When we read antique advertisements, we are often surprised by how little it seems that everything used to cost back then. What many fail to consider is just how little money people earned for an hour of work during those times. The 1930s were a tumultuous time in American economic history. The Great Depression that lasted from 1929 until late in the 1930s brought about a multitude of changes to the way Americans and the government viewed work and pay.
The first federally dictated minimum wage came about as a result of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which guaranteed “employees who are engaged in interstate commerce or in the production of goods for commerce, or who are employed by an enterprise engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce” $0.25 an hour as of October 24, 1938. The next year, the minimum for these workers was raised by a nickel to $0.30 an hour.
Then, as now, many workers in the United States were earning more than the minimum wage. A study in the Monthly Labor Review from 1936 attempted to gather and analyze wage data of unskilled and semiskilled laborers in 1935. In total, the average entrance rate for common labor was $0.45 an hour, with a low of $0.15 and a high of $0.95. The study also looked at geographical differences, which showed that workers in the North made significantly more (average of $0.48 per hour) than those in the South ($0.34 per hour on average).
Wages of Women
In 1931, the Bulletin of the Women’s Bureau published an article which looked at the earnings of women in the United States in the 1920s. Though this discussion is centered on the 1930s, we can draw three important pieces of information from this analysis. Firstly, women were working in virtually all major career fields as early as 1921. Even in manufacturing, women often made up the majority of workers. Secondly, women were paid less, on average, than men. The article also cites the fact that women were often not given full-time employment. Finally, this study also looks at earnings of white and black women separately. It finds that black women were earning significantly less than their white counterparts. The article makes the case that it would have been very difficult for most women at this time to support themselves on their own wage.
Costs of Living
A study published in the July-December edition of the 1936 Labor Review by the Department of Labor yields expected results on the costs of living—as wages rose, so did the costs of electricity, gas, and coal throughout the United States. Minor deviations aside, these prices first fell at the onset of the Great Depression, then climbed steadily throughout the 1930s, though actual cost varied significantly based on geography. The same trend is seen in the cost of food during these times.