math (most notably myself): Using a $1.00 little girl’s dress from this 1915 Sears catalog page I posted. If you add a zero it becomes $10.00. Double it, it becomes $20.00, which would be your final price roughly adjusted for inflation. Pretty reasonably priced, even for today. (Although it is worth noting that it is among the least expensive dresses available.)
Just to be clear… the add a zero and double it technique should only be used to give you a very rough idea of the price. If you would like a more exact conversion or need to convert something outside of the 1830-1915 era I would suggest using this site, which has a very lovely and easy to use inflation calculator.
I think in the future when I post something with a listed price I am may include the inflation adjusted price just for reference and to prevent any confusion. :)