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Much of the nation has been in a bit of a “deep freeze” lately, as an Arctic chill has brought temperatures down to single-digits in many parts of the country. The WSJ ran a story yesterday with the title “Even for Midwest, It’s Chilly,” and reported that the wind chill fell to 50 below zero in northeast Minnesota.
The frigid winter temperatures got me thinking about a great invention – the electric blanket – which can be quite a luxury with these temperatures, and that then prompted a comparison of the “time cost” of an electric blanket fifty years ago to the cost today.
The picture above shows that a twin size electric blanket advertised in the 1962 Sears Christmas catalog (via WishbookWeb) sold for $21.74. At the average hourly manufacturing wage in that year of $2.26, it would have taken a typical production worker more than a full day’s work – 9.62 hours – to earn enough pre-tax income to buy an electric blanket from Sears.
In comparison, the typical production worker today could earn enough pre-tax income before lunch – in only 2.75 hours – at today’s average wage of $19.26 to purchase a comparable twin size Sunbeam heated electric blanket.
Measured in time, the cost of an electric blanket has decreased by 71% over the last half century, and that’s just one example of hundreds of reductions in the time cost of manufactured goods consumers buy, including food, clothing, footwear, household furnishing, appliances, electronic products, etc. As Don Boudreaux and I pointed out in yesterday’s WSJ:
1. The increased affordability of many of life’s “basics” – like electric blankets – means that even low-income households now have easier access to the good life than at any time in history.
2. Today, the quantities and qualities of what ordinary Americans can easily afford are closer to that of rich Americans than they were in decades past. For example, the electronic products that a teenager can afford today – iPhone, iPad, iPod and laptop computer (and electric blanket) – aren’t much different from, or inferior to, the electronic gadgets (and electric blankets) now owned by the wealthiest Americans. Or to paraphrase Jimmy P “Paris Hilton and Bill Gates have iPads and electric blankets, and you have an iPad and an electric blanket.”
Thanks to the miracle of the marketplace, the affordable automatic electric blanket is also an example of a common household product that is available to even the poorest American today, but would have been unavailable to even the wealthiest Americans in the past.
Update: As Jon Murphy points out in a comment, you can actually get electric blankets today at prices even lower than the $52.89 Sunbeam blanket above, e.g. Walmart has Sunbeam electric blankets starting for only $24.88 (time cost of 1.29 hours) and Target has electric blankets for only $34.99 (time cost of 1.82 hours). In that case, the reduction in the time cost of electric blankets is even more impressive. It’s amazing that the retail cost of an electric blanket today at Walmart (about $25) isn’t much more than the cost of basically the same item fifty years ago at Sears (about $22). During that period, average hourly wages have increased by a factor of 8.52 ($19.26 vs. $2.26), bringing the real cost down by more than 86% measured in hours worked (9.62 hours in 1962 vs. 1.29 hours today).
Update 2: In today’s dollars, the $22 Sears blanket from 1962 pictured above would cost $165.28, which is another way of capturing how affordable electric blankets are today. At $165, electric blankets would probably be considered to be quite a luxury item on these frigid, cold days, and unaffordable by many households. But at the actual cost today of only $25 at Walmart, electric blankets are easily affordable by almost all households, and are considered quite commonplace, and nothing at all like a luxury item that only wealthy Americans own.
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