Monday, March 3, 2014

Researching the Past

by Susan J Berger

I found a 1939 nickel when I was cleaning change out of my purse. Once I stopped wondering what it was worth in today’s market. (Somewhere between fifty cents and five dollars, according to Cointrackers)

I started wondering what it would buy in 1939. I love research. I may want to set a story in 1939. Or it may inform my writing in other ways, i.e., a grandmother’s remembrance. I plunged joyfully into Google. The results were not quite what I expected.

The average house cost $6,980
Equivalent today: $109953
The average car cost $700
Equivalent today: $11,027

The average wage was $1,253
Equivalent today: $19,738

That’s roughly 24.00 a week On other websites I saw average wage of $1,850 – roughly 35.00 a week. I suspect the truth was somewhere in between these figures.

In 1939 you could buy a Hershey bar for a nickel, Or a cup of coffee. Or a loaf of bread. You could cook off with a Popsicle.

Children learned to read with the Dick and Jane Books, first published in 1931

Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeline was published in 1939 as were the 16th Nancy Drew Book. The Clue of the Tapping Heels and The Hardy Boys number 18, The Twisted Claw.. The fourth Little House Book, By the Shores of Silver Lake made it’s appearance.

The17th Newbery award went to Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright.
The second Caldecott went in 1939: Mei Li by Thomas Handforth (Doubleday)

The average hardbound book cost 2.75

On June 19th, 1939 Robert De Graff introduced Pocket Books to the American public, changing the face of reading. The first paperback books were 25 cents a copy. (That link will take you to an interesting article,.)
Magazines cost ten cents.

 So did Comic Books


The First Superman comic came out in 1939

In 2010 a rare copy of Detective Comics No. 27 from 1939 went for $1,075,500  Don't you wish your grandparents had saved them?

 You could go to the movies for 23 cents

  • Gone with the Wind
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • Stagecoach
  • Of Mice and Men
  • Wuthering Heights
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame
The 12th Annual Oscars read like a who's who in film history.
The rest of the world was at was, but in America we were still on the sidelines.

England already had TV but broadcasting closed in 1939 because of the war. TV broadcasting didn’t resume until 1946
I would have like to have see Elektro, the robot who could smoke a cigarette and say the Lords Prayer in 300 languages.

The most popular attraction was The World of Tomorrow  and The Futurama exhibit designed by Norman Bel Geddes showing what the world would look like in the far off 1960's.
I found a food price advert:

You could buy a Phonograph for twenty five dollars. But I couldn't find the price of a record. I found that Frank Sinatra quit his twenty five dollar and hour job and moved on to sing with Harry James band for the princely sum of seventy five dollars a week.  But I couldn't find out how much a record cost. If any of you know, please tell me.
Research on the internet is fun and can be a greater time sink than Facebook. I am so glad there are still libraries. I think I included links to the information in this post. Some are video links. Who knows? You might want to write a book set in that period.
Side note: I finished this post last Thursday and asked Lupe to check and schedule it. When I went in at 11:30PM Sunday night to check labels, The entire content of the post was gone. I preview it a few times to check spacing on Thursday so I know I'd saved it. I finished rewriting the post early Monday morning. Just another exciting blogger mystery. Write on!


  1. Hi Sue, This was so interesting to me. I love research, too, and can spend lots of time looking for things, books, people, ideas, on the internet. I love how the past is all there, right at our fingertips, just wanting to be discovered.

    1. Me too. I had a blast with Time and Forever. I have pages of links for London and Los Angeles in 1969

  2. Wow! All your research is so interesting and gave me a sense of what it was like back then. We've been starting to check out our coins too.

    1. Thanks, Natalie for commenting. Rsearch is addicting.

  3. You sure can get caught up in research, following threads from one site to another. Then you have to check to see if what's on the sites is fact or faction. Research isn't for the impatient writer. Now don't you wonder what tales that nickel could tell you? Great post, Sue!

    1. Thank you so much Judy. Do you a remember a movie if I had a Million?
      Or Tales of Manhattan?
      Both tell stories about the same thing passed on. Love t do that with a nickel.

  4. I want a Buck Rogers Popsicle Radio. Do I lick up or down to get FM?
    Jet Pack Fever

  5. So adorable! Since I am a 'Nana,' I get it, too. Thanks for sharing, and good luck with the lovely book...


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