While writing Leaving Juneau County I spent a lot of time thinking about how life was different in 1959 compared to today. Human nature was pretty much the same – people laughed, loved, got angry, worried about stuff, and generally hoped for a bright future. They may have carried a greater sense of personal responsibility, whereas today we expect “Society” to provide for so many of our needs. But in most ways people were much like we are now.
One curious difference however, is what it meant to be “middle class.” The average home in 1959 was 1200 square feet with one bathroom. Today’s average is 2300 square feet with 2½ baths. A 1959 automobile was a primitive piece of machinery compared to the performance, comfort, reliability, and safety of today’s new car. Today’s middle class person flies around the country, or even internationally, on vacation and for business, whereas flying was rare and limited to the upper class in 1959. Eighty-six percent of households were privileged to have a television in 1959. Today, we not only have TVs in multiple rooms, but portable electronic devices that entertain us wherever we go.
Some of these advances have been due to the lower cost of technology. For example, in 1959, a 21” RCA table-top color TV sold for $495. That’s $4,222 in today’s equivalent! Yet a 50” RCA high-definition, flat screen, smart TV can now be had for just $249. And while air fare from L.A. to New York cost $168 each way in 1959 ($1,436 adjusted for inflation), round-trip fares can now be found as low as $296.
But we’re also willing to spend more extravagantly for what we want. In Leaving Juneau County, Betty purchases bleacher seats at the World Series for $2.00 apiece – the real price for those seats. (Grandstand seats were $7.00.) Adjusted for inflation one would expect to buy those same tickets today for $17 or $60. However, the average ticket price for a seat to the 2017 World Series this past year at Dodger Stadium was $3,164! The average price of a new 1959 automobile was $2200 (about $18,766 in 2018 dollars). Yet today, the average new car sales price is $33,560. And while the average home price was $12,400 in 1959 ($105,772 adjusted for inflation), today the average home price is $188,900.
Where are we finding the money for this more expensive lifestyle? Household income has grown – in large part due to the addition of a second wage earner. Average household income in 1959 came in at $5016 (or $42,786 today), But today’s average household income has grown to almost $60,000.
At least as it pertains to the “stuff” with which we surround ourselves, life probably was simpler back then. Nonetheless, “human spirit” remains pretty much unchanged. And since Leaving Juneau County is all about human spirit, today’s readers will see much of themselves in the story of middle class high school kids from 1959.